KPBS AIRDATE: October 14, 2005
This week, theater takes us to primitive worlds – one current, one futuristic – where violence splits the sky like lightning. Both plays explode the American Dream. The classic, Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class,” was written in 1976. But its gritty dissection of a dysfunctional family and the destruction of rural life are as timely and topical as ever. The new play is “Dog Act” by Liz Duffy Adams, a darkly comic post-apocalyptic vision of tribal allegiances and random brutality. In these primal environments, survival is an endless struggle.
In “Curse of the Starving Class,” each of Shepard’s desperate characters nurtures a fantasy of escape. But they are all cursed – doomed by their history, habit and genetics. In this felicitous first collaboration between two gifted young companies — Cygnet Theatre and New Village Arts — the performances are outstanding, each of the family members sharply etched and angrily, achingly portrayed. Dana Case is the addled mother, Bill Dunnam the alcoholic father and Rachael van Wormer the restless, pubescent daughter; each attempts a radical transformation. But it’s no use. They’ll never satisfy their ravenous inner hunger or dodge their accursed destiny. Only the shell-shocked son, in a fiercely haunting performance by Joshua Everett Johnson, tries to stay the course, maintain the family farm, put down deeper roots. But it’s too late; destruction, despair and death are breaking down the door. The drama is rife with symbolism: a sacrificial lamb; an empty, echoic refrigerator; the dark shadow cast by a rapacious eagle. In its three enigmatic acts, the play provides little elucidation or catharsis. But, underscored by striking lighting and sound designs, Fran Gercke’s taut direction keeps us riveted.
While Shepard’s work is spare and stark, the Liz Duffy Adams play is linguistically luxuriant. Her fantasy world is populated by roving tribal bands –storytelling Vaudevillians; the only extant poetry-spouting literates; and the Scavengers, grown-up, rampaging Lost Boys searching for their Wendy. Each group has its unique language – a brilliant, loopy riff on Mac Wellman’s neologistic rantings, liberally sprinkled with borrowings from Shakespeare, hip hop, curse-words and everyday vernacular. The long monologues that punctuate the action are thrilling performance pieces, magnificently delivered by a stellar cast of six, under the precise and pitch-perfect co-direction of Jennifer Eve Kraus and artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Jason Connors, while portraying the boy-turned-Dog of the title, also composed, arranged, directed and plays the genial music. Beeb Salzer’s remarkably convertible gypsy cart and Michelle Hunt’s delightfully witty costumes highlight the recurrent theme of recycled goods and people. At the end of this electrifying work, there’s a hint of rebirth and redemption. But though the final couplings are promising, there’s always the danger of a backslide into anarchy.
Past, present, future. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.