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  •  REVIEW: THIS SO-CALLED DISASTER

    This So-Called Disaster

    Sam's club

    "This So-Called Disaster" is for Sam Shepard fans primarily, but some will take interest in its patient view of some top-shelf actors developing their roles in one of the playwright's latest productions.

    By HEATHER GRAYSON
    Offoffoff.com

    If you like Sam Shepard, then you'll likely like this movie. If you don't like him, the greater likelihood is that you'll nod off a time or two during the documentary's 89 minutes.

      
    THIS SO-CALLED DISASTER
    Directed by: Michael Almereyda.
    Produced by: Callum Greene, Anthony Katagas.
    Featuring: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Cheech Marin, Sheila Tousey, T-Bone Burnett, Sam Shepard, Woody Harrelson.
    Cinematography: Michael McDonough.
    Edited by: Michael Taylor, Kate Williams.
     SCHEDULE
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100

    Still, as a theater buff, I think it's worth your time. Director Michael Almereyda (director of the Ethan Hawke "Hamlet") gets to document some heavy-hitters: Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin, James Gammon and, of course, Sam Shepard. Not a bad group to watch in the act of making theater. "This So-Called Disaster," titled by Sam himself, is the record of the rehearsal process of the San Francisco premiere of his play "The Late Henry Moss." The title apparently refers to Shepard's family troubles, and not the play's rehearsal process.

    The death of Sam's non-fictional father, a Fulbright scholar turned alcoholic, gave Sam the impetus for "The Late Henry Moss," but "the intention is not to make a Xerox of my life," he says in the film, although this the closest Shepard comes to autobiography in any of his plays. Neither is it the film's intention to simply show us the play, but to let us in on the craft of putting a play on its feet.

    This So-Called Disaster  
    We get glimpses of Nolte and Penn figuring it all out, and it's a thrill to see the characters deepen as the actors read and rehearse. Woody Harrelson struggles to find the comedy in his smaller supporting role, and James Gammon seems to be a genius from start to finish, with very little learning curve. We also get to see the actors interviewed in the rehearsal room, telling tales of what turned them on to acting in the first place. And as Mr. Shepard says, "Theater doesn't count until the actor gets ahold of it."

    Most of the Sam Shepard interview takes place outside his home in Montana, where he seems more relaxed but his shyness never completely goes away. Say what you will about Sam's style (and people say plenty about his raw, troubled characters who sometimes urinate on stage), the man is prolific. He's written 45 plays, five books, acted in 25 films and several television movies. He also has a couple of directing credits and numerous awards. New Yorkers know him most recently from productions of "Buried Child" and "True West." He's everywhere. And where he is, there's usually a father issue.

    Shepard is bizarrely detached about the father-son relationship in his real life. "I don't have any regrets," he says. "That's the way it went down." Maybe that's why his plays are so powerful. He makes no apologies for what he presents.

    The movie feels like an overly long episode of "20/20," but it uncovers part of the acting process of some of Hollywood's most respected actors. Don't expect plot or mystery or things blowing up — it's a documentary, after all. But the film lets us gawk, close up and personal, at the curious genius of one of America's most important living playwrights.

    APRIL 22, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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