It was almost a quarter of a century ago that Sam Shepard was playwright-in-residence at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, then headed by founder John Lion. Yet Bay Area theatre-goers still have a sense of ownership about Shepard; in a recent survey in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, readers voted him their favorite local (!) playwright.
It appears to be a mutual admiration society. Shepard recently gave the West Coast rights to his latest play Eyes for Consuela to the Magic. Magic artistic director Larry Eilenberg, banking on Shepard's name to attract larger-than-usual crowds, booked the 440-seat Cowell Theatre (the Magic normally performs in a much smaller house).
Could this mark a new era of collaboration between playwright and theatre? During his mid-'70s tenure at the Magic, Shepard wrote Action, Killer's Head, Inacoma, Tongues (co-written with Joseph Chaikin), Buried Child, Suicide in B Flat, True West, and Fool for Love, directing some; others were directed by Robert Woodruff. Shepard is thus credited with creating a national profile for the mid-sized company. (Even before that, the Magic established an affinity for Shepard, staging La Turista in 1970.)
Because it is based on a short-short story by the late Octavio Paz, the famous Mexican Nobel Laureate poet, fiction writer, and essayist, Eyes for Consuela is a departure for Shepard. In Paz's story "The Blue Bouquet," a man recounts a fleeting late-night walk in a small town, where he is accosted by a knife-wielding stranger who demands his eyes: "My girlfriend has this whim," he says. "She wants a bouquet of blue eyes. And around here they're hard to find."
Shepard extrapolates from Paz's scenario, retaining the Mexican writer's aura of mystery and magic and imbuing the tale with his own brand of grit and simmering violence. Henry, a fifty-something American, has come to this Mexican village to escape a troubled marriage. He is waylaid by Amado, a Mexican held in thrall by the elusive Consuela, who herself emerges from the surrounding jungle as a graceful and enigmatic figure. As tensions escalate, the two desperate men discover they are on parallel quests‹on both sides of the border. Shepard has described it as a play about love.
Originally staged at the Manhattan Theatre Club in February of 1998 by Steppenwolf Theatre's Terry Kinney, Eyes for Consuela is directed at the Magic by South Coast Rep associate artist Juliette Carrillo. During the San Francisco rehearsal period, Shepard, in phone contact with Carrillo, continued to work on the script.
Said Eilenberg, "[This play] is very different in tone from Sam's usual American-myth, very-male-almost-to-the-point-of-cowboy stuff‹campfire stories with a surrealistic spin. Paz's material is more from the jungle, more feminine, more mysterious." For Eilenberg, director Carrillo represents an opportunity to explore some of those Mexican and American West elements where Paz and Shepard intersect. "A woman's point of view, whatever that may mean, may be useful in discovering what's alive in this piece," said Eilenberg. Comparing it to Shepard's other works, he called it a "more lyrical, more fragile [piece]; you don't have that huge narrative force pulling you through."
For her part, Carrillo said, "I'm a woman, I'm 35, I'm Latina in background. I'm coming from a different sensibility and personal history. What I find interesting is that this play melds Paz's magical realism with Shepard's male exploration." She noted that in a Rolling Stone interview, Shepard observed that there's really no longer a physical territory called the West for us to explore, so the next place to go is our inner territory: our new West. "That's exactly what this play is doing," said Carrillo. To illuminate that, she is concentrating on Henry's transformational journey (assumed to be somewhat autobiographical) and approaching the material from the inside out.
It's been a personal challenge, said Carrillo, to get into Shepard's "very male world," and a middle-aged male world at that. Another concern, she said, is that "we're treading in delicate territory, particularly in California, with a Mexican character written by a gringo. It was important for me that Amado didn't fall into any stereotypes."
For Amado, she cast Los Angeles stage and film actor Richard Coca, and for Henry, Robert Ernst, a Bay Area actor since 1972 who appeared in the Magic's 1988 revival of Fool for Love. Said Ernst, "It seems to me of all Shepard's plays, this is the most mature and honest. And it's very close to home for me. I'm in my early-to-mid-50s and I too have issues around what is love, around the peeling away of layers of defense." Ernst acknowledges the complexity of the seemingly simple story, the various levels upon which the play functions. "Shepard so beautifully takes the personal and moves it to the global," he said.
Despite the buzz about Eyes for Consuela, it's moot whether premiering a new Shepard play on the West Coast signifies the birth of a new artistic partnership. "At this point, I think Shepard's work is in transition," said Eilenberg. "If the Magic can find a way to have a new relationship with him, to take him into a new phase of his career, that's great. The important thing is only that he's a great American playwright."
"Eyes for Consuela" runs Feb. 12-28 at Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason, San Francisco. (415) 441-8822.