Review: CHORALE, A Sam Shepard Roadshow, The War in Heaven


The War in Heaven (Photograph: Nina Sologubenko) CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Presence Theatre Company

The War in Heaven, Sam Shepard

“I died the day I was born and became an Angel on that day”

Whilst the non resolution of The Holy Ghostly was resolved powerfully both in terms of the scenography, the visual imagery and the performance by John Chancer this did not translate successfully in The War in Heaven which Usher describes as “a moving plea from both a fallen angel and a man struggling to be heard once more.” I would argue important contextual information was missing for the audience in the interpretation of this play especially following the The Holy Ghostly since the full title is The War in Heaven: Angel’s Monologue. Whilst The Animal You and The Holy Ghostly were connected conceptually and through the characters there was absolutely no connection to the final instalment except the fact that it was Sam Shepard’s work.

As a general rule visually I  found the scene to be completely incoherent, which in itself is not a dismissal of the aesthetic, sculptural and conceptual qualities of this kind of work and its inherent complexities however it felt largely unresolved from a formal perspective. There was simply no connection between the performers in space and the set. Clearly narrative and visual incoherence are  conceptual strategies and the production appeared to commit to this concept as an overall architecture to the work. The play itself is on many levels trying to find form through language within a stream of consciousness speech but my feeling is it didn’t go far enough and was therefore caught somewhere between the concept and the execution. If this disconnection is a formal aspect of the work it is possible to resolve the visually incoherent formally but there seemed to be a failure to commit to the intention and make it concrete.

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CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow May – July 2014


“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.”

“Sam Shepard ranks as one of America’s most celebrated dramatists. He has written nearly 50 plays and has seen his work produced across the nation, in venues ranging from Greenwich Village coffee shops to regional professional and community theatres, from college campuses to commercial Broadway houses. His plays are regularly anthologized, and theatre professors teach Sam Shepard as a canonical American author. Outside of his stage work, he has achieved fame as an actor, writer, and director in the film industry. With a career that now spans nearly 40 years, Sam Shepard has gained the critical regard, media attention, and iconic status enjoyed by only a rare few in American theatre. Throughout his career Shepard has amassed numerous grants, prizes, fellowships, and awards, including the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Pulitzer Prize. He has received abundant popular praise and critical adulation. While the assessment of Shepard’s standing may evidence occasional hyperbole, there can be little doubt that he has spoken in a compelling way to American theatre audiences, and that his plays have found deep resonance in the nation’s cultural imagination.”

CHORALE: 3 plays, 2 films and 1 gig

“You’ll see restless ghosts, wrecked cars, dead horses and invisible highways. And without peyote the sights you think you see will be even more powerful. You’ll hear the voice of a fallen angel and brush against the spirits of the western deserts. You’ll experience the outer reaches of Americana and be astonished by the actor shaman Joseph Chaikin, Shepard’s conscience and guide. When you hear the guitars jangling and the engines revving you’ll know the roadshow is in full swing.”  Simon Usher, Artistic Director, The Presence Theatre Company                                                                 

Part I CHORALE: Savage/Love and The Animal You

The play Savage/Love (1979) appears in the form of a rarely seen film version featuring the actor Joseph Chaikin (Actor, Writer, Director of The Open Theatre, New York, 1963-1973) by the Academy Award Winning Director Shirley Clarke whose other films include The Cool World (1963), Portrait of Jason (1967) and The Connection (1962). The Animal You has been created from the works of Sam Shepard by the Director Simon Usher and Jack Tarlton who stars in the show. “It is a drive through the landscape of Sam Shepard’s poetry and prose played loud by Jack Tarlton and John Chancer to the standard rock and roll progression of C, A minor, F & G” chords provided by Ben Kritikos of the band Herons who describes himself rather beautifully “as a bipedal primate with opposable thumbs.” The Animal You seeks to lay bare those tales that constitute the heart of Sam Shepard’s work.

“A voice.A voice comes. A voice speaks. A voice he’s never heard.”

During the production which was showcased at The Belgrade Theatre May 10th-17th, Coventry, Presence Theatre created a  “unique workshop opportunity to explore the creative process behind the partnership of two of American theatre’s great innovators – the collaboration between Sam Shepard and Obie Award-winning actor and director Joseph Chaikin. As leader of the Open Theater Chaikin was one of the chief exponents of actor oriented theatre experimentation, evolving techniques of performance and play-making that challenged traditional theatrical dogma. Chaikin believed that through these exercises  people could not only re-conceive the possibilities of theatre, but also their lives.” The workshop sought to respond to  a screening of Shirley Clarke’s film Tongues featuring the actor Joseph Chaikin based on the work of Sam Shepard (1969). Participants sought to respond to the material with direction, prompts and exercises provided by the director Simon Usher and supported by the cast. This included the concept of the Seam, where one thing ends and another begins, Marking the Spot, dealing with themes of transformation, the Circle of Attention created by the individual performer and the rest of the group which grants presence a space in which to become.

Part II CHORALE: The Holy Ghostly/The War in Heaven

In the Holy Ghostly (1969) “Pop has gone to the desert to destroy the ghost of a Navajo demon, bringing with him a supply of marshmallows, a bazooka and his wannabe rock-star son Ice who has dropped everything in New York following an unsettling call from the old man. In this play Shepard tears apart the functional father/son relationship that haunts his work. The Holy Ghostly is an arresting one-act play, a campfire tail full of abrupt transformations, freewheeling myths, transcended and blurred identities, re-animated bodies with the past ghosts of relationships haunting the present and a ghost who simply refuses to lay down and die.” Chaikin, a collaborator, friend and mentor to Shepard suffered a stroke after open heart surgery which left him with the communication disability aphasia, damaging parts of the brain that control a significant part of the actor’s medium, language. The War in Heaven co-written by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard  responded to Chaikin’s condition and became his route to finding his voice during the process of recovery.” The Director of CHORALE, Simon Usher, first directed Chaikin in The War in Heaven,a moving plea from both a fallen angel and a man struggling to be heard once more.”
in 1987.

The Sam Shepard Roadshow has been conceived by The Presence Theatre whose Artistic Director is Simon Usher and Director of CHORALE and will be touring throughout May, June and July 2014. For further information and dates please visit Presence Theatre. Text paraphrased from The Belgrade Theatre, promotional literature. Sam Shepard quoted from Simon Usher and workshop text quoted from   Ben Kritikos quoted from (NB: peyote is a small cactus whose crown has disc-shaped buttons that are cut from the plant, sliced, and dried. These buttons can be  soaked in water and the resulting liquid is used as a medicine and recreational drug which causes powerful hallucinations.)