“If I could stick a knife in my heart
Suicide right on stage
Would it be enough for your teenage lust
Would it help to ease the pain? Ease your brain?”
– Jagger/Richards, “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)
“We created rock ‘n’ roll from our own image, it’s our child — it’s like the rock ‘n’ roll star in his highest state of grace will be the new savior, rocking to Bethlehem to be born…”
– Cavale, Cowboy Mouth
A relationship doomed to failure and the search for rock’s messiah in the ashes of self-destruction. That’s one way to sum up Cowboy Mouth, but that’s the TV Guide version. The play was dashed off by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith working in tandem, on the same typewriter, capturing their torrid romance in a frenzy of jagged prose of the sort that invites interpretation and reflects the depth of the authors’ intelligence and backgrounds, but also betrays their naiveté. The latter is particularly true of Smith and it is her voice that comes through the louder of the two. This point is crucial in approaching Cowboy Mouth, for this is no Fool for Love or any of Shepard’s more celebrated and certainly more stageable later works. Not that Cowboy Mouth is as inscrutable as all that, but the script is of a certain time and place and Smith’s street urchin/post-Beat/pre-Punk flights of fancy have a rhythm and a forward motion that presents less of a challenge for the audience as it does for a director and an actor.
In 1971, when the play was written, rock music was buried in progressive noodling and country-tinged album rock. Young proto punks were waiting in the wings and watching the nascent glam rock of Bowie, Bolan and friends as they slowly took over the world and created the “leper messiah” archetype that looms large over the setting of Cowboy Mouth. The Woodstock idols were dying by the handful (all seemingly at the age of 27) and the idea of a star burning bright and flaming out onstage for our sins is predicted by Smith’s alter-ego, Cavale, just in time for Ziggy Stardust’s imminent “rock and roll suicide.” OUT LOUD Theatre, led by Director Kira Hawkridge, takes on Cowboy Mouth with passion and precision, but the context is elusive. Much like an attempt at the original Spring Awakening (or even this author’s own experience tackling Andre Gregory’s experimental Alice in Wonderland), taking on edgy, controversial work outside of the original paradigm can be an uphill battle.
OUT LOUD has already triumphed by resurrecting the former Newgate Theater space at Mathewson Street Methodist Church. This Downcity locale is an upstairs black box in the heart of Providence and Hawkridge and crew have been able to take the room and make it a showcase. Scenic Designer Marc Tiberiis II has worked in tandem with Hawkridge to faithfully adhere to the script’s extremely specific stage directions while still putting their own stamp on the design. Bare bulbs hang from the ceiling creating a surreal canopy for the debris-strewn stage featuring a “fucked up bed,” papers, feathers and clothing. All of this is prominently flanked by two guitars on one side and a drum set and microphone on the other. It’s an impressive mess and a terrific use of the space, with the city-facing windows serving as a backdrop upstage. It is here that Cavale and Slim pace and grapple, dream and postulate, never leaving, only imagining what could happen if they did. We learn fairly quickly that Cavale has kidnapped Slim at gunpoint, taking him away from his wife and child in order to groom him as the next great rock & roll hero. Cavale regales Slim with tales of mad poets and rock tragedies, feeding his romantic yearnings, yet driving him into fits of rage that he attributes to his separation from his now estranged family. He expresses the desire to leave many times and ignores any attempt by Cavale to subdue him with threats until he again momentarily succumbs to her worldly-wise proselytizing. It’s all bullshit, of course, as Cavale’s underdeveloped pretensions only thinly disguise her depression and yearning for some spiritual redemption. She seeks to be a muse, not the star herself, while Slim artlessly bashes away at drums and guitar, making up for his lack of skill by channeling all of the angst and pain showered upon him by this dead crow walking. And then there is Lobster Man, who appears, literally, as a lobster until the gorgeously staged climax, which is the show’s most perfectly realized moment. Cowboy Mouth wears its symbols on its sleeve and, once again, we see the influence of Smith’s writing over Shepard’s here. The play is more about rhythm and feeling, leaving scant room for actual character development, which is where the pitfalls exist for anyone attempting this short, yet epic melodrama. Attempt to find effective transitions and through lines, and you sacrifice that rhythm. Play the rhythm and the audience is left to experience the play as a torrent of images and emotions with little understanding or empathy for anyone.
The two principals, Sarah Leach and Sam Appleman, rage for 60 minutes, expertly staged by Hawkridge, but plowing through beats and moments of discovery until the net effect is exhaustion. References to Genet and other historical figures come across as rote at times and one has to work hard to try and piece together the patterns of Cavale’s often beautiful speechifying. Once again, the roles are so very specific and so rooted in the actual lives of Patti Smith and Sam Shepard that creating living, breathing people who we believe in is an unenviable task. The pair are game to try and obviously very skilled, but they come across as too clean, too youthfully earnest and too carefully distressed. Costume Designer Katie Hand’s meticulously designed wardrobe is evidently well-planned, but the precision rips in the clothing and the tousled, but squeaky clean hair deny us the ability to immerse in their squalor. (The Lobster Man costume, however, is a brilliantly conceived creation and the sight of Birk Wozniak slowly turning his gas-masked crustacean head and softly hooting and grunting is beautifully eerie.) Appleman’s Slim is less conflicted than petulant here and the yelling that the script calls for comes from a place of volume, not torment.
Is Cowboy Mouth simply an assault on the senses? Or is there a more subtle way to blend the anarchy of rock and the tempestuousness of a love affair with something deeper and more subtle? Cavale is a poser, yes, foreshadowing Courtney Love in some ways, but she should be compelling in her ragged glory. And, to be clear, Leach has many moments in which she approaches that balance between pathetic and holy and Appleman’s slow burns are often close enough to allow us to see Slim’s struggle to stay with his grungy black swan or return to his wife and child. “I spread my dreams at your feet,” declares Leach, but we never quite see them for ourselves. Hawkridge has done a terrific job at tackling a Sam Shepard play, but Cowboy Mouth is a Shepard/Smith play and we’re missing a whole lot of Smith here. As the choice to play Led Zeppelin throughout the preshow and the opening betrays, OUT LOUD’s Cowboy Mouth is filled with pomp and grandeur, but the original sources are left behind somewhere in the past.
OUT LOUD Theatre presents Cowboy Mouth, December 9th, 12th-14th, 19th & 20th at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, 134 Mathewson Street, Providence. Tickets available at the door or by emailing email@example.com, calling (401) 726-6523, or visiting http://www.outloudtheatre.org. A preview video for Cowboy Mouth can be found on YouTube (http://youtu.be/Xsus2KFVXaU).