Sam Shepard feels a Holy song coming on

Jan 12

The new year begins with an intriguing, nearly under-the-radar collaboration. American Conservatory Theater and Campo Santo have jumped into the ring formed by Magic Theatre and dubbed Sheparding America, a far-ranging celebration of Sam Shepard that promises to flare for years to come.

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Co-directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José and ACT’s Mark Rucker and performed in the near-round at ACT’s Costume Shop, Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard is an amalgam of Shepard texts with an infusion of live music. The prologue and epilogue come from 1969′s Holy Ghostly and the big chunk in the middle comes from 1972 Tooth of Crime (which Shepard revised in 1997).

The best part of the 85-minute show is, without question, the music, which is composed and arranged by cast members Tommy James Shepherd Jr. and Golda Sargento along with the band: bassist and keyboard player Rachel Lastimosa and guitarist Steve Boss. It takes about a half an hour to get to the first real song, but from there on out the vibrant music trumps Shepard’s cryptic text.

The prologue and epilogue are almost spoofs of the Shepard playbook: a dying cowboy (Myers Clark attempts to reconcile with his son (Ryan Williams French) in a desolate Western landscape with a random corpse (Isiah Thompson) and a Native American spirit (Dan Flapper).

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Then the middle section, which is like a Western movie by way of sci-fi fantasy carbonated by rock opera, reveals itself to be mostly inscrutable in terms of plot and character. But this is where the good music lives. Anytime Shepherd is singing or beatboxing, Holy Crime is fully alive. The same is true when Juan Amador as Ruido shows up to rap up a glorious storm. Another nice musical moment comes when Sango Tajima pulls out her violin and joins the band.

Energetically staged by San José and Rucker, Holy Crime and well performed by a keenly focused cast and is always interesting to watch, even when it’s completely baffling and feels like a workshop production of a very much in-process work. There’s a formula at work here, but it seems to need more music (and amplification – this music needs to be LOUD! even in an intimate space like this) and less Shepard babble.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard continues through Jan. 19 at the ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit holycrime.brownpapertickets.com.

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