There is something about the oeuvre of Sam Shepard that got under the skin of actor Terry Hempleman at a young age.
You will not find a lot of genteel people discussing ideas, munching cucumber sandwiches, cutting up in parlors or jousting in the halls of power of Shepard’s work.
No, he writes about the fringes — cowboys and beautiful, dangerous women. They swill tequila, stumble into angry wrestling matches and grin at the mystery of it all.
“I felt like there was room for me in there,” Hempleman said.
He and Jennifer Blagen will climb into the rangy psyche of Shepard on Friday, as the Jungle Theater opens “Fool for Love.” It’s a play Hempleman knows well. He played Eddie in the Jungle’s 1996 production, with Carolyn Goelzer as May, which Blagen plays in this show. Allen Hamilton plays the enigmatic Old Man. Bain Boehlke directs.
Hempleman has some of that scratchy twang in his voice that seems so emblematic of Shepard’s character style in “Fool for Love” — not to mention the raggedy rural denizens of “Buried Child” and “A Lie of the Mind.” He looks at home in a pair of jeans, a gingham shirt and a cowboy hat.
“There have been characters over the years that get ahold of me,” he said. “You spend this time working on them, figuring out how to portray them. It does something to you, walking around in those shoes. I encounter situations and I ask, ‘What Would Eddie Do?’ ”
What’s in a man?
First, we would need to know who Eddie is or what he represents. Hempleman believes Shepard is getting at a lot of questions about male identity with Eddie.
“I think Shepard speaks to this in his plays,” said Hempleman. “What does it mean to be a man? If you wear your baseball cap backward, hold your liquor, hit somebody, is that what it means to be a man? There’s no one more manly than this cowboy but at the heart of this character, there is real uncertainty.”
“Fool for Love” deposits Eddie and May in a motel room in a desert that is as dry as their lives. They have been lovers and haters in their relationship, which is — shall we say — complicated. The Old Man has a spectral presence for both characters, and Shepard gives all three players shaggy monologues that reveal, puzzle and tease with details.
“It’s completely theatrical and done in a poetic way,” Hempleman said. “Sam Shepard is true theater poetry, completely theatrical. We’ll see if we can accomplish all that.”
Hempleman has been a frequent presence on Twin Cities stages for more than 20 years. In last spring’s “Death Trap” at the Jungle, he played a square lawyer who turns out to be something of a rascal. He’s played writers, valets, scoundrels and heroes at Park Square, Ten Thousand Things, Illusion and the Jungle. His faint accent makes it evident he’s not a native Minnesotan. He comes from North Carolina and arrived in the Twin Cities by way of a stab at the New York theater scene.
Boehlke said in a 2002 article that Hempleman “really knows the American male — all the conflict and the tenderness.”
There is plenty of both in “Fool for Love,” which Shepard launched in 1983. He played Eddie in the film adaptation directed by Robert Altman in 1985. Despite the dark and disturbing nature of Eddie and May, Hempleman feels that “Fool for Love” is a “rollicking, wild, funny and outrageous scenario.”
He’s 17 years older than he was when he first portrayed the role. That gives him more layers of experience.
“You get in there and start working, and I don’t know what we’re going to come up with,” he said. “Often when I’m working with Bain in rehearsal, we begin talking about life. The play should be about life, not the theater.”