Fool for Love sounds like a a romantic comedy or a musical — something with a big tap dance number and a happy ending.
But the Sam Shepard drama is darker and much grittier, and the Denton Community Theatre cast said there’s plenty of red meat to lure in audiences who prefer a boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-back formula.
“Sam Shepard appeals to a wide audience, I think. It’s not like his plays are theater for theater nerds,” said Bryan Patrick, a longtime volunteer and actor who is on the crew for the latest Black Box Theatre show.
Bradley Speck, himself a longtime local theater volunteer and director, wasn’t convinced. Speck, who plays the Old Man in Fool For Love, said Shepard is famous for challenging actors and audiences.
“I don’t know,” Speck said. “I think Shepard can be an acquired taste.”
The drama opens this weekend. The small ensemble cast said they’ve been hard at work to make a story with a certain dose of the surreal as accessible as they can. And really, it’s not too tough of a nut to crack.
Eddie and May met — collided, really — at a seedy motel in the Mojave. The young couple has been in a toxic orbit for 15 years, and their romance is fraying fast. Eddie has strayed more than once, and May wants to move on. She’s hit the gas before Eddie’s ready to make his leap — and unfortunately, Martin, a shy landscaper in town, is due to pick May up for a date. The Old Man haunts the stage like a provocative ghost — trying to orchestrate the tension between May and Eddie. The Old Man is the keeper of the couple’s secret, and a cipher for their passions and projections. (“The Old Man may or may not be there,” Speck said.)
Director John Rodgers said he’d just performed a role Shepard had played — the patriarch of August: Osage County — when actress Micha Marie Stevens approached him with the script. Stevens plays the sole woman in the show, May.
“Micha came to me with this show a year ago and asked if I’d consider directing,” he said. “We didn’t hold open auditions. When you do shows in the Black Box, you don’t have to follow all the rules of the main stage shows. So we were able to get a cast together and do what I think of as — what’s the word for it? — a bucket list project. Everyone here wants to be here working on this project.”
Rodgers said he and the cast have let the show unfold organically.
“I’ve let them discover what the play is about,” he said. “I’ve a Driving Miss Daisy, On Golden Pond kind of guy. This is not my usual thing, so I’ve been kind of hands-off. There are times I’ve felt like I’m a little over my head, but I’m fortunate to have this group of people, because they’re willing to really figure the play out.”
Aaron Martin plays the role of Eddie with a veneer that easily shifts from cool and predatory to heated and seductive.
“Eddie is kind of a control freak,” Martin said. “He’s come here looking for her because he can’t live without her. And he has some kind of relationship with the Old Man.”
Stevens’ May waffles between rage and childlike vulnerability.
“Doing a show like this is freeing in a way,” Stevens said. “Everything starts with the text. A lot of plays have stage directions that don’t come from the playwright. But Sam Shepard tells you where to pause, and when the pause is a long pause. Shepard’s text was very intentional. You fill in the blanks. And you know, we lost Shepard [in 2017], so this is like an actor’s goodbye.”
Stevens said Fool for Love follows a group of flawed people.
“But they’re loving the best way they know how,” she said.
Travis Barth plays the character Martin as a shy and credulous man excited by May’s mercurial temperament. Barth’s Martin telegraphs his insecurity with a nervous leg — May and Eddie make him uncomfortable, but he’s also caught up in May and Eddie’s tractor beam of attraction.
“All of these characters are really tortured people,” Barth said. “Martin is just here to take May to see a movie. He doesn’t know what he’s walking in to.”
Speck said the audience will probably have a visceral response to the characters, and some will take sides as the mysteries unfold. The performances are realistic even as surrealism sneaks in and disjoints the plot.
“This is the kind of project you can really sink your teeth into,” Speck said. “You’re not sure of everything that’s happening.”
Barth said Shepard’s script deals with memory and perception as they are — imperfect.
“The audience won’t know exactly what’s true and what’s imagined, because memories are perfect and because of how emotion shades reality,” Barth said. “I really enjoy the bond we’ve created to pull the text apart and find these characters’ stories.”