Saturday, May 03, 2008

Curse of the Starving Class

Nice day. Breakfast with friends. Car in the shop for a thousand dollar clutch and fly wheel job ... a thousand dollars for something I will never see. Went to the American Conservatory Theater's production of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class. And as I write this, the Giants are leading the Phillies in Philly 3-2 in the bottom of the 10th, Brian Wilson pitching, one on, one out. I'll keep you posted.

Now as to the play, first off, ACT again did itself proud with a spectacular set that evoked grinding rural poverty and desperation. They always amaze. I wish that they were a lot less stingy with images of their work on their web site ... it is general complaint with the web ... we are all aching to consume images, so let us see. Don't be stingy ... let us look.

As to the play ... I told RO, who is my theater muse and with whom I attend every ACT production, that it was like we started with a David Mamet and ended with a Harold Pinter. The play concerns a poor farmer family with a violent drunken father (Weston, Jack Willis), an aloof mother (Ella, Pamela Reed), an angry and confused son (Wesley, Judd Williford), and a wild 12-year old daughter (Emma, Nicole Lowrance). The first act is a lot of setup .... you certainly know, not merely because it is a Shepard play, that these folks are losers. But in the second act, it all gets kooky. Characters start switching roles ... the drunken dad dries out, and the son turns into Dad. So does the Mom.

Shepard does not have the facility with genuine dialog that Mamet has or Tom Stoppard. There are a lot of truly peculiar lines, including using the word "authenticity" at one point. So there is a bit of the theater of the absurd in the thing all along. You know these poor sods are about to be swindled out of their parched patrimony. If this were just tragedy, then, the deed would be done at long last and they would stand there bereft and abandoned of hope.

But even by the end of the play, the deed is not done. The father has fled, the daughter leaving as well, pre-teenaged to pursue a life of crime. I thought she was blown up in the off-stage car explosion that was near coincident with her exit. No mention was made. The explosion and the two toughs who entered to prance and threaten ... well it seemed too much.

But there is a method, one must assume, in this madness. Part of it is to underwrite the dark comedy that courses through this work. It is also that reflexive comedy of writing for the cognoscenti who want to think themselves versed in the ways of the ignorant and unwashed, presumably with a certain pride in the breadth of their wisdom ... or who want to experience again the vicarious emotions of having descended from the descents of society. In other words, using my own example, I am two generations away from a blacksmith, so Manhattan-fueled though I may be, I know my proletarian bitterness, "goldernit". In that sense, I figure that a couple of Okies spitting "authenticity" back and forth is Sam Shepard's little spit in the eye of the audience which he presumably loathes.

To be a playwright of bitterness is to spit in the eye of your audience, knowing that your audience gets the joke and doesn't think itself all wet thereby.

The Saturday matinée crowd is, shall we say, a tad more senior than the average crowd, notwithstanding that live theater these days is generally the province of audiences getting more elderly all the time. When the studly Wesley faced the audience to take a long labored piss on the shrill Emma's 4H project which shows how to cut up a chicken, one of those tall, built, upper class ladies who favor unfashionable and bulky heavy tweed knits decided she had had enough, and she up and left her seat in the front row. We habitually inhabit the back row orchestra by the door, and so were able to hear her mutter loudly to the usher as she passed, "I am too old for a display like that." Another large lady of upper class demeanor chose another tense moment to disturb a long row of people so she could walk out. Sam Shepard is not every bourgeoise's coupe de thé.

The other moment that might have occasioned faint-headed yet headstrong dudgeon was when Wesley appeared completely nude, picked up the live lamb in the crate, and exited stage right. He displayed, among other assets, an unusually round and muscular tush, if a fevered fag may be allowed to pass his professional judgment.

Such titillations aside, it was a creditable performance of a difficult work where pain and bad fate lurk in every moment. Shepard is a round caricature of himself, and he gets the joke. So the themes he treats strike home even when his realism is off the mark. Indeed, being off the mark becomes part of the mark. I think the actors got it, and that is why they succeeded.

Then again, I am usually wont to enjoy live theater. Perhaps my dear friend LP will finally start her theater blog and pass judgment with a little more sharpness and theatrical insight ... wink, wink.

And the requisite reviews ... Jack Willis was perfect, as he usually is, especially in roles demanding a characteristic American accent. Pamela Reed was creditable, but I think she tried to give her character more character than it deserved. This is a desperate empty women, stuck in her lot, and ready to screw anybody to get out of it. Judd Williford did well given the difficulty of the mix of confusion, innocence, anger, and bitterness demanded. He did innocent best; when he pissed on his sister oevre, it was hard to imagine the motivation. Nicole Lawrence was the least believable ... she just didn't seem 12, even considering the precociousness that a life of desperation visits upon the young. She was best when she was screaming and wailing. The other parts were all fine, although the bar owner was a little over the top.

Still, see it. Makes you think which is what it is all about.

Here's another take on this production.

Let me note, Manhattan (Evan Williams bourbon, Punt e Mes vermouth, and Fees Brothers bitters) in hand, that the Giants won on a great play at short by Burriss ... and as for the thousand dollar clutch job, well, it might seem harsh. But it's an 86 Honda Civic, and a thousand a year, which is what repairs normally amount to, turns out to be a lot better than four or five hundred a month for something new. And at 34 mpg highway, and not very much driving, I feel I am okay if not completely pure. And, notwithstanding my forefathers, neither the thousand nor the beat up auto makes me a member of the starving class ... or so I hope.

Photo of Sam Shepard from his site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful way with words. Love it.