Saturday, January 26, 2013

Theatre For Thought, January 26, 2013

joel fishbane

“This is a raw, loud, raucous play.” So proclaimed director Esther Jun, more then a little pregnant and fresh into rehearsals for Cowboy Mouth, a notorious little piece of theatre by Sam Shepard and rock-star Patti Smith. The show is coming to Toronto thanks to Heart in Hand Theatre, an indie company that has vowed to mount unique shows with “inventiveness and some down to earth grit”. They’ll need all the inventive grit they can find to master this surreal little drama in which a girl named Cavale (Jessica Huras) kidnaps a boy named Slim (Jason Collett) and tries to convince him to be a rock and roll Jesus.

“My husband calls it a Chelsea Hotel story,” said Jun. “They’ve created their own fantasy world in this messy little room and I’m starting to see the magic in it.” 

The magic of Cowboy Mouth began back in 1971 when Sam Shepard and Patti Smith were lovers in a dangerous time. Much of the play is autobiographical, a delicious fact which threatened to distract Jun and her actors from the task of production. “We talked a lot about Sam’s voice and Patti’s voice,” Jun told me, referring to the fact that Shepard wrote Slim’s lines while Smith wrote Cavale’s responses. “Then we realized we have to stop thinking of it like that….Patti is extremely lyrical compared to Sam’s. But it’s been an interesting battle to treat the play as fictional.”

Cowboy Mouth isn’t necessarily new, but it’s rarely performed and will no doubt strike many as a new work.

Jun wasn’t a fan of Patti Smith before taking on this production. Like many people of late, she came to the singer via Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award in 2010. (Jessica Huras, who is also the co-Artistic Director of Heart in Hand Theatre, recommended the book to Jun). “Both Patti and I spent our early 20s with a lot of wannabe rock stars,” Jun laughed. In Jun’s case, those wannabes were theatre school grads, but she still identified with Smith’s stories of her early days.

Heart in Hand Theatre came onto the scene in 2010 with a production of Claudia Dey’s Trout Stanley and have since been working to bring new work to Toronto’s theatres. Cowboy Mouth isn’t necessarily new, but it’s rarely performed and will no doubt strike many as a new work. That being said, many will find lead actor Jason Collett a little familiar: he’s best known for his career as a songwriter and a member of Broken Social Scene. This isn’t his first time on stage but it is his first time working as an actor.

Surprisingly, Jun says Collett’s lack of experience hasn’t posed much of a challenge. “He’s a bit of a natural,” she said. “He sort of blew us away in the audition…Jason has this rock and roll swagger. And he wants to learn. He’s just jumped in with both feet.” 

Some critics have seen Cowboy Mouth as a dissection of the American Dream, but for Jun, this takes away from the play’s inherent magic. Despite its surreal style, in Jun’s eyes Cowboy Mouth is really just a love story. “Within the world of the play, Slim encourages Cavale to become the artist she needs to be,” said Jun. “It’s really quite beautiful…there’s two things happening – it’s two people trying to find their voices as artists and it’s also a simple breakup play.” Jun may be on to something: Smith and Shepard reportedly broke up not long after performing the play; it may be that for them the act of creation was also one of prophecy.

Not accidentally, the production’s run coincides with Patti Smith’s solo exhibit, which can be seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario from February 9 until May 19th. And in another move that is perhaps fitting for a break-up play, the show ends on Valentine’s Day with a special performance followed by an afterparty. The February 14th performance is available only to donors who contribute $100 or more. 

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug another event happening in Toronto this weekend: Theatre Smash concludes their Script Smash reading series which is bringing new translations of German works to the stage. This week, they’re presenting The Thing by Philip Lohle, in a new translation by Bridget Schreyer Durate. The staged reading will be directed by the talented Ashlie Corcoran, the current AD of Thousand Islands Playhouse, who also once upon a time directed a play of mine for the Toronto Fringe. 

Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith plays at the Cameron House in Toronto from January 30 – February 13, with a special performance on February 14th. For tickets visit

The Thing by Philip Lohle, translated by Bridget Schreye Durate, plays at the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto on January 27. For more information visit

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