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?” *