Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

A Red Orchid Theatre
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of What the Butler Saw

Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon
Photo by Richard Termine
Come for the star, stay for the show. That could be the motto for A Red Orchid Theatre's extraordinary production of Sam Shepard's Simpatico, which the Chicago-based company has remounted at Princeton's McCarter Theatre through October 15.

The star, in this case, is Michael Shannon. Before earning Oscar and Tony nominations and playing General Zod in the latest Superman franchise, Shannon cut his teeth in Chicago storefront theater and helped found A Red Orchid in 1993. Since breaking big, he's regularly returned to the Windy City to tread the boards with his home company. This production of Simpatico originated at their 70-seat Old Town space in 2013, and has been smartly restaged for the McCarter's larger Berlind Theatre. Most of the cast from the original production has traveled to New Jersey, under the direction of Red Orchid ensemble member Dado.

To say that Simpatico isn't top-drawer Shepard would be an understatement. It's a fragmentary, often confusing, and overly arch caper set in the complicated world of horse racing. Fifteen years prior to the drama's first scene, Carter (Shannon) and Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen) engineered the downfall of a powerful California racing commissioner for their own personal gain. Their paths in life then diverged: Carter moved to Kentucky and became rich, while Vinnie retreated to the margins of society, living off Carter's largess. Carter financially supports Vinnie in exchange for his silence; a desire to upend this arrangement sets the complex plot in motion.

Simpatico takes itself very seriously as a work of dramatic literature. On the page, it often collapses under its own sense of self-importance. Shepard was riffing on crime novels and film noir, but he seemingly forgot those genres are often infused with an element of fun. Without an element of jazz and jive, you're left with little more than three hours of moral recriminations and unsavory characters. That's a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

Dado and company take an inventive approach in this production by essentially recasting the play as a work of absurdism. Their staging is self-consciously meta-theatrical, and it works. Grant Sabin's extraordinarily detailed sets walk a fine line between realism and impressionism. In the play's first two acts (presented together here), the three distinct locations, which span from California to Kentucky, are stacked side by side by side in moveable crates. This gives the sense that although physical distance stands between the character's worlds, the emotional terrain is perfectly level. The pitch-perfect costumes (by Christine Pascual) and speculative lighting (by Mike Durst) are of a piece with this concept.

The actors, too, offer highly stylized performances that create a sense of tension largely missing in the text. Shannon does well, though by now I'm starting to recognize traits that travel with him from performance to performance: the halting delivery, the jerky movements, the haunted eyes and ever-waving hands. Van Swearingen gives the real star performance, a lived-in examination of a man who sacrificed his life for the whim of a friend. The supporting cast perfectly exemplifies the now-familiar Chicago style of acting: Mierka Girten is highly affecting as Vinnie's flighty would-be girlfriend; Jennifer Engstrom puts a unique spin on the gangster moll as Carter's blowsy wife; John Judd commands the stage as the blackmailed former official, now in hiding as a small-time horse trader. The ensemble also includes Kristin E. Ellis, who does memorable work in the small and largely expendable role of Carter's maid.

This production will not cause you to view Simpatico in a new light. Shepard, who died in July, was one of the most prolific American playwrights of the last century, but his corpus includes many a dog. A straightforward production of this play would quickly fall flat. But sometimes concept-driven theater can solve the problem of a second-rate script. A Red Orchid Theatre works this magic and makes Simpatico sing.

A Red Orchid Theatre's production of Simpatico continues through Sunday, October 15, 2017, at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton NJ. Tickets ($25-89) can be purchased online at or by calling 609-258-2787.