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'Fool for Love' has the talent, but needs to turn up the heat

'Fool for Love' has the talent, but needs to turn up the heat image
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'Fool for Love' has the talent, but needs to turn up the heat

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Portraying a character driven by obsession requires treading a perilously thin line between comedy and tragedy. The compulsion must seem valid, whether it’s played for hijinks or horror.

Obsession is the driving, pounding force in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” currently at Performance Network. It forms the lines of demarcations for Shepard’s protagonists Eddie and May, two lost souls in their 30s imprisoned since their youth in a ritual of mingled adoration and hatred.

A sort of sagebrush kin to Heath-cliff and Cathy of “Wuthering Heights,” Eddie and May have always known their relationship was something far deeper and more eruptive than a mere love affair. They live lives that largely shut out the rest of the world, even when they take nomadic leave of each other. Blessed and cursed with a depth of emotion most can only guess at, they love and hate with a schizoid fury that can change from one second to the next.

Shepard’s stage directions call for “Fool for Love” to be played “relentlessly,” as would befit two characters driven by feelings they can’t control. Certainly Bennett/Hinchey Productions' Network staging moves at a ferocious pace, clocking in at a sweat-dripping one hour.

Yet key elements waver. “Fool for Love” unfolds entirely in a hole-in-the-wall desert motel. Eddie (Jon Bennett) has returned for the umpteenth time to May (Katherine Hin-chey), who has been working at a nearby greasy spoon.

He’s greeted by her standard can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-with-out-you dementia: a deep-throat kiss followed by a knee in the groin. One moment May is yelling at Eddie to leave; then when he does briefly she’s sobbing and whimpering, all but embracing the motel door.

This masochistic pas de deux is usually played in an atmosphere of stifling “No Exit”-like claustrophobia, as if nothing existed outside this single nowhere room. Yet director R. Brian Falkner offers up a striking double-world set in which the ceiling walls resemble moun-taintops, with a mountain range in the background. It’s from this high-altitude vantage point that Falkner plays the part of the Old Man - a noisy old coot who’s father (through different mothers) to both Eddie and May.

Bigamist Pop may be dead; he may be a figment of Eddie and May’s turbulent subconscious. Normally he sits in a rocking chair to the side of the action, chuckling and reminiscing. As incarnated by Falkner, he resembles nothing less than God or Zeus, hair long and flowing, looking down from his mountaintop as though from Olympus.

The effect is that of a puppeteer pulling the strings of his knowingly incestuous children. It grants the Old Man far more power than in other stagings, yet it doesn’t seem out of line with Shepard’s own obsession with the sins of the father.

This is a “Fool for Love” that’s eerily beautiful to look at, in contrast to the tawdriness of a blinking-red motel light with the limitless heavens themselves.

Falkner is satanically wonderful as a depraved ghost displaying not an ounce of guilt or sorrow over his excesses. Robert Macadaeg is splendid as Martin, a befuddled local yokel who shows up to take May to the movies and finds himself trapped in the crossfire of psycho-warfare.

that war repeatedly stumbles paradoxical closeness of the show’s stars. A sense of lovers’ chemistry is utterly crucial for “Fool for Love” to strike sparks -but that’s something Bennett and Hinchey seldom achieved with each other Thursday night.

Lord knows Hinchey gives her all, clad in a blood-scarlet miniskirt that at times reveals her jet-black undies. Her long red hair sexily askew, Hinchey’s May smolders with sensuality. She serves up wild passions that have May striding combatively, backing fearfully against walls, guzzling defiantly from a tequila bottle or crumpling to the floor in despair when Eddie’s not there.

Problem is, even when Eddie is there, the two don’t connect anywhere at the super normal level the play suggests. Eddie’s interactions with Martin work better than those with May: One rarely senses the fire in this fool. More often Eddie seems a best-friend helpmate to May - a straight-arrow brother.

Since “Fool for Love” devours or deflates on this pair’s chemistry, this multi-talent production ultimately misfires. Longtime stage friends, Hinchey and Bennett formed their own production company in order to collaborate regularly. Ironically, their friendship may run so deep that they seem uncomfortable portraying steamy lovers on a convincing level. Strangers in the night, anyone?

"Fool for Love" runs July 12-14, 18-21 and 25-28 at Performance Network, 408 W. Washington St. Curtain is 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. NOTE: Zebra Berkman will play the role of Catherine on Sunday and on Thursday July 18. For tickets and information, call 663-0681.