Catastrophic Theatre's production of BURIED CHILD is brave and unsettling, yet completely accessible as well. They have cast the show without regard to race, perceived sexual orientation or physical types, and in the process expanded the vision of what could be a narrow exercise into a universal one.
Never has BURIED CHILD play felt so broad and borderless, and the staging reveals interesting struggles inside both American culture and methods of acting. The company takes risks, and most of them pay off handsomely. There are stumbles to be sure, but this reinvention of the play feels fresh and revelatory. It's an evening of experiments that should intrigue audiences enough to reconsider a play that was specific to its own era.
BURIED CHILD was first created by celebrated author Sam Shepard in 1978, and it was his take on the fragmentation of the American family and dream. He brought a surreal feel to his theatrical writing, and at the same time captured the frustrations of people in the late '70s clearly, regardless of abstractions. The play is a portrait of a shattered household that just can't seem to go on and should no longer exist. Alcoholism, abuse, bullying, and ignoring the obvious has destroyed a farm and the people who live there.
Interestingly enough in 2016, the play still finds the audience struggling with many of the same issues as when it debuted. Economic stagnation and a loss of a sense of national identity run through the subtext of BURIED CHILD, and that lends itself to this year's political climate all too well.
It opens with Dodge (Rutherford Cravens) yelling up some rickety stairs at his wife (Carolyn Houston Boone) from where he is permanently stuck on the couch in an alcoholic stupor. In this first act we are introduced to the pitiable parents living on a desolate farm with their two sons. One is struck dumb by some undefined event in New Mexico (Greg Dean), and the other is missing his leg from an accident (Kyle Sturdivant). They are both abject failures who at one time showed so much more promise. In the second act an urban grandson (Dayne Lathrop) appears with his girlfriend (Candice D'Meza) in tow. Nobody seems to remember or recognize him, and she wonders how this family has turned into a cesspool of inaction and contempt. The third act culminates with the promised titular revelation, and attempts to display how the good old American farm has become a horror story.
The script can be seen two ways, as both reality and allegory. What is interesting in watching the actors is they all seem to take different approaches based on where they stand in the perception of how much BURIED CHILD is one or the other. Greg Dean disappears into his role entirely, and plays it all for the truth of the situation, as if everything is grounded in the terra firma. Meanwhile Rutherford Cravens and Candice D'Meza let their own personas shine through within their portrayals, which give their characters more charm than one would expect. They allow moments where they wink at the audience indicating the allegory and artifice. Kyle Sturdivant overplays his part creating more comedy than he probably should, yet still makes us squirm at the right moment just before intermission. Carolyn Houston Boone is simply shrill and becomes a singular note dancing through the performance as if only one aspect is left of her demented matriarch. Dayne Lathrop opts for a purely physical approach to his handsome young grandson part. He is all bluster and bluff showing only thin emotions. Charlie Scott plays the philandering religious father as a flawed man who shouldn't be there.
The set evokes the atmosphere beautifully, a crumbling farmhouse in the middle of a catastrophic storm. You can almost smell the mold coming off the flaking and crumbling paint, and the weather effects are well executed. Lighting and sound are showy, and they grandstand as much as the actors do during the meaty scenes. Costumes are spot on with a keen eye for 1978. Everything feels authentic, and it's interesting to see how the designers have turned the shadow box theater into a proscenium presentation. The production aspects are well appointed and admirable.
While watching the show I was most struck by Candice D'Meza, a beautiful actress who expresses the message of BURIED CHILD through her portrayal as the "regular girl" trapped in with a dysfunctional farm family. She guides the audience through this journey, and her calming earthy persona unravels as the other characters do. The cast all succeed in creating this portrait of disillusionment and hopeless traps. They are a more diverse group than what is usually seen with mixes of races and physical types in a play normally played solely with macho white overtones. This expands BURIED CHILD, and kudos to director Jeff Miller for allowing that.
Overall the script may be a touch long, and sometimes the acting approaches seem at odds with each other. The biggest problem is sometimes the cast feel as if they are in different Shepard shows, but it does come together in the end to deliver the message effectively despite that. The entire thing feels risky and fresh. For that reason, this one is worth a look despite any flaws.
BURIED CHILD plays at the MATCH theater complex at 3400 Main through October 1st. Tickets can be purchased through the Catastrophic website atwww.catastrophictheatre.com or by calling 713-521-4533.