Suicide in B-flat Plays Sharp
The Oregonian, August 20, 1997
By Barry Johnson
These days, Sam Shepard, the strange and beguiling American playwright/actor, is mostly represented by a small number of his plays. “A Tooth of Crime,” “Fool for Love,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child” and “True West” all pop up on the schedules of local and regional theater companies, especially the last two.
But Shepard has written more than 40 plays, and nearly all of them have something to recommend them. A wild, lyrical streak, maybe. Odd characters. A jumpy narrative line. A whiff of the hallucinatory. But audiences rarely get a chance to see them, outside of occasional college shows.
So the PAN Theater deserves credit for mounting a production of Shepard’s “Suicide in B-Flat,” a dry and puzzling play full of music and dark comedy. The company has attacked Shepard’s material with zest.
Where the script calls for a piano player, for example, director Bryan Markovitz has added a four-piece jazz combo, filling the small PAN Theater space with a peculiar, bouncy kind of jazz. Taking their cue from the band, perhaps, the actors have seized eccentricities of speech and movement and used them to add to the general oddity of the production.
These hints at the surreal direction in which Markovitz wants to go are underscored in other ways, too. Markovitz has borrowed the see-through grid at the front of the stage that Richard Foreman is known for, and he has sent his actors lurching suddenly from one side of the stage to another, as Imago’s Jerry Mouawad often does.
The results don’t always work, but the spirit is strong enough to give Shepard’s text a good tweaking.
“Suicide in B-Flat” may well take place inside the head of a jazz musician named Niles (Victor Troxel), who may well have committed suicide. Or was it a murder and a feigned suicide to cover up his own disappearance?
That’s part of the problem that two homicide detectives, Pablo (Jeff Marchant) and Louis (Rich Southwick), must unravel when they come onto the crime scene—which may simply be inside the head of Niles. They receive clues and misdirections from two of Niles’ bandmates, Petrone (Christoph Saxe) and Laureen (Georgia Luce).
As Shepard plays with the existential mysteries at hand, he is also riffing on a variety of topics, including jazz, madness, justice and truth. As Pablo and Louis get closer to Niles, are they getting closer to the truth or to madness?
The cast rumbles through these complexities with only a few minor stumbles. Marchant and Southwick as the detectives are positively brilliant at times, giving shape to the narrative and a sense of dread to the play. Their partnership reminds us a bit of Estragon and Vladimir in “Waiting for Godot,” knotted together in friendship and revulsion. Their chemistry is more than just a good sense of playing their lines: They are on the same wavelength on the physical comedy their roles require, too.
One potential drawback is the heat. The theater can get very warm at night, especially if the day is a truly toasty one. The late starting time, 9 p.m., helps a bit on this score.