Sam Shepard

The Rural Absurd

The Long Wharf production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, directed by Gordon Edelstein, presents us with a living classic. Shepard’s play dumps us in an America that always seems to be vanishing while remaining still tangible. It’s rural California, beloved of Steinbeck in the Depression Era, and of “back to nature” hippies in the Sixties.  By the late Seventies, when the play was first produced, the region is on its way to becoming strip malls and apartment buildings.

With a stripped-down kitchen surrounded by prairie-like earth, Michael Yeargan’s set speaks of archetypes even before the play begins.  What could be more emblematic of family life than a refrigerator, sitting near center stage?  And what could be more enigmatic than a tall door frame with no door, attached to no wall?  Emblems.  Enigmas.  The theater of Sam Shepard makes the most commonplace things bristle with crazy possibilities.  It’s the nightmare of the everyday.

The first half of the show, while able to keep us off-guard with the oddity of the Tate family, is mainly comic.  Much of the humor derives from Judith Ivey’s delivery as Ella, the mother.  She has mastered an emphatic tone that plays it slow as if considering possible replies, coming out with comments that can be prickly or non-committal.  Ivey’s pitch is perfect, as she transforms from a frumpy housewife into a woman on the make, trying to sell the family property out from under her drunken, abusive husband Weston (Kevin Tighe).  It’s he who broke down the door and, listening to her comments, we might readily take her part in what might seem a play of domestic disturbances.  That is until we meet the smarmy lawyer Taylor (John Procaccino) with whom she may be doing more than business.

Shepard is the poet of the proles—his grasp of the intonations and rhythms of the everyday Americans we find in trailer parks and malls and on ranches and rural hang-outs is as distinct to him as flowery Southern politesse is to Tennessee Williams.  Hearing the lines of the play delivered with a feel for its curious mix of the lyrical and the laconic is reason enough to see this production.  But Shepard is also the kind of playwright who wants the theatrical experience to be off-putting.  And so there’s a live lamb onstage at times, in a pen; there’s urination, nudity, an explosion, an appalling episode of binge eating, and a creepy carnivalesque feeling that makes the Second Part seem a descent into an accursed place indeed.  Edelstein’s production delivers all the unpleasantness with a casual absurdity that benefits from the Long Wharf’s thrust stage.  It’s a fascinating show.

Much of the unsettling nature of the play comes from Wesley (Peter Albrink), the eldest child and only son of the Tates.  Wesley is unpredictable, surly and rather unsettled himself.  A tour de force speech delivered early in the play establishes the kind of dread he feels in relation to his father.  Wesley seems attached to the farm while the others are determined to sell it or leave it or both, but his attachment may be based on neurotic frustrations.  Of all the characters, he is the most enigmatic, and Albrink has a command of the character’s shuffling uncertainty and morose sarcasm.  We might easily take the younger generation’s side against the elders if it weren’t that Wesley is so brooding.  Urinating on his sister’s 4-H posters is the kind of callow act that keep us distanced from him.

As the daughter, Emma, Elvy Yost is tomboyish and pert.  She wears a 4-H outfit at first and seems girlishly forthright—as her mother lectures her about getting her first period—but, later, in a cowboy hat and chaps, she begins to transform into the kind of figure we might assume Shepard wants to pin our hopes on.  She is clear-eyed enough to see through Taylor—Procaccino gives Taylor’s efforts to put her at her ease a nice, slowburn comic tension—and determined enough, perhaps, to get away from the family vacuum.  Yost sounds perhaps a bit too contemporary in her tone, but that only underscores that she, if anyone here, is the future.  Her fate says much about what Shepard thinks about that.

As Weston, the irascible patriarch, Kevin Tighe is commanding.  Our early view of him finds him even more surly than his son.  He has nothing but disdain for his family and their home.  His humor is of the kind that comes close to abuse, and yet he compels a kind of natural respect.  He is the man of the house, regardless.  Later, he sobers up, and Shepard gives the character a great speech about how he got into debt that rings with right-on familiarity in Fiscal Cliff America.  Seeing Tighe cooking breakfast at the stove and lecturing his son and wife takes us close to the “father knows best” America we once grew up with.  Of course it will all go bad.

And don’t forget the lamb.  As a sacrificial victim, scapegoat, what-have-you, the symbolism is a bit too overt, but, in her actual presence, Edie steals her scenes—on Opening Night, she reacted to Ella’s insistence that the creature be removed from the kitchen with a perfectly timed bleat, and seemed to hush up contentedly while the man-of-the-house maundered about, talking to her as to himself.  It made the audience laugh and play to see a lamb on stage, too much perhaps, but I suspect that its antics will be the one heart-warming moment people take away from this harrowing, at times hilarious, at times grotesque production.


Curse of the Starving Class By Sam Shepard Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Clint Ramos; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Composer: Doug Wieselman; Animals: William Berloni; Stage Manager: Bryce McDonald; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Sara Cox Bradley; Casting: James Calleri, CSA

Long Wharf Theatre February 13-March 10, 2013

A Contemporary "Curse." Sam Shepard Comes to the Long Wharf

Potentially one of the most sharply relevant plays in the current season in New Haven is the Long Wharf Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class.  Shepard has long been a staple of the American theater but the last time one of his plays was given a professional production here was the Yale Rep’s Curse in 2000.  Bad as those times were, we may have even more to curse about currently. According to the show’s director, Gordon Edelstein, the play is “hard to get right,” and yet is perhaps his personal favorite of Shephard’s plays, a play that is both timeless and “startlingly resonant for the moment.”

As a satiric, at times surreal play, Curse has, Edelstein says, “a very specific style” and its action is both “real and not real.”  While those who know Shepard’s work may find entering that particular space familiar, there is bound to be a certain defamiliarization as well.  One thing audiences might be faced with is determining how recognizable the world of Curse of the Starving Class is.  First produced in the late Seventies, the play was one of Shepard’s first attempts at a full-length, three act play.  Somewhat more traditional in form, the play takes on what could be called the locus classicus of American plays: the family drama.  With a father, Weston, a mother, Ella, a son Wesley, and a daughter, Emma, the doubling in the family romance is explicit, and the sense that the characters we’re viewing are both people and types makes for a shifting focus that is rich and suggestive, if also mercurial.  As a writer, Shepard has a unique gift for both the absurdist comedy of modern American types as well as a sense of, at times, tragic grandeur.  His is a poetic idiom that is rarely literal.

For Edelstein, one main reason for the current Long Wharf production is the occasion of working with a cast equal to the play.  “Shepard demands a company of actors skilled in the specifics of his text,” he notes, while praising, in particular, his chief actors’ “extraordinary ability.”  With Judith Ivey, a two-time Tony winner, as matriarch Ella, the production brings together a notable actress, esteemed for her work at Long Wharf in plays such as Shirley Valentine and The Glass Menagerie, with a part that offers much complexity.  Kevin Tighe (Weston) has also worked with Edelstein before at the Long Wharf, most recently in Mourning Becomes Electra.

The main question for a production of Curse, which Edelstein feels is truly a great play by a playwright able to hold his own with Miller, O’Neill and Williams, is: does the production  find “the pitch of the play, the specific tone of the piece?”  “Shepard is sui generis and nothing else is like him,” Edelstein says, so that finding that tone is a matter of “listening carefully to the play.” As a director, Edelstein sees his task as investigating “the linings of the stomach of each play” to understand what that play requires, to find “an imaginative and interesting way to put it on the stage.”  He finds Shepard, whose work he has staged many times, though this will be his first in his 12 years as Artistic Director of Long Wharf, challenging, but is confident that Curse of the Starving Class is very much a contemporary play that will speak to its audience.

Curse of the Starving Class opens on February 20th and runs until March 10th.  Starring Judith Ivey and Kevin Tighe, the play is a darkly comic depiction of  the struggles of a farming family in California as they cope with economic pressures, alcoholism, and internal tensions that question not only the stability of the American Dream but the viability of the American family.

Stayin' Up for Days in the Chelsea Hotel

If you missed the early Seventies, for whatever reason, you might not have much grasp of what made the period unique.  The Sixties were over—and that meant an end to a number of things, some of which have become a cliché—but the direction of where things were going, culturally, politically, and in other areas of life, was not yet clear.  It was a lively, hybrid time, in other words.  The Yale Cabaret’s production of Cowboy Mouth, a play co-authored by two obscure but up-and-coming writers named Sam Shepard and Patti Smith in 1971, lets us return to that fabled and fractured time to see a staging of two artistes of the moment—Slim (Mickey Theis) and Cavale (Michelle McGregor)—thrash out a vision. A vision of what?  Well, that’s what makes the play so much fun.  Cavale, the Smith character, knows that religious icons have been replaced, in the collective unconscious of those coming of age in the Sixties and after, by rock icons.  So, what any self-respecting artist must have is a vision of the rock god of tomorrow.  Slim, despite his misgivings, seems to have signed on for a role somewhat like a male Trilby to Cavale’s female Svengali, if only so he can riff off her frantic jabs at poetry.  In the end, we know, it’s Smith, not Shepard, who will become a rock artist.  (But a rock god?  Well, around this time, over in north Jersey—Smith’s from south Jersey—there was this cat named Bruce…)

Life together for Slim and Cavale is a series of provocative assertions, of trying on roles, of taking positions that might be inspiring or might be dispiriting.  Slim wants to hear Cavale tell stories. Cavale wants Slim to get intimate with Raimond, her dead crow.  Slim, restless, pounds a drum kit to punctuate his annoyance, or cranks an electric guitar to reduce Cavale to the postures of an abased groupie.  Cavale plays dead, or slaps the wall, or postures and preens.  And there are many well-choreographed gropes and clutches—body language in this play is a treat, almost a treatise, with director Jackson Moran helping to give it its flair.

And for laughs, there’s Lobster Man, a figure—yes, in a bright red lobster suit—who delivers takeout and returns to become the guinea pig of the duo’s plans.  Fulfilling the inevitable “triangulation” role in a Shepard play, Lobster Man seems to take his cue from the lobster that French 19th-century poet Gérard de Nerval walked in the park on a blue ribbon. Nerval hanged himself on the date of Cavale’s birth (albeit almost a century prior).  That’s the kind of thing that gets Cavale worked up.

As Slim, Theis does the “undiscovered rock god” thing well—he looks good and he knows how to do “stage presence”—but he also knows how to do Shepard’s trademark laconic staccato.  Shepard’s verbal jousting can gesture toward Beat poetry without ever getting lost in its jazzy embellishments.  He’s too “true west” for that.  As Cavale, McGregor’s costume is spot on, and, whereas some of Cavale’s pronouncements could come off as spacey, late hippie-meets-proto punk, McGregor manages to give the role a gravitas that, we might say, can only come from a retrospect on what a female artist of today owes the gutsiness of a female artist of then.  Cavale seems only a little retro, certainly not a throwback.  Both actors are dervishes of movement and play off each other with astute timing and staging.  For my money, both could’ve gone a bit more for the drawl that is so notable in Shepard and Smith, a grasping, searching speech-rhythm that, with Smith especially, is not afraid of going spastic and out of control, ditto her movements.

The look of the show is great—Meredith Ries, Set; Jayoung Joon, Costumes; Masha Tsimring, Lighting—the lines of the play come alive (I particularly liked the echo effects on the mics—Palmer, Sound), and the ending, with The Lobster Man revealed as a female rock god, is apropos.  Drop the notion—dead as of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, if not Grace Slick and Janis—that a rock god can’t be a woman, and lo! Lobster Man stands revealed as the Future of Rock, kinda like glam sans drag.

Jenny said when she was just five years old, There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Everytime she put on the radio, There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Then one fine morning she put on a New York station, She didn’t believe what she heard at all She started dancin’ to that fine, fine music Her life was saved by rock’n’roll —Lou Reed, “Rock’n’Roll” (1970)

Cowboy Mouth By Sam Shepard and Patti Smith Original music composed by Mickey Theis; Lyrics by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith Directed by Jackson Moran Produced by Tanya Dean Yale Cabaret October 25-27, 2012