If you missed the early Seventies, for whatever reason, you might not have much grasp of what made the period unique. The Sixties were over—and that meant an end to a number of things, some of which have become a cliché—but the direction of where things were going, culturally, politically, and in other areas of life, was not yet clear. It was a lively, hybrid time, in other words. The Yale Cabaret’s production of Cowboy Mouth, a play co-authored by two obscure but up-and-coming writers named Sam Shepard and Patti Smith in 1971, lets us return to that fabled and fractured time to see a staging of two artistes of the moment—Slim (Mickey Theis) and Cavale (Michelle McGregor)—thrash out a vision. A vision of what? Well, that’s what makes the play so much fun. Cavale, the Smith character, knows that religious icons have been replaced, in the collective unconscious of those coming of age in the Sixties and after, by rock icons. So, what any self-respecting artist must have is a vision of the rock god of tomorrow. Slim, despite his misgivings, seems to have signed on for a role somewhat like a male Trilby to Cavale’s female Svengali, if only so he can riff off her frantic jabs at poetry. In the end, we know, it’s Smith, not Shepard, who will become a rock artist. (But a rock god? Well, around this time, over in north Jersey—Smith’s from south Jersey—there was this cat named Bruce…)
Life together for Slim and Cavale is a series of provocative assertions, of trying on roles, of taking positions that might be inspiring or might be dispiriting. Slim wants to hear Cavale tell stories. Cavale wants Slim to get intimate with Raimond, her dead crow. Slim, restless, pounds a drum kit to punctuate his annoyance, or cranks an electric guitar to reduce Cavale to the postures of an abased groupie. Cavale plays dead, or slaps the wall, or postures and preens. And there are many well-choreographed gropes and clutches—body language in this play is a treat, almost a treatise, with director Jackson Moran helping to give it its flair.
And for laughs, there’s Lobster Man, a figure—yes, in a bright red lobster suit—who delivers takeout and returns to become the guinea pig of the duo’s plans. Fulfilling the inevitable “triangulation” role in a Shepard play, Lobster Man seems to take his cue from the lobster that French 19th-century poet Gérard de Nerval walked in the park on a blue ribbon. Nerval hanged himself on the date of Cavale’s birth (albeit almost a century prior). That’s the kind of thing that gets Cavale worked up.
As Slim, Theis does the “undiscovered rock god” thing well—he looks good and he knows how to do “stage presence”—but he also knows how to do Shepard’s trademark laconic staccato. Shepard’s verbal jousting can gesture toward Beat poetry without ever getting lost in its jazzy embellishments. He’s too “true west” for that. As Cavale, McGregor’s costume is spot on, and, whereas some of Cavale’s pronouncements could come off as spacey, late hippie-meets-proto punk, McGregor manages to give the role a gravitas that, we might say, can only come from a retrospect on what a female artist of today owes the gutsiness of a female artist of then. Cavale seems only a little retro, certainly not a throwback. Both actors are dervishes of movement and play off each other with astute timing and staging. For my money, both could’ve gone a bit more for the drawl that is so notable in Shepard and Smith, a grasping, searching speech-rhythm that, with Smith especially, is not afraid of going spastic and out of control, ditto her movements.
The look of the show is great—Meredith Ries, Set; Jayoung Joon, Costumes; Masha Tsimring, Lighting—the lines of the play come alive (I particularly liked the echo effects on the mics—Palmer, Sound), and the ending, with The Lobster Man revealed as a female rock god, is apropos. Drop the notion—dead as of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, if not Grace Slick and Janis—that a rock god can’t be a woman, and lo! Lobster Man stands revealed as the Future of Rock, kinda like glam sans drag.
Jenny said when she was just five years old, There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Everytime she put on the radio, There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Then one fine morning she put on a New York station, She didn’t believe what she heard at all She started dancin’ to that fine, fine music Her life was saved by rock’n’roll —Lou Reed, “Rock’n’Roll” (1970)
Cowboy Mouth By Sam Shepard and Patti Smith Original music composed by Mickey Theis; Lyrics by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith Directed by Jackson Moran Produced by Tanya Dean Yale Cabaret October 25-27, 2012