I may never go gaga for Fool For Love, but if ever a production could make me a believer in Sam Shepard’s overheated take on Greek tragedy in today’s Wild Wild West, it’s the one now playing at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre thanks to some refreshingly subtle directorial touches and a quartet of superb performances, chief among them star turns by Burt Grinstead and Charlotte Gulezian.
The dynamic duo take center stage as Eddie and May, on-again-off-again lovers since high school, the conflicted nature of their obsessive-compulsive relationship made obvious from the play’s opening moments set in the dingy Mojave Desert motel room that coffee-shop waitress May now calls home.
Despite hunky bearded cowboy Eddie’s reasoned reassurances that he has no plans to go anywhere anytime soon (unless it’s out to pick up some potato chips), a clearly unappreciative May responds, first by grabbing onto Eddie’s leg as if for dear life, then by erupting in rage with markedly unfeminine fists.
And this is just the start of seventy minutes of Passion With A Capital P as Eddie and May play their long-standing cat-and-mouse love/hate games under the watchful eye of guitar-strumming Old Man (Bradley Fisher), who while not an actual physical presence in the run-down motel room, has implanted himself in the psyches of lovers with whom he shares shocking ties.
Completing playwright Shepard’s volatile cast of characters is tonight’s movie date Martin (Roland Ruiz), clueless that his and May’s plans might just get derailed by the train wreck that is her uncontrollable love/lust for Eddie.
Over the years, Fool For Love has acquired a reputation not just for its button-pushing venture into taboo-land, but for a degree of physical violence that can leave actual bruises when actors hurl each other against solid steel walls and pummel each other with decidedly ungloved fists.
Fortunately for theatergoers this time round, directors Will Bradley and Cecilia Fairchild downplay the physical violence that can make Fool For Love close to unwatchable. Instead, at the Davidson/Valentini, it’s the psychological wounds that count, wounds that go deeper than mere superficial black-and-blues. (Even scenes of sexual intimacy, while clearly requiring trust between actors, aren’t as gratuitiously X-rated as some directors might have them be.)
More importantly, the production’s two stars prove themselves not just consummate actors but such chameleons you’d scarcely recognize Grinstead’s unkempt, bearded Eddie as the blond Adonis of Deathtrap and Hit The Wall, or Gulezian’s gruffly feminine, achingly vulnerable May as Stupid Fucking Bird’s dour goth or Hit The Wall’s butch lesbian. Add to that the depth, vulnerability, and undeniable humanity Grinstead and Gulezian bring to their roles and you have some of the gifted pair’s most indelible work.
Hit The Wall’s sexy, sassy Tano too is unrecognizable in Ruiz’s subtle, sensitive Martin, no hayseed as he is sometimes played, but simply a genuinely sweet alternative to the irresistible hulk who’s been May’s main man for the past fifteen years.
Finally, despite being one of Fool For Love’s arstier conceits, Fisher’s take on the phantasmic Old Man adds pathos and humor to the role, Fisher giving the grizzled ghost enough charm to have two women at his devoted beck and call.
Grinstead’s set manages to be both realistic and non-literal, allowing us to see into rooms and even to glimpse the how-tos of a number of Matt Richter and Adam Earle’s often stunning lighting effects, Richter’s sound design adding to the steamy atmosphere. Brooke Gerson has made some terrific costume choices as well.
Finally, though not as bone-breakingly tough as Fool For Love can get if director and actors go for broke, Edgar Landa’s fight choreography looks pretty darned authentic.
Maggie Marx is production stage manager. Megan Benavente is sound engineer.
Despite having concluded a previous Fool For Love review with a promise that I would “opt to pass on future productions,” I’m not sorry I took a chance on this one. There’s much to savor in the latest incarnation of the much-performed Shepard staple, Gulezian and Grinstead topping the tangy list of its must-sees.
The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles.
July 7, 2106
Photos: Matt Richter