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STAGE REVIEW : Shepard’s Early ‘Blues’ Clumsy but Colorful

“Mad Dog Blues” at UC Irvine is one of Sam Shepard’s early works, and it shows. This sometimes intriguing--but mostly confounding--comic fantasy bears the unmistakable mark of a young playwright still exploring his craft and yet to reach full stride.

A product of the mid-60s, “Blues” is clearly a reflection on the counterculture era and Shepard’s own stumbling, jokey efforts to describe his place in it. The author as devout hard-rock fan and sardonic chronicler of the even harder drug culture emerge throughout this whimsical play. In that context, it can be an interesting document of the period and the man.

But what also surfaces are sweeping problems with technique and theme. “Blues,” like much of Shepard’s work during this formative time, is beset by self-conscious ramblings that often take it right off the map. Furthermore, this rock ‘n’ roll vision presages some of the troubles that occasionally afflict his later work.

The rap on Shepard’s more accomplished plays--that they can veer toward pointless sensationalism--fits “Blues” like a snug, tie-dyed headband. The plot about the space- and time-leaping wanderings of a neurotic Elvis clone and his paranoid drug-dealing sidekick is so broad as to be almost unapproachable. The characters are so vivid as to be nearly blinding, the ideas so rarefied and vague as to be almost out of touch.

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The good news, as usual, is that Shepard never fails to surprise and, even if clumsily done, “Blues” always jabs at square attitudes with straightforward shots. “Blues” is often startling and, if you open your eyes real wide and don’t dwell on any one element too long, it can be a kick.

Well, you’d better at least make it fun if your main characters are named Kosmo and Yahoodi, and they hook up with Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Jessie James, Paul Bunyan (and his ox, Babe) and Captain Kidd along the way. Shepard meets Slapstick? Shepard with a bad case of the sillies? Those are just two ways to describe the goings-on in “Blues.”

In a nutshell (and boy, this play really defies encapsulation), a couple of best friends who are unhappy with their misguided lives set off to discover themselves and find a gold treasure, all to an accompanying rock score. Their search is alternately aided and hampered by mythic and historic figures who have their own stake in the whole affair. Shepard takes us through a dream landscape that seems to range from San Francisco’s Golden Gate to a generic jungle, maybe in South America.

Steve Ingrassia’s Kosmo is a sequined, pompadoured worrywart, constantly fretting about the absurdity of his life. Mark Nash’s Yahoodi is even a stranger cat, a long-haired, drug-taking nihilist who doesn’t mind cutting out his partner or committing murder to get ahead. Neither actor makes his character a deep study, but the superficial, comic-book quality of Kosmo and Yahoodi doesn’t really allow it. Ingrassia’s and Nash’s portrayals are big enough, though, to satisfy the roles.

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Big is really the best way to describe director Keith Fowler’s approach, too. He opts for the splash over the ripple every time, turning “Blues” into a carnival of the senses that makes the most of Abdullah Al-Kuwari’s colorful backdrop of the U.S. landscape, Ann Bruice’s gaudily amusing costumes and the characters’ exaggerated gestures.

Fowler’s handling brings an effervescent giddiness to the production, but the downside is that it only smudges Shepard’s already-blurred points about the “American vision,” the buzzword that keeps turning up in “Blues.” With Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Jesse James and Paul Bunyan moving through this work, it’s obvious Shepard is saying something about cultural icons from Hollywood and folk history, but it’s not really clear what.

This is a rocky rock journey that expects an audience to give it plenty of slack-- relax, man, just dig it and be cool --but even with that, it’s ultimately a frustrating piece of theater. However, as a curious building block for what Shepard has become, “Blues” has value beyond a stage life.

“MAD DOG BLUES” A UC Irvine production of Sam Shepard’s play. Directed by Keith Fowler. With Steve Ingrassia, Mark Nash, Sarah Dacey, Judy Young, Randy Klefbeck, Steve Morgan Haskell, Jim Donovan, Alisa Hayashida, Robert Kushell, William Loesel and Michael Rasky. Scenery by Abdullah Al-Kuwari. Costumes by Ann Bruice. Lighting by Craig Pierce. Plays tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the campus’ Fine Arts Little Theatre . Tickets: $6, $5. Information: (714) 856-4259 and 856-5000.

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