The original title of Raymond King Shurtz's one-man show was The Gospel of Irony which would have been a particularly ironic title, had it stuck, since there's not a trace of irony in Shurtz's unwaveringly sincere family memoir, now called Bohemian Cowboy. It's all hinged to his efforts to understand the mystery of his father's disappearance three years ago. The elder Shurtz drove six miles into the Nevada desert in his pickup, got out and, evidently, started walking. And now the younger Shurtz is trying to fathom whether this was suicide, or homicide and just some freak turn of events. The older man was not the best of fathers, his son explains through shards of poignant stories that are as compassionate as they are in gracefully written, and spoken. And the father was feeling some humiliation from the physical aftereffects of treatments for a form of cancer not specified in the play. The uncredited set contains raw wood slabs of some nondescript interior; when not showing family photographs, an overhead video monitor frames the action with an image of the boundless Mojave. Under Kurt Brungardt's tender direction, background sounds to Shurtz's fantastical mystery tour to the scene of his father's disappearance include howling wind, the rat-tat-tat of search-and-rescue helicopters. The father was a musician, and Shurtz juxtaposes his saga with moving ballads from his memory, as well as his own original compositions. Near the beginning, Shurtz quotes William Styron saying that depression is the inability to grieve. Shurtz's performance is, indeed, an elegy, a theater-poem of Styron-esque insight and elegance. He describes his playwright mother as a poet, while his father was merely "poetical." He meets Jesus in the desert, a figure "with ebony eyes and crooked teeth," while Hamlet accompanies him for some of the drive across the expanse. Hamlet, he says, does not care for Shurtz's song honoring Ophelia. Shurtz performs all this with gentle, wistful intelligence while avoiding the morose or the melodramatic. Through this deeply personal story of fathers and sons, and marriages gone awry, Shurtz has stumbled onto a romantic allegory, not only for a man lost in the wilderness but for a country, dangerously tipsy, swerving over the broken center line of an open road, as though between nostalgia and despondency. Overhead, the canopy of stars remains, as ever, oblivious. Elephant Lab Theatre, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m. (no perfs March 13-14); through March 21. (323) 960-7744. A Theatre 4S Production.
Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Feb. 20. Continues through March 28, 2009