REVIEW: Curse of the Starving Class (New Leaf Theatre)

New Leaf’s “curse” satisfies

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New Leaf Theatre presents
 
Curse of the Starving Class
 
By Sam Shepard
Directed by
Kyra Lewandowski
Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2045 N. Lincoln Park W. (map)
thru May 22nd  |  tickets: $10-$18  | more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepard’s best work always revolves around families. Some say that the American drama is family drama, and Shepherd definitely makes a strong case for this argument. His scathing True West, Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, and gritty A Lie of the Mind all focus on entangled, screwed-up families. Curse of the Starving Class, one of his other heralded “family tragedies,” is as blazing and cut-throat as the rural svclass2 California homestead it’s set in. It focuses on a family with standard structure—father, mother, son, and daughter—but with destructive tendencies. Transforming the Lincoln Park Cultural Center into the dilapidated familial residence, New Leaf does an excellent job capturing Shepherd’s gangster flick yet Aeschylean essence, although some moments are over-broiled and muddy.

The titular “curse” and the titular “starving class” are mentioned several times throughout the play, but neither is really explained at all. The drunken patriarch Weston (John Gray) describes a curse passed down for generations, from father to son, but doesn’t mention any details as to why their family is possessed or the consequences of this venom. The term is also thrown around in regards to the daughter’s first period, her entrance to adulthood. Shepherd is toying around with Classical ideas of fate, but with a horrifically modern twist: no one remembers what the curse is. The characters also have different opinions on the starving class, which is less of an economic distinction and more of a mental illness. The result is a titillating mixture of Aristotelian theory and post-modern sensibility, like if O’Neill wrote a B-movie.

The family, never given a last name, eke out an existence in a broken-down farmhouse; their front door smashed apart by Weston. We are privy to the kitchen area (they are the starving class, after all), and watch as each member contrastingly defile or rebuild the disgusting room. We see the idealistic son Wesley (Layne Manzer) urinate in the food prep area, yet later he attempts to replace the broken door. Ella (Victoria Gilbert), the matriarch, half-heartedly keeps order, and the much-maligned daughter Emma (Alyse Kittner) can’t stand the place. Weston, for all the destruction he causes, takes a shot at revitalizing the house in the final act. The world is ground-up and fallible; the characters attempt change, but can they escape their curse?

Kyra Lewandowski takes on this powerful script with gusto. Her staging is visceral, but sometimes misguided. A couple of very crucial moments take place in the eviscerated doorway, which is concealed from a good chunk of the audience. The production also adds some spooky shadow-work to push the play into a more abstract realm, but Shepherd’s grinding text doesn’t need it. Lewandowski’s expressionist choice distracts rather than adds, but it is fortunately rarely used. Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set and Jared Moore’s lights fill the otherwise welcoming Lincoln Park Cultural Center with gloom and decay, providing the cast with one unappetizing kitchen.

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The cast finds connections with Shepherd’s sometimes cryptic characters, and the entire show breathes and broods. Manzer’s Wesley can be a bit too manic, but Manzer clearly knows Wesley’s vulnerabilities. Gilbert sits in the world the best, making Ella’s most bizarre moments feel natural and understandable. Against both of these powerful actors, Kittner scratches and scrambles, which works for Emma. Gray shines in the last act, but earlier he overplays the drunken stupor and comes off as ungrounded. As the land-grabbing lawyer, Kevin Gladish can’t really penetrate Shepherd’s realm, seeming wooden and unsure. This is difficult territory to conquer, however, and the cast steps up to the challenge and they are not afraid to tear right into it.

There is a lot of important information that is left unsaid in Curse, leaving the audience unsettled and probing in the dark. Lewandowski and her team understand this critical aspect—they know to close doors as they open windows. Minus a few failings, New Leaf Theatre has a self-destructive, nauseating success.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Shattered Globe’s “Buried Child”

Shepherd’s critique of shattered American dreams connects to a bleak reality many of us have glimpsed.

 

 

Buried Child
by Sam Shepherd
Shattered Globe Theatre

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepherd wrote Buried Child, his ode to the tarnished American dream, in 1978, tapping inspiration from an America disillusioned from a soul-crushing war and economic stagflation. Now, as perpetual war and economic crisis frustrates our own era, Shattered Globe Theatre has revisited Shepherd’s Midwestern epic.

Director Steve Scott  focuses on elucidating the rifting generations in this eulogy for the modern American family unit. Three generations, spanning the 20th Century experience, inhabit the decrepit central Illinois house. Dodge and Halie (a cranky Maury Cooper and caustic Linda Reiter) come from an obsolete agriculture past. Their sons, Bradley and Tilden (Greg Kopp and Gerrit O’Neill), are emotionally and physically handicapped, matching their 1970’s America, nearly a decade after the counterculture revolution came to an abrupt end. Finally, the generation that ushered in punk rock and is represented by Tilden’s son, Vince (David Dastmalchian), and his girlfriend Shelly (Helen Sadler). The play begins with Vince swinging by his grandparents’ house after six years; instead of a fun family reunion, he is baffled because no one, not even his own father, recognizes him.

In Shattered Globe Theatre's "Buried Child", Shepherd’s critique of shattered American dreams connects to a bleak reality many of us have glimpsed. The depiction of this Illinois family just becomes more twisted as the play goes on. With her first glance of the house, Shelley likens it to a Norman Rockwell painting. As evidence of rape, incest, and murder bubble to the surface, any down-home feeling attached to the house quickly dissipates. Themes of family and heritage abound in the play, especially in a ghoulish image that several characters witness—glimpsing a face within a face. Like the splitting generations, Scott punches up these themes, and the play takes on an eerie, nearly Biblical feel.

Kevin Hagan encapsulates this epic mood with his dilapidated set. The world is a fusion of prosperity and poverty, ancient and modern, pride and shame. A static-y television sputters nonsense in front of a torn Second Empire style-sofa. The set also radiates a royal aura: Halie slowly walks down the stairs praising her favorite but deceased son, reeking of Classical Greek tragedy.

Thematically-speaking, some of the performances aren’t in line with the rest of the production, however. Cooper’s Dodge is too much ornery, embittered old man and not enough fallen patriarch. His moments of despair and impassioned anger are still powerful, but they lose teeth because Cooper pushes the humor of the script too far. Kopp has a difficult time balancing his characterization of the one-legged Bradley. He can find Bradley’s imposing, predator side but can’t quite find the infantile counterpoint once his leg is stolen. Sadler’s Shelley is another weaker performance, turning out a bit too annoying.

maurylindaandgerrit-400x266Dastmalachian’s Vince hits the right amount of youthful vigor with just enough instability. As Vince’s shell-shocked father, Tilden, O’Neill manages to be both tender and terrifying. Along with Reiter’s caustic portrayal of Halie, these performances infect the production with suspense, humanity, and madness.

The Shattered Globe production’s staging is dynamic and creepy. Scott fits this story into the intimate stage wonderfully, and uses plenty of levels to illustrate the epic forces shaping the story. Mike Durst’s subtle lighting design helps by imparting an uncanny atmosphere for the world. The design and direction meld to make Shepherd’s creation appropriately perverse.

While Buried Child is definitely darkly funny, the Shattered Globe struggles too hard to make the humor pop. However, the production is still disturbing and undeniably relevant to our situation. Although our national consciousness has altered since the writing of the play, our world is similar to the one Vince dwells in. Shepherd’s critique of shattered American dreams connects to a bleak reality many of us have glimpsed.

Rating: ««½ 

Buried Child,” by Sam Shepard
Directed by Steve Scott
Featuring ensemble members Allison Batty, Maury Cooper, and Linda Reiter
May 14 – July 12, 2009
Tickets $20-$35

 

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Chicago Theater tidbits: Sam Shepard and free dinner with Screwtape Letters

samualshepard Playwright and actor Sam Shepard was arrested early on Saturday morning in central Illinois, and charged with speeding and drunken driving.  Shepard told police he had been at a tavern in nearby Bloomington and was heading to a hotel. He said he was on his way to his home in Kentucky from Minnesota.

Shepard, 65, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play “Buried Child.”  His other notable plays include “True West” and “A Lie of the Mind”. Shepard is long-time partners with Jessica Lange.

Aside: Okay, I know that this is something that the National Enquirer might cover, but being that he was arrested in Illinois, I couldn’t resist…

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Free Dinner Thursdays and Talk-Back Fridays

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, adapted from writings by C.S. Lewis, will feature Free Dinner Thursdays and Talk-Back Fridays through February 12. 

ScrewtapeLetters1 Theatergoers who buy four tickets to the show on Thursday evenings will receive a free dinner for four at Cullen’s Bar & Grill, the restaurant connected to the theater.  Cullen’s pub-style menu features the hearty British-inspired cuisine that C.S. Lewis loved, including meatloaf, chicken pot pie or mac & cheese.. 

Friday night post-show talk-backs will feature Max McLean (co-creator and star) and Jeffrey Fiske (co-creator and director.)  During the talk-backs, McLean and Fiske will foster audience discussions about the show’s provocative themes and answer questions about how they adapted C.S. Lewis’ classic novel into a hit stage production.   More information here.