Friends in Small Spaces: Chalk Rep’s “Fool for Love”

Two hot theatre terms: “immersive” and “site specific.”

Put ’em together and what’ve you got?  Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, as staged by Chalk Repertory.

Teri Reeves, Brian Slaten, Richard Wharton (Nick Parker photo)

Teri Reeves, Brian Slaten, Richard Wharton (Nick Parker photo)

In a cabaña behind a home in Beverly Hills, 16 people line the walls, seated on folding chairs.  We take up about one-third of the space.
One actor sits in a rocking chair, staring ahead, grinning slightly.  One is kneeling, folded over beside the bed, her long hair hiding her.  A third enters by the door we just came in.

And suddenly, we’re stuck — in the middle of a very private, very volatile situation.  We don’t know these folks, we may not like them, but we’re too close not to feel what they’re feeling.  One lifts a hand to strike another, and we flinch.  Two kiss and we squirm, feeling we’re intruding.  One rushes to look out the window, and we have to  lean aside.  A door slams, jarring us all.

This is exactly what’s meant by “immersive.”  It takes to the highest possible degree what theatre does that screens can’t.  It brings live actors and their actions so close to us that we’re awash in their world, as their bodily tensions and emotional states transfer physically to us with a visceral shock.

Fool for Love is a fine choice for going immersive.  Shepard’s four characters live locked in their own little world.  Their clothes and speech, their occupations and habits, are all clearly marked by the larger culture of America’s vast, desolate intermountain West.  But they’re totally enmeshed in a tiny web, arguing over the facts and meanings of their interwoven stories.

“Site specific” often means a play is written for a particular space. Sometimes, as here, it means the producers eschew the stage and place the play in a site that fits it, helping to locate and tell the story “naturally,” with no sets (as, say, Twelfth Night in a park).

Shepard put Fool for Love in a motel room.  This cabaña doesn’t just look like a Mojave Desert “motor inn,” it feels like one.  We’re in a space designed for people on the road to somewhere else, staying a night or two, all intimacy and no privacy.  It’s 100 degrees outside and there’s no AC, only a floor fan.

The audience doesn’t sweat alone.  These are demanding conditions for actors — tiny space, people to move around, no backstage.  (One waits in the bathroom while two others do a scene.)  But the Chalk Rep troupe carries it off admirably.

Brian Slaten’s Eddie creates unrelenting pressure, as he vacillates unpredictably from lovesick boy to violent alpha male, never able to see ahead but never relaxing his grip.  Terri Reeves gives us a May whom we feel for but are dismayed by, as she struggles like a moth (or mayfly) to stop repeating bad choices.  Richard Wharton, the wry Old Man, joins us in the liminal space most of the time, before throwing himself into the final battle.  And Desean Kevin Terry, as Martin, is caught in their web as uncomfortably as we are — though unlike us, he fights to find a place or get free of it all.

Director Charlie Oates has led his team to find movements and ways to use the space that deliver the story with fierce economy.  No flourishes needed — the setting and intense intimacy do their work.  And it’s a high compliment to Hale Parker (costumes) and Art Betanzos (scene and props) to say their work is so flawless as to be virtually invisible.  Nicholas Drashner’s sound, on the other hand, is often appropriately intrusive as it brings the outside world suddenly, harshly in.

Fool for Love is part of a five-play cycle.  Like the others, it’s almost  hermetic, tightly focused on its characters’ domestic life, referring to but never interacting with the world outside.  Some have likened this to Chekhov’s isolated provincial families (Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard), and rightly so.

But Chalk Rep’s production pushes both the family’s isolation and our participation in their feelings to a new extreme.  In so doing, it reveals a powerful kinship between Shepard’s linked family tragedies and Sophocles’ Theban cycle, or Aeschylus’ Oresteia.  Isolated and intensified, the characters begin to feel iconic — as if they’re archetypes of our ways of being in the world, our ways of dealing with life and each other.

I went to this play with some hesitation.  I’d been overdosed by Shepard’s intimate violence (the film version of True West), and though I’m passionate about black boxes, I was unsure how any play would work in such a tiny space.  I came out shaken and moved.

Driving home, I started to wonder if Shepard’s plays may portray not just some dysfunctional family, but our whole culture — the “true West” rather than the false “Old West” we invented and can’t stop prating about.   I’m still wondering.

But I’m fully convinced that immersive, site-specific theatre can deliver a powerful, meaningful experience.  And that Chalk Rep knows how to do it.

Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard, directed by Charlie Oates.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre at a private home.