Curse of the Starving Class Showcases Sam Shepard’s First Major Off-Broadway Hit
Today’s theater world is a fallow place. There are no recent playwrights whose work commands respect and opening-night buzz like those of theatrical Rushmore icons Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Christopher Durang. August Wilson, Sam Shepard, even Neil Simon.
Granted, Durang and Stoppard are not yet Old Dead Playwrights but their output has been on the back burner for years. But who’s taking their place? Susan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage and Rajiv Joseph, among many other intriguing contemporary voices, are near the cusp of perpetual fame, but their plays lack the continuous appeal and international interest generated by the former greats. There are plenty of recent one-offs, but a whole body of influential work is as rare as the discovery of a pharaoh’s tomb.
In a lovely piece of archaeology, Catastrophic Theatre unearths Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. One of America’s hottest talents in the ’70s and ’80s, Shepard, lean and crisp as a dry cornstalk, ignited the stage with iconoclastic works such as Lie of the Mind, True West, Fool for Love, and Buried Child, which won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His sleek cowboy visage was a natural for the movies – an ultra-hip Gary Cooper – and his granite portrait of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983) earned him a deserved Academy Award nomination.
With a canny blend of surrealism, kitchen sink, and a poet’s voice that speaks to broken family and home, his plays explore and explode a particular elegy to the American dream. A lost dream set in the lost West. The family – dysfunctional yet omnipresent and omnipotent – has always been the crux of his dramas.
His wonderfully weird tales – part nightmare, part reverie – hauntingly pit family against itself, and family against the facelsss unknown out there beyond the front door. Kin eat each other alive, but like Shepard’s ancient Greek progenitors, they’re driven to destruction by the gods or their own hubris. Father against son, brother against brother. It’s a male world Shepard dissects. His female characters are window dressing, innocuous, or sexy diversion. His Wild West, or what’s left of it, is strictly a guy thing.
His tabloid fame eventually squelched his theatrical spark, and his later days were not so much filled with glory as a remembrance of things past. But his fertile period, the ’70s to mid ’90s, were seminal, and Curse (1978) put him on the map.
Under director Jeffrey Miller, Catastrophic Theatre overlays Shepard’s first major Off-Broadway hit with succulent theatricality and intelligent staging. You can taste the grime in designer Ryan McGettigan’s dilapidated house and blasted farmland behind. The weirdness weaves through like kudzu. Shepard’s first works were staged at New York’s legendary La MaMa, the East Village hotbed for anything experimental. This was underground theater of the first order, and Curse retains whiffs of these early influences. Shepard never completely discarded his tendency to juxtapose Belasco with Beckett, and this drama maintains a queasy balance that never quite resolves.
The Tate family is a mess. So is their farm. Dad Weston (Luis Galindo) is a brutal alcoholic, mom Ella (Courtney Lomelo ) is opportunistic, teen daughter Emma (Sarah Becker ) bristles at her stifling life on the sterile farm, son Wesley (Jayden Key ) would be content if only someone would pay him attention. Like a family out of low-rent Chekhov, they long to escape: Weston to Mexico to avoid creditors, Ella to Europe just because it’s Europe, Emma to anywhere else, and Wesley to stay put but reanimate the farm. There’s no front door on the house because Dad smashed it during a drunken rage; the soiled refrigerator is empty, no matter how many times everyone opens then slams the door looking for something to eat; the land is barren; and the family, like the house, is rotting from the inside. Hope is forever unattainable. If only they could get some money to run away.
There are monologues for each character, splendid arias that expand their world even while it suffocates them. There’s a diseased lamb boarded in the kitchen; a sense of dread and threat of violence in the claustrophobic kitchen that taunts and pulses; and a feeling of the absurd and surreal over everything.
In his later work, Shepard will be more subtle with his symbols and not inclined to yell so loud, but once you get into the rhythm of this play, its wonders are exposed. It takes the cast a scene or two to get into the rhythm, too, but when they settle in, they raise the roof. By the time Wesley stuffs his face with a cucumber dipped in mayonnaise, gorging himself on a bite from everything in the fridge – Weston has miraculously filled the shelves – we’re a long way from Oz.
These characters dream bold and big, but we know it’s only a matter of time until the creaky farm consumes them. In his most physical role since wrestler Mace from Chad Deity, Galindo dominates. He falls off the kitchen table, glides down the refrigerator, or collapses on the floor in drunken stupor. He exudes menace that waits below the surface. Just scratch him and you’ll unleash it. When he wields Wesley’s saw, we instinctively pull back in fear for what he might do. Galindo is capable of anything. And Key’s Wesley matches him. What a pair they make, always at odds, iron on flint. In the play’s most stirring and stunning moment, Wesley, naked, carries his lamb across the kitchen and out to be slaughtered. Bathed in J. Mitchell Cronin’s iconic lighting, it’s a vision ripped from Genesis. You can’t miss the obvious, for it’s a powerfully theatrical image. Key is radiant in the role. He wants to save the family farm, but his catharsis is swathed in irony: he becomes his father, wearing Weston’s old clothes, never able to escape.
In curlers and wrapped in old chenille, Lomelo scuffs across the worn linoleum in ratty slippers. (Macy Lyne’s costumes throughout are horribly ripe.) She cooks breakfast only for herself; she does everything only for herself. The smell of frying bacon wafts through the theater. It’s the only tinge of home we’ll ever get. Later, Ella dolls herself up to meet her lawyer friend, but the slatternly seducer will get more than she bargained for. Everybody will. Becker’s Emma, on the verge of womanhood, overplays the early scenes as if in some forgotten Tennessee Williams one-act. Nothing goes right for her character. But when Becker calms down, Emma’s adolescent angst shines, even though we’re never quite in sympathy with her.
The Tates are besieged from external forces also: real estate broker Taylor (Ronnie Blaine), bar owner Ellis (Kyle Sturdivant), policeman Malcolm (Charlie Scott), and thugs Emerson (Troy Schulze) and Slater (Abraham Zeus Zapata). None of them bear good news.
At the end, Weston tells a parable about an eagle and a cat clawing and scratching mid-air. The duel will bring death to both, no matter the victor. The Tates are cursed, their dreams destroyed. While they live, Shepard is unflinching in his bleak portrait of despair and false hope. He preaches in the wilderness. We bear witness.
Curse of the Starving Class continues through October 21 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and October 15, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays,and 2:30 p.m. Sundays,an Catastrophic Theatre. MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchouston.org. Pay what you can, $40 suggested ticket price.