Sam Shepard is in purgatory. Or rather, "Purgatory West of the Pecos."
It's a cable movie, and while in town to film his performance in it, he dropped by the Geffen Playhouse to read from some of his plays and essays--his first such appearance in L.A.
The Monday evening program was titled "Cruising Paradise With Sam Shepard," after his recent essay collection. The laconic writer-actor took the audience not to paradise, however, but to the in-between--the realm of longing and expiation--as he pointed up the differences between fantasy and reality, assumed identities and true ones, mere possessiveness and real love.
He began his one-hour appearance by stating, "I'm an actor now, I confess," which seemed, chillingly, to signal an end to his own purgatory between writing (the plays "Buried Child" and "True West" and such movies as "Paris, Texas") and acting ("Baby Boom," "The Right Stuff").
He then demonstrated how precariously an actor's life is balanced between heaven and hell. "Winging It," from "Cruising Paradise," relates the battle of wills between a film actor and a skittish director. Every time the actor follows a natural impulse, the director yips, "Cut! Cut! I don't understand this," only to reverse himself, once the actor has explained his intentions, by saying, "Good! Very good. I love impulses." Tellingly, Shepard rendered the director's voice in a high-pitched, frenzied yelp and the actor's in his own easygoing drawl.
A monologue from the play "Angel City" wagged a finger at the Hollywood dream factory for pumping audiences full of illusions that make their own lives seem meager by comparison. "I look at the movie, and I am the movie," Shepard said in a female character's high, soft voice. "I am the star. I am the star in the movie. For days I am the star and I'm not me. I'm me being the star. I look at my life when I come down. I look and I hate my life when I come down. I hate my life not being a movie."
With a pair of Hollywood-hip, silver-rimmed reading glasses incongruously framing his cowboy-rugged face, Shepard read nearly two dozen pieces. Though he kept his head down, his eyes glued to his text, he lifted his words off the page, rendering dialogue in alternating character voices and, in one exhilarating passage, turning a stream-of-consciousness monologue into a rushing, tumbling musical riff.
It was, above all, an evening of Sam Shepard being Sam Shepard: poker-faced, terse--a Marlboro Man with a poetic soul. The audience--composed largely of young Hollywood wannabes--loved it, but Shepard was halfway offstage before he reluctantly turned around to acknowledge the standing ovation with a half-grin and a tip of his script.