Review: CHORALE, A Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Holy Ghostly

The Holy Ghostly, (Photograph: Arnim Friess), CHORALE: The Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Presence Theatre Company

The Holy Ghostly, (Photograph: Arnim Friess), CHORALE: The Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Presence Theatre Company

“Sam Shepard begins and ends with the road where the route to promise and fulfilment, or damnation seem perilously interwoven…imagine luring Beckett onto the back of  a flatbed truck with Jack Kerouac, Corso and the Beats driving across America, hard, fast and furiously in search of a new sublime.”

Contrary to my usual approach I did not do any research prior to attending the performance in order to receive it as it was given. One of the main issues that has appeared for me as a visual artist in relation to this production and my own work is the intention or challenge To explain or not to explain the work”. That is the question critical to the reception of any visual art form and this work is packed with its own explanation, visual, textual, critical and contextual. This review is my attempt to unpack the work which is fittingly existentially burdened with its own history of making. I have not reviewed the first part of CHORALE The Animal You; contrary to Beckett I couldn’t go on.

CHORALE: The Sam Shepard Roadshow is highly challenging both in terms of its visual proposition, existential subject matter and its embeddedness within the mythology of the American landscape. There is a tremendous degree of  conceptual and contextual complexity embedded in the work, not least the intricate interrelationships of the part to the whole which includes the work of the playwright Sam Shepard (The Holy Ghostly and The War in Heaven), Shepard’s relation to actor, director and writer Joseph Chaikin and in turn the director of The Presence Theatre Company, Simon Usher who first directed Chaikin in 1987 in the The War in Heaven (co-written by Shepard and Chaikin). Although the relations between these parts are writ large in the supporting material they were not contextually clear leading to a lack of clarity, certainly where the audience is concerned, in terms of the overall visual proposition (i.e 3 plays, 2 films, 1 gig). The substantial amount of depth, labour, pathos and knowledge involved in this work is, to the uninitiated, largely inaccessible. There is an effort to address this within the production itself with the inclusion of rarely seen films by Shirley Clarke of Joseph Chaikin performing Shepard’s work in Savage/Love (1979) and Tongues (1969). These were aesthetically, conceptually engaging and successful pieces of work, yet in this presentation format they were reduced to explanation, contextual props and footnotes to the production. These films were critical to an overall understanding of the work however if you had not attended the workshop during the production you would not have seen Chaikin in Tongues which I certainly felt further contextualised The War in Heaven.

Whilst it had perhaps not been the intention it was natural enough as an audience member to read the production as a trilogy and although the relations were expanded and connected in terms of the characters, mood, narrative and the overall existential highway presented in the first two instalments The Animal You (developed from the work of Sam Shepard) and The Holy Ghostly, the last instalment The War in Heaven entered an entirely different psychological and theatrical realm and I really could not understand the decision to perform the latter two plays back to back. Since the performance of The Holy Ghostly was 90 minutes this was a substantial amount of time to inhabit a particular form and location which changed direction radically in the 2nd performance (an excruciating 35 minutes) severing the connection with the audience.

The Holy Ghostly, Sam Shepard (1969)

“What if I was to tell you there was a Chindi out there with more faces and more arms and legs than the two of us put together? You really think we’re alone, don’t ya boy?” *

Dealing with notions of the American mythic landscape, cultural archetypes and the re-presentation of an author’s work presents a hotbed of conceptual and aesthetic problems which had been resolved beautifully and simply given the minimal set and the atmospheric theatre created around the setting of a campfire. This effectively conjured up the proposition and located the audience emotionally, contextually and aesthetically somewhere in the American wilderness. John Chancer whose performance was both believable, natural and enjoyable in The Animal You was exceptional in The Holy Ghostly and I found his presence on set activated the space emotionally in a way that the other two performers failed to achieve. Largely the character of ‘old pop’ played by Chancer holds the stage battling his existential and paternal and patriarchal demons with his now estranged city boy son. He constantly rails, rages, cries, reaches out and chases his demons as they in turn chase him (in the form of a Chindi), he is a man who simply refuses to accept that he is already dead and will not lay down and die.

Whilst Chancer’s embodiment of ‘old pop’ was entirely convincing I found the characters of the Chindi, and in particular the Chindi’s wife, less so. They felt overly representational and I would have preferred a more abstract representation. The Chindi  (or the Dust Devil in Navaho mythology) clearly borrowed from this context with a sufficient distinction in aesthetic form and costume lending a believability to the character of the disembodied spirit. However, the Chindi’s wife appeared as a Westernisation of a cultural archetype (black feathers in her hair, black stripes on her face and feathers around her ankles).  Surely the  fact that the Chindi’s wife whilst embedded in the American Culture, is in this instance out of context grants a certain amount of license with its re-presentation. Instead I found these elements jarring, the cultural reference being obvious on one hand and rather oblique on the other. Overall this visceral one act play was resolved powerfully and theatrically through Chancer’s performance  and the choreography of the various elements of the set, both minimal and stripped back, ensuring this was a successful presentation of Shepard’s work. It would be interesting to know whether this performance had been conceived without the frame of theatricality i.e in situ or site-specifically. As an audience member it would be a compelling proposition to be lured as Usher advocates like Beckett onto the back of a flatbed truck into the adventure of The Holy Ghostly. If Shepard’s work does truly begin and end with the road then to experience it more fully would be to inhabit this landscape not just metaphorically but physically as well.

 * In Navajo religious belief’s a Chindi is the equivalent of our understanding of a ghost which leaves the body in the last breath. The Chindi is however, an unresolved negative entity containing the residue of all the failings and unfinished business a person experienced in their life. (Reference: The Mask of Reason)

Text quoted from http://www.presencetheatre.com/current-production.html. Images reproduced from http://www.presencetheatre.com/current-production.html