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and EVIDENCE ROOM present
John Steppling's


Dog Mouth - Stephen Davies
Nyah - Nia Gwynne
Becker - James Storm
Weeks - Hugh Dane

Director - John Steppling
Scenic Designer - Jason Adams
Lighting Designer - Rand Ryan
Costume Designer - Ames Ingham
Original Music & Sound Design - Karl Lundeberg

Producer - Guy Zimmerman
Co-Producer - Ames Ingham

Stage Manager - Alex Cruz
Sound Operator - Randal Luckow

Graphics - Rita Valencia

January 12 - March 2, 2002

Hugh Dane (Weeks) and Nia Gwynne (Nyah)

Stephen Davies (Dog Mouth) and James Storm (Becker)

James Storm (Becker) and Stephen Davies (Dog Mouth)

Stephen Davies (Dog Mouth) and James Storm (Becker)


Los Angeles Times

It’s been said that all great travelers wind up in the desert. Nature at its most unchanging, the desert is a pure and ferocious landscape with few distractions, where the mind’s eye can be cast inward.

After many literary peregrinations, John Steppling ventures into the desert in Dog Mouth, a play set in an arid wasteland somewhere outside of Phoenix. One of L.A.’s most distinctive home-grown playwrights, Steppling has spent the last few years in Europe, a fugitive from the soulless grind of the California dream machine. For Steppling, the play’s current production at the Evidence Room proves both a homecoming and a departure. Many of Steppling’s past plays, such as The Shaper and Dream Coast, were indigenous L.A. dramas inextricably linked to Hollywood and its environs.

Down-and-outers scrabbling on the margins of Hollywood, the characters in those plays were typically sub-literates defined by their consumerist longings, whose drug abuse and criminal behavior brought them no closer to their shallow, shining dream.

The setting of Dog Mouth – the Arizona desert – is, in itself, a statement of intent for Steppling, a stripping away of the "Steppling-esque" elements that define his work. In this stark desert landscape, there is no there there – nothing to covet and little to desire – just a train track and sand, the central components of Jason Adams’ strikingly spare set.

Dog Mouth (Stephen Davies), the protagonist of the play, lives an existence as bare as the country he inhabits. Gone too is the drug-fueled incoherence of Steppling’s earlier heroes. Towering and lucid, Dog Mouth is almost Shakespearean in his utterances.

The head of a murderous hobo gang, Dog Mouth entertains no apparent need for human connection, save for his criminal conniving with scruffy underlings such as Becker (James Storm) and the occasional roll in the sand with Nyah (Nia Gwynne), his pregnant young girlfriend. Once a noted breeder of fighting dogs, Dog Mouth is considering buying a pit bull from Weeks (Hugh Dane), yet he wants nothing to do with Nyah or her child.

The irony is obvious. Steppling dabbled with similar themes in Standard of the Breed, which also used fighting dogs as an operative metaphor. Here, dogs serve as a feral emblem for the disconnection that is essential to Dog Mouth’s survival. When he brushes too close to human emotions, when Nyah asks him to "feel" their child moving in her womb, Dog Mouth must pull back – or suffer a fatal fall. A have-not with a vengeance, he's an elemental figure – Lear on a sandy heath, cast out by his own design.

– F. Kathleen Foley

LA Weekly

About 15 years ago, when he was turning 35, John Steppling was being touted by the local press as Los Angeles’ most important homegrown playwright. Richard Stayton, writing for the Herald Examiner, went so far as to dub Steppling L.A.’s only playwright – a reductive assessment, but also an indication both of the media’s hunger to have a theater scribe to call its own, and of the excitement among L.A.’s underground literati over Steppling’s uniquely terse, dank vision.

"Bud, you wanna cup a coffee, Bud?" a young woman says to a man waxing his surfboard in The Shaper, among Steppling’s earliest plays. She drones on in this vein, sometimes shifting the sequence of key words, until the man looks up and stares at her blankly. Blackout. Meanwhile, for the transitions between such scenes in The Shaper’s premiere production (directed by Steppling in 1985), an electric guitar riffed at deafening volume before abruptly cutting out for the next truncated scene between two human beings, half dead on meth and completely missing each other’s signals.

I hated this bludgeoning production. And yet, almost two decades later, I haven’t forgotten it.

Dog Mouth, Steppling's first full-length work to be produced here in ten years (for Padua Playwrights Productions and Evidence Room), feels as though it’s populated by The Shaper’s characters – still on meth, still disconnected from everything and everybody around them, still making life-altering plans no more than two hours before acting on them, still dying. Yet, in many ways, Steppling’s people have grown up and found something they want to say, to express in sardonic, reflective speeches as though in a play by Chekhov or Beckett. Most of Dog Mouth’s characters are, like their author, around 50 years old. But while their bodies may be surrendering to time’s ravages, the same is certainly not true of their wit – which, in the case of the title character, Dog Mouth (Stephen Davies), is as feral as his name suggests:

I'll have to step off the sidewalk for this woman because this new expensive stroller is big, it’s bigger than it needs to be, and it’s big and I step off into the gutter usually, and there are times that as she passes the child will turn its head while seated in the stroller, turn its little head and look at me and then I’ll make a terrible face, the most awful hideous face I know how to make and my tongue will come out and flap at this child and usually it happens that the child will start to cry.

The idea for the play stems from a newspaper story about a declining criminal fraternity of rail-hopping hobos in the Pacific Northwest, the leader of which (here, Dog Mouth) once matched pitbulls and is reputed to have pushed a man to his death from a moving train. And though Dog Mouth, wanted by the law, is now dying of cancer, he is followed, puppylike, by young runaway Nyah (Nia Gwynne), pregnant with his child. Thus, imminent birth and imminent death walk side by side across the play's brutal, outdoor Mojave Desert landscape. (A pair of train tracks traverses Jason Adams’ open, epochal set, while the actors’ feet audibly scrunch on the sand beneath them.)

The burly repartee between Dog Mouth and his sidekick, Becker (James Storm), briefly turns the play into a latter-day Waiting for Godot of the American West – until, by the end of Act 1, it becomes clear that, rather than waiting for Godot, or God, or nothing at all, Dog Mouth and Becker plan to kill a man named Mueller, a violator of some loyalty code, the details of which are pointedly obscure. Act 2 opens in Phoenix, Arizona, physically suggested by the addition of a rusted oil drum and a roll of steel cable to the set’s desert floor. Dog Mouth has arrived, he says, to buy a dog from an African-American named Weeks (Hugh Dane, who attacks the role with manic glee). Meanwhile, Nyah grows increasingly hysterical at the prospect and potential consequences of Mueller’s assassination. (Even this self-detonating romantic recognizes that this is no way to start nesting.)

The play's subtext is a series of dogfights among this quartet of characters, a Pinteresque drama of menace (threats, retreats, occasional attacks to the throat and consequent yelping), a roundelay of dominance and submission that's sordidly entertaining, particularly in the hands of actors who bring so much frenzied energy to their roles. Steppling can thank Davies and Storm, especially, for embodying his distinction between a dog and a pet, between a beast that looks death in the eye and one that eagerly fetches balls. This refers, of course, not just to canines but to a human pool of ferocious independents, versus a mainstream of obsequious servants.

In Dog Mouth, Steppling shines as a poet of the grotesque, condemning -- from the desert brush – our media-saturated culture of consumption, and doing it without a hint of stridency. For example, Dog Mouth’s crimes, as well as his liaison with a much younger woman, have led to his being the subject of a TV interview, an event that’s referred to throughout the play. The point? That television, with all its distortions and lies, has nonetheless made Dog Mouth identifiable as somebody, even out in Arizona. Elsewhere, one of Dog Mouth’s speeches calls up the image of a teenager accidentally run over by a train, his head severed and settled – after a bounce or two – staring at his own "brand-new Nikes." Beyond that, no comment, and none is needed.

Perhaps the most telling evolution since The Shaper is Steppling’s use of music in the scene transitions. Those screaming Hendrix-like bridges have given way to Karl Lundeberg's original music and sound design, based on an acoustic-guitar motif and accompanied by an ethereal chorus of train whistles that might have been sung by a canopy of angels. The music’s mythic resonance conjoins with the grandiloquent set, a backdrop of three billboard panels creating a photographic scrim of rocky chaparral, against which Rand Ryan’s lights play a chiaroscuro of harsh color and stark, black-and-white relief. All of which works as counterpoint to the perpetually annoyed, canine gruffness of Davies’ Dog Mouth, and to the way Gwynne’s precocious Nyah cowers when Dog Mouth is barking at her. This, with the artistry of Steppling’s careful staging, turns the play into something as majestic and fragile – as beautiful, comical and rare – as a soap bubble.

So tenderly and impossibly fused are the elements holding Dog Mouth together through Act 1, it’s no surprise when the bubble bursts in Act 2. A panicked Becker, returned from his homicidal assignment and dressed like a character in the movie Fargo (leather hunting cap, checkered jacket, mittens), lurches up and down in front of Dog Mouth like a jumping bean while reporting a botched job. This is where, yielding the authority of its delicately balanced vision, the play begins to feel derivative. (Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter, Mamet’s American Buffalo, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the collected works of Sam Shepard all spring to mind.) This is neither the actor’s fault (Storm is excellent) nor the play’s. The responsibility lies with Steppling the director, unwilling or unable to guide the bubble away from rough surfaces. The burlesque of Becker’s attire and gestures belongs to a different play.

Yet there are times, even when a production fails to cohere, that the event is still more satisfying than some blander, less ambitious effort (which nonetheless hangs together). Dog Mouth is one such instance. Where a cruder work might have absorbed the tonal shifts, the reasons for this production’s implosion are, paradoxically, a testament to its intricacy. Still, when Dog Mouth sings, as it does for much of the evening, its notes ring true. Maybe that’s the most one can ask of a cultural investigator the likes of Steppling: Please don’t lie to us. His new work may fib ever so slightly toward the end, but for the most part, Steppling is true to his words.

What a pernicious and hollow distraction it is to name a developing playwright the Voice of a city – someone who’s still trying, after all, to accrue the experience and wisdom that will enable him to find a voice. At a post-play discussion of Steppling’s Dream Coast, in 1990 at the Mark Taper Forum, one of the theater’s artistic associates told a disgruntled subscriber that the Taper had chosen to do the play in order to help establish Steppling as a national playwright, a strategy that turned out to be in vain.

Shortly before he left Los Angeles four years ago, Steppling directed two plays that he’d spun out of Shakespeare, Murdered Sleep: Meditations on Macbeth and The Cold White Virgin Snow: The Tempest Reconsidered. Those projects – taut, sparse, yet bathed in fine language – were the first tangible sign of Steppling maturing as a playwright, however dependent on Shakespeare. (There are worse pillars to lean on.)

In Dog Mouth, Steppling returns not as Shakespeare, not as Beckett, but as Steppling, in his smartest, most vulnerable, most honest incarnation so far. When Nyah asks Dog Mouth whether it’s true he's killed before, as reported in the press, he addresses her question in words that are as much about playwriting as they are about murder:

What do you believe? . . . The answer can only be about what you believe, because people will say anything, people will say things because they are ignorant and know nothing and because their lives are empty and stupid and what people say isn’t worth pissing on. What matters is what you think, the question here is what do you believe, deep in your heart, way down underneath all the bullshit and newspapers and TV and gossip is your heart which is pure and which contains the truth. Tell me, what is in your heart?

– Steven Leigh Morris

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