THE SAD LAMENT OF PECOS BILL

THE SAD LAMENT OF PECOS BILL

ON THE EVE

OF KILLING HIS WIFE

Cast: Romain Fruge (Pecos Bill), Julie Christensen (Slue-Foot Sue).

KILLER’S HEAD

Cast: Jamey Sheridan (Mazon).

ACTION

Cast: Bruce MacVittie (Jeep), John Diehl (Shooter), Debbon Ayre (Liza), Tanya Gingerich (Lupe).

The Signature Theater Co.’s journey into the frontiers of Sam Shepard continues with a solid presentation of three one-acts from the playwright. Two of the playlets — “Killer’s Head” and “Action” — are vintage Shepard from the mid-1970s, dark and poetic and sure to please the writer’s devotees. More surprising, though, is “The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife,” a sung-through re-telling of the cowboy tall tale as interpreted by the ever-pensive Shepard.

Sung entirely in country-music verse, “Lament,” first presented at LaMama in 1983, opens with Pecos Bill (Romaine Fruge), in 10-gallon hat, pony-skin chaps and other cartoon-cowboy accouterments, entering the stark stage toting a long, thick rope and yodeling a lonesome cowpoke tune. Soon enough, we see what’s attached to the other end of the rope, a large catfish (on wheels) bearing Bill’s wife, Slue-Foot Sue (Julie Christensen), barefoot and dressed in her tattered, dirty wedding gown.

The basics of the old legend are told in song. Bill, who dug the Grand Canyon with his bare hands, fell in love with the catfish-riding Sue only to kill her on their wedding day. He did it for love: When Sue was thrown from Bill’s bronco , she bounced back and forth between the moon and Earth for days, Bill finally shooting her so shewouldn’t starve to death.

That grim myth is infused with dark humor and even pathos by Shepard, who uses its outline to comment on the nature of love, legacy and outliving your time. The heartbroken Bill sings, “But aren’t I a hero/Above all this stuff?” To which his dead wife responds, “You’re vanishing, Billy/Just look at your breath.”

As comic, even silly, as his characters look riding catfish and waltzing around in dime-store Western gear, Shepard grounds this mini-musical in his stark, simple poetry. As Bill grieves over the inevitable end that even heroes can’t escape, the ghostly wife sings, “Be kind on yourself/You won’t last forever/And the moon could care less what you do.” With music by Loren Toolajian that glides from cowboy yodel to barrelhouse blues and back again, “Lament” benefits from two good performances and just the right mournful mood from director Darrell Larson.

The director’s hand is less apparent in “Killer’s Head,” a short play that’s little more than a well-written actor’s exercise. (Indeed, the solo piece is being performed by a rotating roster of actors that includes Bill Pullman, Treat Williams, Scott Glenn and Dermot Mulroney; reviewed performance featured Broadway’s Jamey Sheridan). Blindfolded and strapped into an old-fashioned wooden electric chair, a man about to be executed rambles on about horses, a beloved pickup truck and other commonplace bits of life that he now lovingly (and sadly) recalls. The text itself contains no emotion or passion: The sense of loss is conveyed in the telling, as the panicked, doomed man clings to his memories. Sheridan does fine by the role.

A more ambitious play — and, at one hour, the longest of the three — is “Action,” probably the best known of these one-acts and just as probably the most dated (both it and “Killer’s Head” were first staged in 1975). A post-apocalyptic tale that now comes off as self-consciously enthralled with all things Beckett (with a touch of “Eraserhead” thrown in), “Action” watches four people who have taken refuge in what seems to be an urban tenement against freezing weather and unspecified terrors of a civilization destroyed by some unnamed catastrophe.

Sharing a Christmas turkey (an extravagance, given their dwindling food supply), they engage in ominous, heavy conversation, broken by even heavier silences and various non sequiturs. Simply retrieving water from a nearby well is a feat for a reluctant, angry hero, and one character, Shooter (John Diehl), occasionally expresses the barely latent fear that permeates the play: “When I look at my hand I get terrified … The skin covering me. That’s all that’s covering me.”

The absurdist meanderings — at one point a real fish is filleted onstage — and existential metaphors are more than a bit heavy-handed, and the play is probably best viewed as a step in Shepard’s development as a playwright.

Larson’s sharp direction lends the play some real vitality, and the cast doesn’t miss a beat. As per the playwright’s written instructions, costumer Teresa Snider-Stein outfits the characters in odd fashion — the two men, with shaved heads, wear long military-style overcoats, one of the women wears a vaguely 1940s-style dress and the other woman is a hippie in peasant skirt. Other tech credits throughout the trio of acts are in keeping with the stark, moody tone of the plays.

Three One-Acts by Sam Shepard

Production

NEW YORK A Signature Theater Co. presentation of three one-act plays (one intermission) by Sam Shepard. Directed by Darrell Larson. Original

Crew

Music, Loren Toolajian; sets, E. David Cosier; costumes, Teresa Snider-Stein; lighting, Jeffrey S. Koger; sound, Red Ramona; stage manager, Donald Fried. Opened Feb. 9, 1997, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater's Susan Stein Shiva Theater. Reviewed Feb. 6; 99 seats; $ 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

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