It's no minor achievement for a small theater company to reach its fifth season. It's even more impressive when the company starts out with promise and continues to improve. All of this describes the Bowman Ensemble, which has added a residency at Goucher College to its continuing affiliation with McDonogh School.
For the company's Goucher debut, Bowman artistic producer C. Russell Muth has directed two of Sam Shepard's early one-act plays whose extreme differences in tone show off the actors' diverse talents. In addition, the plays contain glimpses of the juxtapositions of the real and the fantastic that flavor much of Shepard's mature work.
"Icarus's Mother" (1965) is about three men and two women picnicking on the Fourth of July -- that most American of holidays. The picnickers look like ordinary, clean-cut suburbanites, but they turn out to be literally playing with fire.
At the start of the play, they yell and gesture at the pilot of a jet plane, who can't possibly hear or see them. This seems like little more than the antics of people who've had too much beer. It's more difficult to explain why two of the men, (Fred Ebert and Thomas Van Voorhees) use the picnic blanket to send smoke signals from the barbecue grill whenever they're alone.
The eerie ending, however, suggests these events may be connected -- possibly by wish fulfillment. Along the way, the young playwright indulged in long, showy monologues, most of which are delivered with stunning intensity, particularly by Dan Koloski, Anne Greene and Van Voorhees.
In contrast, the characters in "Cowboy Mouth" (1971), which Shepard collaborated on with rock poet Patti Smith, are as far from clean-cut as the script's repeated use of profanity and the dead crow that Johanna Cox's character, Cavale, keeps as a pet. In a plot that echoes Shepard's relationship with Smith, Cavale has supposedly kidnapped Slim (Van Voorhees), convinced that he's the savior -- "a rock 'n' roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." Adding menace to the intensity they demonstrated in "Icarus," Van Voorhees and especially Cox are almost unrecognizable from their all-American roles in the first half of the evening.
There's also a third character in "Cowboy" -- a restaurant deliveryman (Koloski) dressed in a lobster suit. Eric Supensky's costume design makes him look as harmless and humorous as a character in a theme park, but before the night is over, danger has replaced harmlessness and the humor has become black humor. This is tricky stuff to orchestrate in a brief period, but as in the rest of this foray into Shepard-land, the Bowman Ensemble has charted a keen course through challenging terrain.
"Icarus's Mother" and "Cowboy Mouth"
Where: Mildred Dunnock Theatre, Meyerhoff Arts Center, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson
When: 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow and June 22-25; 7 p.m. June 19
Call: (410) 889-0406