In 2000, playwright Sam Shepard returned to San Francisco's Magic Theatre, where he had produced much of his most important work while an artist-in-residence during the 1970s and '80s, to direct his latest play, "The Late Henry Moss."
"This So-Called Disaster" is an up-close and personal look at the final three weeks of the rehearsal process, with Shepard directing an all-star cast including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson.
Micheal Almereyda's documentary is an eye-opener on the art of acting. The public generally is privy only to the end result of work that is exploratory and risk-taking. Here actors are shown in their natural habitat, not in glamorously framed close-ups, but out on the edge, searching for ways to penetrate and illuminate the writer's vision. In one scene, Penn tells Shepard that no matter how much he suffers in bringing the character to life, it is little compared to what the writer had to live in order to create it.
Nolte is the rawest and most exposed cast member. Having started rehearsals after a bout of pneumonia that hit him shortly after his mother's death, he pushes himself into the role like a mad poet into his own psychic abyss. When the energy gets to be too much, Shepard gently reminds his actors to make sure the play does not become a screaming match.
The rehearsals are not without humor. "You might get away with the that in 'White Men Can't Jump,' " Penn chides Harrelson, who retaliates by suggesting Penn's performance in "Shanghai Surprise" was seriously underrated. During a round-table discussion of a scene that Shepard is finding embarrassingly over-literate, he suggests they "cut some of this Joseph Conrad stuff from the script."
The film's major flaw is that it moves away from the play itself to make a broader statement on Shepard's life and work. Anecdotes about his father, whose death was the impetus for the play, explain the conflicted nature of the relationship that plagues much of Shepard's work.
While this is all very interesting, it takes the focus away from the issues at hand, denying the viewer a full grasp of what is happening in rehearsal. Nevertheless, as a portrait of a collaborative artist at work, the film is an invaluable document, not to be missed by anyone with more than a passing interest in theater.