The actors are five, the characters multiple and the execution stunning. As part of the Bay Area's multitheater celebration of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author Sam Shepard's 70th birthday, Word for Word presents the premiere of "36 Stories by Sam Shepard," a brilliant adaptation of Shepard's prose for the stage.
Weaving together scenes and lines from 36 of Shepard's stories, which in turn appeared in five anthologies of prose and fiction over a 30-year period, "36 Stories," onstage at Z Below, seizes the heart and breath with its piercing combination of equally gripping text and acting.
The themes of "36 Stories" center on humanity's hopes, frailties and never-ending dramas. There are ample cases of cruelty and malice amid the caring, and enough worrying and obsession to fill many a lifetime.
When one character says, "Your despair is more boring than 'The Merv Griffin Show,'" we laugh heartily, and then, perhaps, try to convince ourselves that our despair is somehow more elevated, more engrossing, or, at the least, more important than what we see playing out before us.
Shepard and the show's director, Amy Kossow, who spent a year immersing herself in Shepard's five collections of poetry and fiction before creating and directing the adaptation, certainly aren't judging. But neither do they flinch from telling it like it is, or, at least, how they choose to see things.
The more that Shepard and Kossow observe without blinking, the starker the predicaments become. From wounded human beings to equally wounded animals, their vision of humanity's dark side begins in a roadside motel as the Writer (Rod Gnapp) journeys down Southwest desert highways, interacting with and observing his characters.
The more the characters come alive, the more acutely the audience becomes aware of the multidimensional melange of love and hate, approach and aversion, awareness and blind idiocy that make the simple so damn complicated.
Gnapp's salty voice and visage, and equally gritty demeanor, seem ideal for his multidimensional journeys.
Equally gifted are Delia MacDougall (The Mercenary, Dead Mother and Sally), Joanne Winter (The Waitress, Driver, Writer's Mother), Patrick Alparone (the guitar-yielding Singer and Musician, The Walking Man and Dicky) and Carl Lumbly (The Head and The Hawk).
Lumbly's Head and Hawk are the most haunting of the lot, their pain tearing at the heart long after the metaphorical curtain closes on Z Below's small stage.
There are many accents, but all are so convincing, you may be left wondering what each actor actually sounds like.
While you may also wonder about the level of genius it takes to create such piercing theater, you'll be too filled with feelings about what has unfolded to do much more than applaud Shepard, Kossow and Word for Word's triumph.
36 Stories by Sam Shepard
Presented by Word for Word
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes June 22
Tickets: $30 to $55
Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.zspace.org