Celebrating instability 

Get ready for a romp into the darkest side of the rock ’n’ roll psyche, the side we don’t like to think about — and get it all straight from the cowboy’s mouth. The Abreact Playhouse now presents a one-act excursion back to the early ’70s, featuring Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s playwritten, autobiographical re-enactment of their affair at the Chelsea Hotel: Cowboy Mouth.

It isn’t a pretty journey, and it won’t give you the urge to pave your way to fame by going out and buying an electric guitar, but it will be materialized by a talented, first-class act.

Don’t bother looking for a sign. Downtown Detroit’s newest playhouse is only a door with an address from street-level Lafayette, but go one flight up and enter into an intimately candlelit loft with mysterious floor-to-ceiling rich red curtains that run the length of the room. It’s a gothic atmosphere, spotted with big city hipness, motorcycles, movie posters and people huddled around an open kitchen counter, like at a low-key soiree.

You don’t need to bring a dish, and you don’t even need to pay admission — Abreact founders Chuck and Thomas only ask that you make reservations before they greet you at the top of the stairs. When the time comes, the curtain retreats to reveal about 50 seats set in front of a disheveled bedroom, an invitation to voyeurism, and one you should accept.

Chuck and Thomas (whom you may have seen as brothers in the Zeitgeist’s production of Shepard’s True West) view the Abreact Playhouse’s productions as sort of a rehearsed showcase. It’s a place and space created for those who need to create, for actors and doers, for people who need to take part in the performance. And it‘s a place for opportunity, allowing Eric W. Maher’s impressive directorial debut to happen with Cowboy Mouth.

After the sound of an unnaturally soothing Leonard Cohen in the dark, this play begins in chaos, papers flying, arms flailing, curses abounding, and although the insanity ebbs and flows, the intensity never falters. It’s not easy breathing life into Slim and Cavale: two characters lost in love and a verbal stew, with plenty of tequila, lemons and lobsters on hand. There are no bars or guards at the door, yet these two are trapped in a self-perpetuated purgatory, imprisoned not by what they are, but by what they believe about each other.

Cavale, played by Inga R. Wilson, has kidnapped Slim, played by Ryan Carlson, at gunpoint, and she wants him to be the rock ’n’ roll superstar savior of humanity. The gun has since taken a rest, but Slim is held in place by the seductiveness of Cavale’s hope in him, and the usefulness of blaming her for keeping him from his wife and child.

Wilson animates the fiery Cavale as she clutches her stuffed crow, Raymond, like a 4-year-old with a Beanie Baby. She ignites the abstracted thoughts and dialogue of Cavale with a humanness, and leads us quite believably through her yo-yoing between misery, angst and erotic epiphanies. She’s our direct and easily accessible emotional driveway to Carlson’s Slim, who’s more distant, but just as volatile and prone to moments of poetic genius.

The two actors work incredibly well together as they help us travel inside minds that twist and turn with desire and intoxicants. They are adult-children, confined to their room and forced to rely on their delusional imaginations and the welcomed comforting, grunting distractions of Lobster Man, a part traded off between director Maher and Peter C. Prouty.

In the midst of Cowboy Mouth it’s not hard to imagine Smith and Shepard kicking and fighting this play out on the same typewriter in a battle for voice. Cowboy Mouth is a verbal string of confused rantings, its universal truths mixed with paranoia and blame that somehow let brilliantly beautiful language slip through the cracks like poetic windows into a spiritual paradise. But make sure you thank the god of theater that this play is only around 45 minutes. The dirty downside to incredibly creative minds is a hard thing to take, no matter how wonderful the production, and this production is wonderful.

The Abreact Playhouse opened last August with a hand-picked selection of Eric Bogosian monologues, which was followed by David Ives’ play Ancient History in November. So far so good, and if its current production is any indication, the Abreact has a promising future for lovers of modern theater. There’s talk of Lanford Wilson and David Mamet in the works, and perhaps a reprise of Bogosian for the next production at the end of April.

It seems Chuck and Thomas have managed to do what they set out to accomplish, and in a very right-on and hip way, with style and lofty intentions.

The Abreact Playhouse does not have a Web site at this time, but you can view its schedule at www.detroitareatheatre.com.

Anita Schmaltz writes about performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]

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