LITERALLY kicking off its eighth season with Sam Shepard's raucous and raw "Fool for Love," the Round House Theater is taking a risk.

The troupe may find itself with a more adventurous new direction and a new, younger audience. But Shepard's brief, knockout-punch of a play, well-acted as it is here, is potent stuff, and it may shake up Round House regulars used to much milder fare. Let's hope they like it, because the Round House has done Shepard proud.

In a nondescript motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Shepard creates an emotional and very physical collision between explosive Eddie, a rodeo rider, and May, a feisty young woman. She's left him after one too many hurts; he tracked her down and claims he's come back for good. Their reunion is rocky -- May impulsively hugs Eddie, then abruptly knees him in the crtch.

As it turns out, these two isolated characters are bound together by more than lust or love. Offstage, a father figure watches them both, occasionally wandering through the wall to comment. He's a blood memory or a ghost, a living part of each character's psyche.

Shepard's familiar themes reappear in this play: the American West; collapsed families who can't escape their bonds; incest and passion. "Fool for Love" is full of pungent humor, and the deceptively mundane story is rooted in elements of Greek tragedy and myth.

Director Susann Brinkley has a strong way with Shepard's bold theatrical images and doesn't shy from the sexually charged scenes -- May tauntingly pulling on her pantyhose; Eddie sitting on the bed cleaning his gun, or tossing show-off lariat loops over the bedposts.

Shepard's stuff has to be acted just so or it comes off as hippy-dippy Californiaspeak, and the Round House cast finds the balance between abandon and restraint. With her whiskey voice and blowsily sexy manner, Janet Bryant is a ferocious May, and she's nicely matched by Tom Schall as the unpredictable Eddie.