Thomas Burns Scully / Critic Sam Shepard’s own particular vision of dark Americana is a dangerously alluring one. His world of fathers and sons, modern myth and broken love is as bitterly alluring to aspiring theatre professionals as it is to the characters who inhabit it. Like his characters however, said theatre professionals are liable to get chewed up and spat out if they’re not careful. His plays are emotionally and mentally demanding work, they require a strong head on your shoulders and a hearty helping of guts, spunk and moxy to pull off. No matter how good your intentions, how interesting your ideas, if the execution isn’t right then the whole thing collapses in to an incomprehensible mess. With the best will in the world, not everyone does him justice. Unfortunately, such is the case with Lickety Split Production’s recent revival of “The Tooth of Crime”.
Set in a demi-fantastical dystopian future, “Tooth”, follows the story of Hoss, the top ‘marker’ in a nationwide institution called ‘the game’. ‘The game’ is a nightmarish mixture of the billboard top 100 and brutal gang warfare. Markers play the game, building up an image and racking up kills in order to build up their status. Hoss is feeling threatened in his position by ‘gypsies’ who play outside the regular rules of the game. Amidst musical numbers and discussions with his cohorts, Hoss preps himself for a confrontation with one of the gypsies. All the while he begins to fear for his confidence, stuck in his belief that the old ways are on the verge of dying out. All things come to a head when he eventually comes face to face with a young gypsy called Crow.
Maridee Slater directs this as part of her Columbia masters’ thesis. Her directorial vision for Sam Shepard’s twisted take on rock and roll is an interesting one. Interspersed in the classic rock mode are references to modern pop-culture, implied comparisons to figures like Iggy Azalea, and musical leaps in to the world of rap. Also significant are her decidedly feminist casting choices. Almost all of the play’s male characters are played by female actors, an admirable move which goes a long way to redress the balance in the often ignored male-centricity of Shepard’s work. I respect the boldness of her choices, and I believe that they could work to produce a compelling piece of theatre, but in the iteration that I saw they were sorely overshadowed by the short-falls of the production.
And what were said short-falls? Well, rhetorical question, there were a few. The biggest of which lies squarely on the shoulders of Javan Nelson as Hoss. Shepard’s lead calls for an actor with raw energy, emotionality and charisma. Nelson has none of these things. He slinks about the stage, talking like a monotonic compound of Bob Dylan and Zoot from ‘The Muppet Show’. He frequently mumbles and constantly fails to adequately convey the meaning of the words he’s saying. Sam Shepard’s lines, written in borderline jazz future-speak, are often closer to surreal beatnik writings. When they are spoken badly, as they are here, they sound like the worst angsty teenage poetry. More importantly, they leave the audience with a weak idea of what’s going on. Nelson also fails to make us feel anything for Hoss other than mild boredom and disdain. The man is supposed to be, quite literally, king of the rock and rollers, and in the middle of a nervous meltdown. Nelson’s complete lack of energy and stage-presence does not suggest this at all. Hoss’s emotional journey here is more akin to a tiresome day running a hipster coffee bar in Williamsburg, and after a rather lackluster open-mic poetry night being moved to suicide. Given that he’s the centre of the play, it makes it hard to recover from that.
The rest of the cast give it what they can, with results ranging from tolerable, through competent to good. Tre D’Ambrocia gives it the beans as DJ Galactic Jack and briefly gives the impression that the play is going somewhere, but then he leaves the stage and disappears back behind the drums (Which he plays very well. In fact the entire band puts in tight performances throughout). Jillie Mae Eddy as Crow shows promise, exhibiting moments of sheer powerhouse bravado, impressive singing prowess and bringing some much-needed energy to the stage. She has a comprehensibility problem though. Speaking fast in Shepard’s ‘Gypsy Slang’ she doesn’t hit her consonants consistently and has occasion to make the borderline gibberish sound like actual gibberish. Her biggest problem, however, is the plays biggest problem: Hoss. Its long been said that you’re only as good as your scene partner, in which case the whole cast is dealing with the problem of playing Abott to a seemingly deceased Costello. There’s only so long you can kick a dead horse before the twitching stops being entertaining. And Sam Shepard knows a thing or two about kicking a dead horse.
It’s not all bad. On the production side, things are actually downright great. The set is superbly built and atmospheric. TVs on stage are wired up to flash on and show Twilight Zone-esque images, as well as to play music-video graphics during the song performances. Hoss sits in a dilapidated wheelie-chair with snake head arm rests. Rubble and debris strewn about the set give off a chilling ‘Mad Max’ vibe. The lighting, particularly during the musical numbers, is strong and creates the atmosphere of a rock concert. The characters’ costumes impressively run the gamut of classic to punk rock chic; and the show’s band are well-rehearsed and powerful musicians. Congratulations are in order for Ariel Lauryn, David Bengali, Joseph S. Blaha, Ryan Hopper and their various teams for the work.
But, impressive as various elements are, the production just doesn’t work as a whole. Scenes drag on for what seem like hours, are suddenly interrupted by a musical number, then thud back to the ground in a complete and sudden collapse of energy. Nelson, the axis around which the whole play revolves, is less Mick Jagger, and more that annoying, self-important guy you met a party once who wore a leather jacket and beret and tried to talk to you about Jack Kerouac. Visceral engagement is the watch-phrase with Sam Shepard, and this iteration doesn’t inspire it. If I was being charitable, I’d put it down to a tired matinee performance, but it’s not a lot of fun making excuses for a show. Slater has a lot going for her as a director: bold decision-making, strong visual eye and a fondness for punk spectacle. But if this show were to run she’d need to kick the arse out of that cast and replace the prop crystal meth Hoss snorts with the real thing. “Tooth of Crime” has everything that I like in it: rock and roll, Sam Shepard, and Tarantino style violence. And I was bored. Frequently. I feel like that tells you what you need to know.