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Toy Boat Theatre pays tribute to playwright Sam Shepard

Marilyn Bennett leads a cast of Shepard fans. Photo courtesy of Toy Boat Theatre

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There are men and then there are men -- and then there was Sam Shepard. He was the kind of stolid, square-jawed Midwesterner who seemed born to play Captain America, the Marlboro Man or, if realism is preferred, legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager. That, in fact, is exactly whom Shepard played in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Despite his undeniable good looks and taciturn virility, however, Shepard wasn't known first and foremost as an actor. His job as a Greenwich Village busboy led to connections off-off-Broadway. Three years later, he had one-act plays produced at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. He was staged there regularly by 1971, when he and lover Patti Smith wrote and performed in the play Cowboy Mouth.

Smith, fresh from an intense relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, was now in an adulterous relationship with Shepard. He encouraged her to take up singing, and the rest was rock history. All three were late-'60s patrons of the Chelsea Hotel, where Arthur C. Clarke was writing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andy Warhol was gathering his "Superstars," Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin were having an affair on the fourth floor and Dylan was writing Blonde on Blonde. There are hotels and then there are hotels.

Shepard's plays of the 1970s and '80s include Fool for Love and True West, both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Buried Child, which won. He won 10 Obie Awards by the mid-1980s. Actor/director Marilyn Bennett, managing artistic director of itinerant company Toy Boat Theatre, says she's been a Shephard "devotee" since her grad-school days. His death July 27, 2017, inspired her to assemble writings and actors to present a retrospective of Shepard's work, drawn from dramatic and prose works. The performers include Bennett, Deya Ozburn, Mark Peterson, Jeff Salazar, Jason Sharp, Meleesa Wyatt and Bennett's husband, musician Peter Pendras, who composed and will perform live music for the program. Of the latter, a guitarist for the likes of Neil Andersson, Doug Kershaw, Red Dress and Wild Choir. Bennett said, "He knows the Sam ethos really well."

And what is that ethos? "He takes these family dramas," said Bennett, "and plays with them in this dusty otherworld outside of the norms of a functioning town ... and just busts them into pieces." She'll do right by Sam Shepard. There are directors and then there are directors.

PARADISE MOTEL, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday, Oct. 12-13, King's Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma, $5 (cash or check), 253.272.8801

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