New Mexico Actors Lab shows are not flashy. They're not exhilarating, they're not heart-pounding. There are no pyrotechnics involved and, in Sam Shepard's Ages of the Moon, up now at Teatro Paraguas, when Ames shoots a ceiling fan with a shotgun, the resulting white smoke that spews from the fixture is the most technically advanced thing I've seen from a NMAL production in a year. They're all about talk and intricate character relationships; you must pay attention, because there are no flash-bangs to snap you out of a daydream, should you slip into one.
That being said, these shows are almost always nicely done. Every time I see a NMAL production, usually directed by the company's founder Robert Benedetti, I can't help but to think they're like having consistently good sex with a long-term spouse: It's not wild infatuation, it's not adolescent lust, you don't fidget all the next day desperate to do it again—but you also won't ever turn down another go-around, it's just what you need, and everyone goes to sleep satisfied.
Ages of the Moon is no exception. The opening weekend sold well, with Saturday's performance even requiring extra chairs tucked into corners—not unexpected for the first Shepard piece presented in town since the sometimes-Santa Fean writer died in 2017. It's an expectedly gruff and surly two-actor piece from the pensive man's-man of playwrights; in short order we learn that Ames' wife has found a name and phone number written in a girlish hand on one of his fishing maps, and kicked him out of the house. He retreats to his man-cave, a cabin in some Kentucky woods, where he calls up his old friend Byron in tears, speaking of ending his life. The show opens on the two sexagenarian men on the porch, drinking copious whiskey and waxing poetic about the past—polka-dot dresses and matching high-heels, drunken-stoned nights, all the wonderful ways things used to be and will never be again.
About NMAL's intricate character relationships, this show is another casting success from Benedetti. He's spent a storied career learning how to recognize talent, assembling an experienced and deft company of sorts, and the dependably good folks he gets onstage together almost always succeed. "My book on directing starts with the statement that 'directing is the art of correcting the mistakes you made in casting,'" Benedetti tells me via email. "I first of all try to internalize the life of the play at a deeply preverbal level … [and] to create an environment in which that energy can manifest itself anew, without premeditating how the play will live in these particular actors and in this particular space; rather I strive to be fully present and open to the actors' impulses and interactions."
Here, expectedly, Nicholas Ballas (Ames) and Paul Blott (Byron) have most of that necessary chemistry. Once they get rolling, the script carries them effortlessly.
Shepard's work harks to the manly-man-literature cornerstones Brokeback Mountain and A River Runs Through It, both favorites greatly due to their contrasts: Dudes in the woods doing dude-in-the-woods things (herding sheep, fishing, being generally stoic), but also quietly struggling with intense emotions and fighting to maintain societal expectations at every turn. Ages does this too; within a few minutes of opening, Ames is discussing a "minor blow job" (Byron is flabbergasted that such a thing could ever be anything but major) and Byron is lamenting his waning ability to get it up. Fishing rods hang on the wall, guns are drawn, violence makes its way in; so many misandrist tropes that you expect (though perhaps don't desire) from a play about men.
The surliness wanes, however, and they become deeply human. Blott's Byron, at first the more irreverent of the two, delivers a haunting monologue, one of the best I've heard in a while, about love and loss and possible total insanity; and Ballas exhibits great range as Ames swings from despondent Good Ol' Boy to one who suffers from—again—possible total insanity. Whenever you think the show's jumped the shark, it pulls itself right back in an almost palpable collective sigh. If there aren't literal pyrotechnics, Shepard's writing provides plenty of dynamism in character and story.
All that being said of men and manliness, this show is, as it were, very concerned with the concept of the woman. The title, at first easily forgettable, must be remembered: The men have met on a night that there will be a total eclipse of the moon. Byron, when drunkenly opining about women and how they function differently from rooted, earthbound men, gestures to the moon and suggests: "They're plugged into it, somehow." Later, wrapped in a blanket on the porch, he mumbles more: "I want to see this moon—this miracle, here," repeating a running joke that the eclipse, a phenomenon which happens often, could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The play opens with Ames saying that he likes things to be what they are; a tree a tree, a man a man, a moon a moon. And while all is mostly as it seems here (two men, a porch, whiskey), there are endless layers down into subterranean fractal caves of implication. These guys must be crazier and much bigger assholes than they are letting us see; or are they far more sensitive and soft than their sullied, surly appearances suggest?
Mankind, rooted in the earth, eclipses womankind in the moon, throwing deep shadow. A finnicky ceiling fan becomes a foil for Catholic hocus-pocus. Even the set and the blocking, results of edited impulse, are constructed with meaning: "The space must be an expression of the event," Benedetti writes of the building and the movements therein.
But pay close attention, because there are no flashing lights to show the way.
Editor's Note as of Friday, July 13: In a first for NMAL, all performances have oversold! They added one more show at 6 pm Sunday July 22—so get one before that's sold out too.