Okay, this may be it—the play on which I want to report but can’t figure out. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and at least I lasted over five years before I ran into this wall. Sometimes writing about something actually helps me come to terms with the topic, so maybe I’ll still luck out. I guess we’ll see. Bear with me (or quit now and save yourself the tsuris). After seeing Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) at the Signature Theatre Company, I can’t for the life of me see what the point of it is and what makes it worthy of presenting to an STC audience.
When I was studying dramaturgy, the then-newly developing theater profession that’s meant to function, in one of its capacities, as a sounding board and adviser for artistic directors of rep companies when it comes time to select scripts for the troupe’s season, I learned that the first questions the dramaturg or literary adviser should pose are: Why this play? Why here? Why now? I posit that someone either forgot to ask those questions at STC when the troupe decided to present Shepard’s A Particle of Dread, a fragmented take on Sophocles’ classic saga of the original dysfunctional family, as part of its 2014-15 Legacy season, or Artistic Director James Houghton blew them off. (I reported on the first play in this series, A. R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn, on ROT on 1 October.) I, at least, am at a loss to explain why anyone should offer Particle to a New York audience at this moment—or, really, any other time. (The auxiliary material, both on the theater’s usual info board outside the theater and in its subscriber magazine, stresses the period of the Irish “Troubles,” of which the town of Derry, where the play premièred last year, was at the center, but I don’t see any substantive connection, so if there’s a rationale for doing this play in Ireland, I don’t see that, either. Maybe I’m just obtuse, but Diana, my subscription partner, also didn’t see it.) So, why did Houghton and Signature choose to produce Particle? At least for the present, I’ll just have to make do with a Joe Friday report: The facts, Ma’am, just the facts.
Diana met me at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on the rainy evening of Friday, 2 December, to see the U.S. première of Shepard’s 2013 play. Directed by Nancy Meckler in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Signature’s small proscenium house, the 90-minute one-act play had its world première at Field Day in November 2013 after being developed there largely through improvisation and workshopping. It began previews here on 11 November and opened on 23 November; it’s scheduled to close on 4 January 2015 (after having been extended from a 21 December closing).
Shepard has said that he’d been working on Particle “for years” before bringing it to Field Day. Actor Stephen Rea and director Nancy Meckler had worked with Shepard a lot over the years, starting in 1974 when Rea starred in Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer at London’s Royal Court Theatre and Meckler, who’s gone on to helm a total of six Shepard plays, staged the playwright’s Action in London in 1974 and then Killer’s Head in New York in ’75. When Derry, a city of about 84,000 inhabitants (Northern Ireland’s second largest, after Belfast) on the border with the Irish Republic, was designated the first UK City of Culture in 2013, Fair Day received a stipend to develop a project. Artistic Director Rea asked Shepard if he’d like to do something with the company and the writer replied, “Well, I’ve been working on this Oedipus piece for quite some time.” The “bunch of sketches that were loosely based on Oedipus” were developed improvisationally under Meckler’s direction into the script for A Particle of Dread.
My reading of this situation, cynical though it may be, is that Shepard “was really having a hard time adapting” Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and had been struggling with it for some years. (Nancy Meckler says he’s been “obsessed with the whole idea of Oedipus for a very long time.”) Then Rea makes his offer and Shepard sees an opportunity to do something with the unfinished script and “finally,” he said to himself, “I decided I didn’t want to adapt it, I just wanted to do variations on the themes that were in the play.” What that sounds like to me is the playwright, having found an outlet for the dormant script, rationalizing not being able to realize his full concept for the material and finding an excuse not to follow through on his original idea. Shepard’s like a guy who sets out to build a boat and after years of trying and failing, ends up with a box. So he says, ‘I really wanted just to make a box anyway’! What the dramatist had left was a pastiche without a through-line or a theme, just snippets of an oft-told tale.
In addition, the playwright essentially boasts of his structureless—read: rudderless—dramaturgy:
I’m a great believer in chaos. I don’t believe that you start with a formula and then you fulfill the formula. Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in chaos—we don’t live in a rigorous form. . . . That seems to be the thing everybody wants—sense. . . . I don’t believe in adaptation. I tried and I thought, eugh, I don’t want to do an adaptation. I want to do a variation on. I want to do something with the emotions that the play is calling up. I want to take off on the feelings that the thing produces. If it doesn’t produce those feelings, it’s worthless, as far as I’m concerned. So in the case of Sophocles, he definitely calls up feelings. That’s what you’re adapting: the feelings, not form—the instincts and all the incredible things that are called up.
That’s not enough, at least for me, for a full evening in the theater—not even a 90-minute one. Unsatisfying is a mild way to characterize it. Confounding is another way of saying it.
The play—and I’m not entirely sure that’s an accurate label for Shepard’s “bunch of sketches” (the New York Times called them “nonsequential shards of scenes”)—gets its title from an early line, which isn’t spoken in Shepard’s play, by the Choragos (chorus leader) in a 1949 translation of Oedipus Rex by American poets Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald: “If the killer can feel a particle of dread, your curse will bring him out of hiding!” Shepard says:
The play has so many submerged and overt themes that have to do with family, fathers and sons, and murder. All of these thematic things in it speak to themselves in a way, and they’re very ancient. If you strip it away in a certain way it’s very American. It’s very much about murder and rape and pillage—it’s not a pretty play—but it certainly speaks to the horror of contemporary life. And that’s what I was trying to get at, improvisationally. Not so much jazz music, which I think has kind of seen its day.
But that’s not really a cogent explication of the play’s point. It doesn’t explain to me why the dramatist sees the Oedipus story as relevant to 21st-century American life. If “family, fathers and sons, and murder” are so endemically American, how come we’re seeing so much of it playing out in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa these days? It was all over the Balkans and the Caucasus not too long ago and may be returning to Eastern Europe soon. I suppose the scenario Shepard lays out is typical of America . . . if your name is Gotti (or Soprano)! In fact, the Laius character in the contemporary story is a mafioso casino boss, a “kingpin.” Is that typical of our culture?
The characters in Shepard’s play are mostly Americans (the classic Greek avatars of the Oedipus characters morph into the actors’ native Irish, I gather to evince their universality), but except for the cop and the CSI (yes, and we’re even near Las Vegas, setting of a certain TV series—though one reviewer invoked Elementary, the “latter-day Sherlock Holmes” series), none of them particularly ring “typically American” to me. (The murder victims in Particle aren’t even gunned down—they’re run over with a car.) They’re more like a foreigner’s idea of an American, like the American characters on those British TV shows we see on PBS. Clearly, I’m missing something here.
The play’s story, if the fragmented narrative line can be called that, hews pretty closely to the Greek myth. (I’ll assume that if you’re reading a theater blog you know the story of Oedipus. If not, it’s easy to look up—and a review of the classic tragedy is helpful in following Shepard’s careening text.) The time period jumps around from the classical era of Laius (Aidan Redmond), Jocasta (Brid Brennan), Tiresias (Lloyd Hutchinson), Oedipus (Stephen Rea), and Antigone (Judith Roddy), to what appears to be the 1950s or ’60s when “Otto’s” birth to “Larry” and “Jocelyn” is foretold, to the present when casino boss and drug lord “Langos” and his henchmen are killed at the side of a desert road near Cucamonga, California, in the Mojave. The tale’s revealed non-linearly and disjointedly in what might be described as Shepardian Surrealism. At one point, for instance, Annalee, the modern-day Antigone, taking on the role of Jocasta or Laius, decides to abandon her own infant son to die on a hillside because she’s afraid his future will be affected by the violence he’s witnessed at the hands of his father. In Sophocles, of course, Antigone never marries and dies without bearing any children.
Meckler makes the point that Shepard’s play is a “variation,” likening it to “the way musicians might explore themes in a jazz improvisation” (despite the playwright’s own rejection of this analogy). The stage setting is a blood-stained, white-tiled abattoir where buckets of entrails are hauled about and clotheslines of intestines reveal to “Uncle Del” (the Oracle of Delphi, played by Hutchinson) the futures and fates of the characters. Fundamentally, Shepard treats the story as a murder mystery: “You know,” the playwright says, “the situation, to me, is a murder play. Who created this crime?” He even adds two cops to the classic Greek characters, a CHiPpie with a distinct Southwestern accent, Officer Harrington (Jason Kolotouros), and the crime scene detective, Forensic Investigator RJ Randolph (Matthew Rauch), who’s not above a little soothsaying himself (he reads forensic evidence like Tiresias reads entrails and bones).
The Field Day Theatre Company, in the words of Ciarán Deane, an editor at Field Day Publications, is a renowned theater and publishing company founded in 1980 in the strife-torn city of Derry, Northern Ireland, by Academy Award nominee Stephen Rea (1992 Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Crying Game) and Tony Award-winning playwright Brian Friel (1992 Best Play for Dancing at Lughnasa) for the purposes of staging Friel’s play Translations. Rea and Friel decided to present the play in Derry with the idea of launching a major theater company in Northern Ireland, supporting their conviction that theater can originate outside the big cities. Every Field Day play has premièred in the small regional city of Derry and the troupe’s Translations briefly unified the many factions of the contentious community. Following the success of that production, the company’s membership grew to comprise internationally-recognized Irish intellectuals including poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, author and critic Seamus Deane (now the troupe’s co-director with Rea), poet Tom Paulin, musician and filmmaker David Hammond, and playwright Tom Kilroy. The theater company has presented a new production in Derry every year and then toured each one across Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Field Day has maintained a two-pronged approach to its cultural redefinition of Ireland: theater and publishing. In 1983, the company launched its first efforts at publication, a series of pamphlets exploring the political dilemmas of the country. By 1990, the publications were becoming more substantial (and more political) and in 2005, the theater troupe inaugurated Field Day Publications, with Seamus Deane as General Editor, in association with the Dublin school of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Field Day Publications has so far published some two dozen titles on literary criticism, history, Irish art music, cultural studies, art history, and 18th-century Irish poetry.
Motivated by the breakdown of the society in Northern Ireland, which, since 1969, had descended into a pattern of rebellion and repression which lasted until the mid-1990s, but determined from its start not to follow any of the opposing ideological paths (Orange-Green, Unionist-Nationalist, Protestant-Catholic), Field Day sought to intervene artistically in the political and cultural discourse in Ireland. Dismantling stereotypes through art and examination has been a key objective for the troupe, part of what the editors of an Irish journal dubbed the “fifth province,” a term alluding to Ireland’s four political divisions that designates an imaginary cultural space from which a new discourse of unity might emerge. In 1979, Friel stated in an interview: “I think that out of [a] cultural state, a possibility of a political state follows. That is always the sequence.”
Stephen Rea explains that an early theater experience had been “a revelation”: “When I was working in theatre in the 1980s—that in a world of distorted languages, we were able to ask complex questions in this shared space, and that’s what theatre does so well.” When Friel said to Rea, “It’s all about language” the actor replied, “What, theatre?” But Friel said, “No, the whole thing. The whole thing. It’s all about language.” According to Ciarán Deane, the playwright meant political conflict. So, concludes Rea, “We just need to keep offering language.” As the schoolmaster Hugh says in Friel’s Translations: “It is not the literal past, the facts of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language . . . we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilize.” For over thirty years since the company began, Field Day has sought to present an alternative analysis of received Irish opinions, myths, and stereotypes that highlights the shortcomings of the official line.
Field Day’s repertoire contains versions of several ancient classics adapted for contemporary audiences, including Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act (1984), an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (directed by Rea), and Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (1990), a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (co-directed by Rea and Bob Crowley). Shepard’s A Particle of Dread makes three classically-derived plays for the company. “Our recourse to Greek plays is not just a theatrical action, but a deep need to understand what has happened to us,” declares Rea. “These stories . . . deal with human and political situations that recur throughout history,” the actor explains. “What the Greeks do is to elevate the discourse to a very high level where you’re not talking only about parochial little squabbles, and offer us the questions that we need to ask of ourselves in these awful situations.”
As with all Field Day plays, asserts Ciarán Deane, Particle explores a core idea of the company: that understanding language is the essence of understanding competing histories. Whether read in ancient Greek, or in the contemporary American and Irish vernaculars of Field Day’s staging of Shepard’s new version, the Oedipus story addresses the collective guilt arising from unresolved historical trauma. Deane, of course, is referring specifically to the Irish “Troubles,” the sectarian conflict about national identity that lasted from 1969 to 1998 in which over 3,600 citizens of Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants alike, were killed. Shepard has said that the Troubles were “accidentally corresponding” when he was writing Particle, but director Meckler observes that Field Day’s rehearsals were “right near the walls of the city where you could look down on the Bogside neighborhood,” the site on 30 January 1972 of the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre (in which 26 civil rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army). The company members could see the giant murals painted during and after the Troubles commemorating the events and personalities of that time. “I met some Derry locals who disliked the murals as they felt they were celebrating the past,” recalls Meckler. “They were saying, ‘We should be forgetting the past, we want to think about peace now.’ I mentioned this to Sam, and he said, ‘That’s it of course. Everybody wants to forget the past, but you can’t.’”
Stephen Rea adds that because Shepard was present in Derry for the whole rehearsal period, “he absorbed the history of the city as he walked its ancient walls each day.” The actor observes, “It’s very hard to imagine that [the Troubles] never happened, but basically that’s what people are trying to do.” As if echoing Shepard, Rea continues, “They are trying to ignore the legacy of thirty, forty years of murder and political turmoil rather than dealing with it. Sam is such a great writer, he couldn’t be in a place and have that not enter the play.”
On his website, Shepard, despite is earlier down-play of the connection between Derry and ancient Thebes, appears to corroborate Rea’s inclination:
The material we are using is pertinent to the situation here [in Derry] . . . . The notion of ‘place’ is very strong here. There is where something happened. We explore destiny, fate, murder, exploitation, origins. The fact there is a wall round the city is part and parcel of what is going on in the play. I don’t think there is anybody who cannot see there are repercussions with what is happening here. It is important to have art and culture in a society go through transformation. Something is happening here. You can feel it. Putting on this type of play here takes on a different significance than say if we were going to New York. Where strife has been in the foreground, it is bound to have repercussions, or is bound to have meaning.
My own sense is that the Derry audiences may very well have zeroed in on these confluences, but over here, despite our own history and record of homegrown violence right down to the present (think Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, to name just two instances), I’m not convinced they resonate as audibly; Diana and I, for two, didn’t feel the connection. The clearest explication of the theme of A Particle of Dread that I came across—I couldn’t get to it myself, I confess—was in one of the two notices on the Huffington Post. David Finkle remarked:
In [Shepard’s] theatrical way he’s reiterating George Santayana’s quote, “Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He’s also paraphrasing Karl Marx’s quote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Only Shepard sees it first as tragedy, second as tragedy—and third, fourth and fifth as tragedy.
The production of A Particle of Dread was still clearly affected by having originated in Derry, aside from incorporating the historical repercussions of the Troubles. Working in Ireland with a cast of Irish actors (in addition to Rea, Hutchinson, Brennan, and Roddy are members of Field Day and the original Derry cast), Shepard and Meckler decided to use Irish accents for the classic Greek scenes and characters and American accents for the modern-day characters in the variations. (As an acting problem, I can attest that that’s not as easy to do as it sounds. Doing accents is a skill, but switching between two different dialects, especially when one is natural and the other adopted, is an exercise in MPD! If the actors’ characterizations of American “types” is slightly off, as I suggested, their speech wasn’t. Pardon me: I feel a little like Zoltan Karpathy right now.)
(I presume when the play’s performed in Melbourne, London, or Auckland, the actors will use their native accents for the Greeks—but what will the cast do in an all-American company? What will Canadian actors do, their natural speech sounding so close American? Will they revert to adopted British accents? Because, as everyone knows, classic characters—and most “foreigners”—speak Limey!)
Since I didn’t find Shepard’s play compelling as a drama, I had to approach it as an acting challenge. This wasn’t sufficiently satisfying to justify the evening, however brief, but as a theater buff and former actor, I could derive some pleasure in watching the accomplished cast negotiate the performative puzzle Shepard sets them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Fair Day actors fare best—I’d guess because they’re probably better trained for this kind of pyrotechnical acting—I doubt Stanislavsky or Strasberg would help much in this performance—and have the benefit of having undergone the developmental process with the script and then having performed it for a ten-day run in Derry before taking the stage here. (It’s also possible that the Irish actors are just more talented than their American colleagues, but I’m loathe to assert that.) In any case, Hutchinson (in a series of very creepy turns), Brennan (who does manic pretty convincingly), Rea (a preternaturally calm presence), and Roddy (the ur-post-adolescent) present far more lively and complex characters and performances that do Redmond, Kolotouros, and Rauch. Now, I hasten to add that the roles of Laius/Larry/Langos, Officer Harrington, and Forensic Investigator Randolph are less substantial parts, largely stereotypes (mob boss, state trooper, crime scene investigator), but the three men always seemed a little like caricatures. Perhaps that’s Shepard’s intent—he doesn’t toe a realistic line and likes to play with reality and illusion, but that doesn’t imbue his writing with magical powers and characters with little depth are . . . well, characters with little depth.
What the other four offer, however, isn’t a whole lot deeper—just more dynamic. It’s a sound-and-light show. We get to see peripatetic actors of some technical prowess morph mercurially among classic Greek nobles; distressed middle-class Americans; and confused and floundering crime suspects, witnesses, and bystanders in denial. (One blogger, theater reviewer Don Shewey, described the performances as requiring the cast to “abandon any such thing as coherent characterization in favor of performance-art-like commitment to strong images and transitory moments.”) That no one trips over his or her own jet trail as the avatars come and go is astonishing in itself—but in the end, it’s a quick-change pageant. I tip my hat (if I wore one, that is) to the technical acting achievement on show, but as for the overall impact, I have to say meh. What’s it all add up to?
I can’t really comment much on Meckler’s direction since I found the whole experience so lacking. Obviously, she must take a great deal of the responsibility for that, alongside the playwright—even if that responsibility is for a lack of directorial control. (The actors, too, if they participated substantially in developing Particle into what it is. From their own accounts, it sounds like Rea, Meckler, and Shepard worked as a creative team—which may be why the show resembles a camel more than a horse.) The action isn’t so much intense or fraught as frantic. What it looked like to me is the kind of movement undirected actors indulge in, jumping about because they don’t know where to go. (I’m not asserting that this is what’s going on, only that that’s what it resembles. In my experience, actors who aren’t blocked do one of two things: they stand stock still or they wander.)
The set that contains the characters of A Particle of Dread, as I observed, is a blood-stained room bisected by intestines hanging from a clothesline propped in the middle by a forked tree branch. The room’s completely covered in glossy, white tile and there’s a large, square drain in the center of the floor. Uncle Del (the modern counterpart of the Oracle of Delphi) sits on a stool by a bucket of guts and bones and rolls knuckle bones to tell the future. Frank Conway’s environment never changes even as the scenes shift from the roadside murder scene to Otto’s bungalow to the palace of Oedipus and Jocasta, and so on. Conway’s grotesque abattoir may be the most effective element in the production, though I found the visual effect a tad over the top. Michael Chybowski’s lighting is appropriately desert-bright and relentless throughout most of the play, and Lorna Marie Mugan’s costumes, while largely symbolic rather than literal (Jocasta wears a long, slinky, velvety gown of royal purple, for instance, and Langos is dressed in a sort-of ultramarine sharkskin suit à la the “Dapper Don”), evoked the characters and circumstances effectively.
Shepard and Meckler made Particle a play with music and in a high recess (also tiled) at stage left sat a two-instrument ensemble, Neil Martin on cello and Todd Livingston on slide guitar. (They were occasionally joined by Judith Roddy—Antigone/Annalee—on vocals.) Martin composed the original soundtrack (and Jill BC Du Boff took care of the sound design) which punctuated the play with a kind of ominous and portentous drone that one reviewer called “banshee-noir compositions.” (Another described it as providing “a sense of red-purplish fear,” whatever that means.) While many reviewers and commenters found the accompaniment an enhancement of the play’s atmosphere, I saw it as part of the disjointed and disconnected nature of Shepard and Meckler’s production. What it enhanced for me was the concept’s overall pretension.
Now, let’s turn to the published press and see how A Particle of Dread was received by reviewers.
When I do the review round-up for my theater reports, I nearly always start with the city and suburban dailies and then work through the weeklies, the entertainment press, and then the on-line reviews. I’m breaking that pattern this time because one particular review of Particle sums up my own response to the play and production in one succinct paragraph. (It was Diana who brought this notice to my attention, so I assume she finds the same agreement as well.) It’s from the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column and, though I presume the capsule reviews are all written by Hilton Als, the magazine’s regular theater reviewer, they’re all un-accredited in the column:
Dread is right: Sam Shepard’s take on “Oedipus Rex” rarely lets up on the foreboding, egged on by a groaning cello and slide guitar. The set (by Frank Conway) is all sickly white tiles, increasingly smeared with blood and guts. The play originated with the Northern Irish company Field Day, and the director, Nancy Meckler, mixes actors from both continents. The result is a mishmash of settings and tones, pieced together in short, cryptic scenes. A chilly Jocasta monologue delivered in Irish brogue is followed by something more Shepard-esque: two detectives examining a roadside murder scene in the American southwest. The disjointed quality seems purposeful, but the play might have had more gruesome power if Shepard had committed to a slant or a style.
I don’t necessarily buy the suggestion that Shepard could have improved the impact of the play if he’d “committed to a slant or a style”—I don’t know if that would actually help without other adjustments alongside—but the New Yorker has otherwise captured my sense of the production pretty precisely. Below are the rest of the notices.
Ben Brantley, who, in the New York Times, invoked an “unlikely’ TV series called CSI: Ancient Thebes, found much more in the play to recommend it than I did, though he did equivocate a little (“Mr. Shepard is (I think) trying to get at the ways we all are all haunted by the primal myths that run through our civilizations”—emphasis added). Brantley asserted that the play “is a restless riff on ancient themes that ultimately says more about its creator than its subject” which “makes it must-see viewing for students and hard-core fans of Mr. Shepard.” Because Particle “often comes across as an antic intellectual puzzle, suggesting a Rubik’s cube being twisted every which way by a highly precocious kid,” continued the Timesman, the rest of us “are likely to leave ‘Particle’ bothered and bewildered”—though, despite the “handsomely mounted” production’s “theatrical flair and energy,” apparently not bewitched. Set in “the slaughterhouse of history,” Brantley maintained, “The value to be found there remains as elusive for Mr. Shepard”: Annalee says, “I go around and around and around and around, and wind up here, right back here, just like you,” the Times reviewer observed, concluding, “That’s a fair summing up of the form and substance of this endlessly circular play.”
In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli captures my own confusion in her first sentence: “It’s hard to know what’s going on during Sam Shepard’s new play.” The play, Vincentelli wrote, “always holds your interest,” however, with a “story [that] is now a noir thriller with touches of Grand Guignol gore and a sprinkling of surreal humor.” With Meckler’s “efficient direction,” the “mix of brutality, humor and fatality stamps the whole evening.” The Post reviewer demurred slightly, warning that “the show is less than straightforward,” but she summed up by stating, “And yet it works in its maddening way, especially since it offers plenty of Shepardian insights.” Said Linda Winer in Long Island’s Newsday, Particle is “one of the more sober and obscure collages among Shepard's 50-odd, deeply scary, weirdly primal, often amusing works.” She concluded, “Ancient myth mingles with Irish accents and desert-rat Americana in a play that is both compelling and pretty ponderous.”
In the Village Voice, Tom Sellar called Particle a “somber new play” which “tries to relate the violent struggles in Northern Ireland to Sophocles’ troubled polis and our own homeland.” Sellar complained, however, that “it’s hard to suss the dramatic significance of this collision of worlds.” He warned, “Disorientation, rather than some kind of universal value, results from this dramatic mash-up.” Further, the Voice review-writer reported, the production’s “a pauseless procession of inaccessible characters who talk at us without allowing us fully into their psychic spheres” because of “Nancy Meckler’s lethally muddled production” on “Frank Conway’s ungainly set design.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck, calling Particle an “oblique intellectual exercise” and “a series of jazzy riffs on its inspiration,” warned that it’s “likely to prove off-putting to all but the most adventurous audiences” because “the piece is frustratingly oblique rather than illuminating.” Meckler’s direction “accentuates the stylized nature of the proceedings,” said Scheck, adding, “Audience members will find themselves baffled at times by the juxtaposition of characters and situations, which seem to have been tossed into a blender and randomly reassembled.” Because “Shepard’s willful self-indulgence smacks more of an overeager university drama student than a seasoned playwright,” the HR reviewer wrote, “the mercifully brief evening never comes into dramatic focus,” despite the “undeniable imagination on display.” In Entertainment Weekly, Joe McGovern warned, “Unfortunately, Shepard and director Nancy Meckler fail to sustain [the] dramatic tension, resulting in an 85-minute slog of a thriller so muddled that even its obliqueness feels predictable.” McGovern explained, “The idea of Shepard . . . taking on an adaptation of Oedipus Rex bursts with promise . . ., though it’s uninterestingly mashed together with another narrative.” After describing the gory, tiled setting, the EW writer emphasized, “The tableau should be frightening, but Shepard’s writing buries the rich nuggets of psychological horror rather than unearth them.” He summed up his evaluation of Particle by complaining, “For a play about butchery, A Particle of Dread lacks fresh meat.” David Cote dubbed the play a “fractured, honky-tonk retelling of the Greek myth” in Time Out New York and lamented that Rea takes “a valiant stab at a text that spins its wheels in the sand.” The man from TONY characterized the play as “[c]ryptic, creaky and monotonous,” and Meckler’s staging as “too wooden.”
In the cyber press, Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp noted that the script is “a far cry from a straightforward plot, but an hour and a half of bits and pieces—what jazz men call riffs” that harks back to Shepard’s “young try-anything, experimental mode.” Sommer also described Particle’s structure as “often opaque ‘variations’” but felt Meckler “uses evocative images” to stage “the basically plotless play.” The CU reviewer, however, found that “despite the skillful direction, evocative macabre atmosphere and sterling performances, Mr. Shepard’s aim to create a jazz-like riff on a famous myth, hits too many strident and ungainly notes” and that Shepard’s “A Particle of Dread takes opaqueness to a new level without being as compelling as his previous plays.” David Gordon warned on TheaterMania that even with a familiarity with Sophocles’ original, “chances are you’ll be a bit puzzled by this alternately brilliant and mindboggling take” because the playwright “starts with a theme . . . and then riffs on it for a while.” Gordon describes Shepard’s dramaturgy in Particle as “the jagged-edged fashion of someone trying to reassemble a glass vase that fell off a shelf and shattered into a million little shards.” Consequently, the TM review-writer reported, “Any equation Shepard is trying to make between contemporary life and ancient Greek circumstances becomes so muddled in accents and plots that you almost lose interest out of frustration,” even though Shepard “constructs vivid characters in the barren, Beckettian landscape,” because “a crucial disconnect between text and production arises.” Finally, Gordon concluded that “A Particle of Dread can hypnotize you. That is, if you can figure out what’s happening.”
On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray averred of A Particle of Dread, “If Shepard tells that story well enough here, he does not tell it subtly, twisting up the Oedipus narrative we know with a present-day rethink that doesn’t echo the original so much as copy it.” The play, “for its virtues,” is “rarely” “a riveting evening,” asserted Murray, but it is “an intriguing one that inspires us to rethink our own attitudes and prejudices.” TB’s reviewer capsulized his response to the play with a complaint:
If not for Shepard’s other tension-packing device, of intricately disrupting the timeline so that, at certain moments, you’re not sure who’s involved in the event you’re watching or when exactly it’s happening, there would be no notable deviations from the source at all. This doesn’t exactly kill the evening, but it also doesn’t help it—you’re going to take away very little, if anything, from A Particle of Dread that you wouldn’t from a solid version of Oedipus Rex.
Though Murray doesn’t fault either the cast or the director for this problem, he does state that “the production seems to be trying to say too much, in too many different ways.” Shepard’s script, on the other hand, “feels as though it wants to go further than he allows it,” even though, ultimately, “the saga retains more than a little oomph.”
On New York Theatre Guide, Kathleen Campion opened her notice with a blunt admonition: “More than a particle of dread should attend any inclination to venture into Sam Shepard’s latest” work. “To say it was freighted with pretension is almost harsh enough.” (By way of example, Campion cites “[o]ne of the lines shrieked at the audience”: “Piss on Sophocles’s head”—and,” underscored the reviewer, “they certainly did.”) “About halfway into the ninety-minute presentation,” NYTG’s review-writer reported of “the sea of confusion,” “my guest and I—and, I realized, a good share of the audience—took to shifting about in our seats. We were trying to straighten up, pay attention, and ‘find the key’ to this puzzle before us.”
The Huffington Post ran two reviews (both on the day after Particle’s opening). Wilborn Hampton’s opinion was that the play is “grim and cryptic” and “one of Shepard’s most enigmatic plays,” “steeped in blood and horror and passion.” The play “can be baffling,” reported Hampton, since “references to Sophocles’ great tragedy do not always follow a neat pattern, so that the audience has the sense of trying to put together a literary jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing.” Still, said Hampton, “there are poetic passages that can chill and excite’ in A Particle of Dread, even if it’s “probably a better play than the staging mounted by Nancy Meckler” which “runs on low energy, as though Meckler and her cast were performing a dry revival of an ancient Greek tragedy.” In the other HP notice, David Finkle acknowledged, “I’m of two minds about” Particle. “In one mind, I think it’s terribly pretentious. In the other mind, I think it’s terribly pretentious, but I’m willing to go with it in large part because of how audacious its pretensions are.” Because of the connection to Sophocles’ classic tragedy, the HP First Nighter felt, “it’s tough not to be inexorably pulled into Shepard’s bold nightmare.” “Right from the get-go . . ., he involves you. You may resist,” admonished Finkle, “but I didn’t.” Nonetheless, the reviewer admitted, “I can’t report that what he has [the characters] say is always crystal clear, nor can I insist a fair amount of the colloquy isn’t irritatingly hoity-toity. But as played by the cast members with unflagging conviction, they never let Shepard’s fireworks fizzle.”
I suspect that even among Ben Brantley’s “hard-core fans of Mr. Shepard,” A Particle of Dread will be problematical for many viewers. It just doesn’t cohere, like parts of different bicycles crammed together to make one bike: it might ride, but it looks odd and it wobbles all over the road.