Sam Shepard can be pretty self-indulgent when he wants to be. States of Shock is one of those one-acts that seem to have risen out of a dense intellectual fog.

The play is primarily an attack on war itself. There's an indictment in it somewhere about the treatment (read: abandonment) of veterans by a society that sends them out to die and then refuses to take emotional or economic responsibility for the damage done. Shepard also skewers that old bourgeois penchant for ignoring the grotesque and insulating oneself from the suffering of others.

But it's all such a muddle. The action begins in a Denny's-like cafe in the middle of a war zone. (Shepard stages his war in an American city where life goes on despite the shelling; no one names the enemy.) A waitress sits reading the menu and smoking. A couple, White Man and White Woman, sit at a table waiting less and less patiently for their bowls of soup--clam chowder, natch. A military officer known as the Colonel wheels in a young soldier, wounded in a recent battle and partially paralyzed. The Colonel orders dessert. Stubbs, the shell-shocked soldier, battles his way into speech from a long way off. The Colonel then orders Stubbs to tell the story of how the Colonel's son was killed by the same shell that paralyzed Stubbs.

Meanwhile, the waitress tilts in on high heels, carrying coffee like it was nitroglycerin. The White couple demand their long-awaited luncheon, but the soup is slow in coming because the cook has been wounded. As the war outside rages on, the conflict inside the cafe escalates.

The Colonel rants about how "each catastrophe has to be studied to be understood," screaming at Stubbs for failing to communicate the events of his son's death as they happened. Over the course of the play, however, Stubbs will remember, and what he remembers leads to his own uprising--in more ways than one.

The space at the Theatre at Muddy's has been arranged by director Brian Freeland so that the action can dip into the audience. The seats have been placed in a V-shape that opens up to the acting space, allowing the actors to move close to the viewers.

Mike Kilman as the Colonel brings a sickening sociopathology to the role. But though Kilman is sometimes riveting, he can also lose control of his character--sometimes the shouting means less than it should.

Martin Ball's Stubbs is a fractured soul who moves toward clarity in anguished moments of discovery. He, too, slides out of character from time to time. Toulon Marie O'Connor (as the waitress Glory Bee) is a very interesting young actress--someone to watch. She does as well as possible with an almost hopeless role. Christopher Whyde as White Man mugs twisted desperation well enough, but a masturbation sequence of his is self-conscious. Kami Lichtenberg as White Woman carries the character's intended arrogance to an appropriately exaggerated level--nice work.

When Shepard is good, he's very, very good. And when he's bad, he's absurd. His best plays ring with poetic mystery, similar to the free-form of jazz. Yet however mysterious, preposterous or complicated his ideas, they at least usually make some serious sense in the end. Even Shepard's most self-conscious sociopolitical diatribes are still more interesting than anything coming out of Broadway. And his remains an authentic voice--even if it sometimes gets lost in an incoherent babble.

States of Shock, through March 24 at Theatre at Muddy's, 2200 Champa, 839-5124.


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