Reasons to be a Playwright, #457

We all get bad reviews. Sometimes we get good reviews (you get to keep those forever). But once in awhile, you get stupid, shitbird reviews from stupid, shitbird reviewers who, basically, couldn’t find their own balls in the dark without a flashlight. It’s weirdly heartening to know playgods such as Sam Shepard aren’t immune. I include the review of Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” in total, just for the peek-through-the-fingers at the car crash value.

Dear Daily Californian, please fire this lame fucker.

Yours,

Steve

‘Starving Class’ Suffers From Lackluster Material
By Nick Moore

Few word pairings carry potential for horror like “community theater.” They can connote offensively bad productions, fiascos on an epic scale. Take “Revolutionary Road,” in which Richard Yates uses a failed community theater production to frame over 300 pages of violent marital unhappiness.

But typically, we associate community theater with modest mess-ups and comical delights derived from watching others attempt to produce something appealing despite the disadvantages of low budgets and inexperience.

“Curse of the Starving Class,” the new Actors Ensemble of Berkeley production, did have some of those features. As the audience took its seats, an unidentified man clambered awkwardly onto the stage, delivering a disjointed monologue and brandishing a t-shirt like a bullfighter’s muleta. For a moment it seemed like the play was beginning, but a few seconds clarified that he was actually only trying to sell Live Oak Theater t-shirts.

The irony here was that the production’s biggest flaw laid not in a cheap set or amateurish acting (this production had neither), but in Sam Shepard’s truly terrible script. Set somewhere in relatively rural California in the 1970s, it tells the story of a family that, justifiably it seems, believes it is cursed. Not in the paranormal sense, but in the impoverished, dysfunctional, father-is-a-drunk-who-can’t-hold-down-a-job sense.

The father, Weston (Andy Shapiro), doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, when he stumbles in through the gaping hole left by the missing front door, which he had previously destroyed in a drunken rage. He proceeds to tell his son Wesley (Thomas Arndt) about his plans to sell their shabby house and large lot, unaware that his wife is attempting to pull off the same scheme.

The father-son relationship is strained. Wesley’s unconsciously expressive face is more telling then anything he says or does, and recalls the angsty protagonist from “Dazed and Confused.” The father, who behaves more like a schizophrenic than a drunk, casts a fearful shadow even when he’s offstage.

Though the pair is solid, some poorly written sequences simply can’t be resuscitated. In one scene, the father gravely but loudly laments the poison that infects him, and warns his son that someday this poison will affect him too. The poison metaphor is really just embarrassing, especially considering the straight-faced delivery. If Shepard was aiming for satire, he’s too obvious.

One of Shepard’s more redeeming characters is the daughter (Sionne Tollefsrud), a witty counterpoint to her stubborn brother. Tollefsrud, whose age is frustratingly ambiguous, masters the posture of a perpetually exasperated tween.

The script’s freely flying barbs necessitate the constant preservation of these aggressive poses. During the confrontation between the father and his equally conniving wife, each uses shouting and gestures as tools of intimidation, though neither succeeds. The scene devolves into an animated argument over property rights, which is amusing but also bemusing, because neither side seems to have even a basic knowledge of the relevant laws. It’s evocative of a Coen brothers movie, with everyone vehemently invested in his or her plan without actually having any idea what they’re doing.

Despite the tension, an inexplicable force keeps this dysfunctional family together. Trying to pinpoint it is difficult, but one of the play’s better aspects is this mystery. The actors themselves seem uncertain, as though discovering the characters for themselves. Without slick production, the genuine effort of trying to act-especially with dialogue as overly exaggerated as Shepard’s-really comes across. Enjoying the show takes effort, specifically the lowering of standards, but this collaborative effort seems implied in the word community.

About Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian. View all posts by Steve Patterson

7 responses to “Reasons to be a Playwright, #457

  • jonathan

    Steve,Thank you for your kind comments regarding our production. I would like to think Nick Moore is an student learning the craft of reviewing plays.Calls for his being fired are a little over the top … but considering the damage reviews like his have on community theater, playwrights, directors, and actors I can see where you are coming from.I would like your readers to see the directors comments video for the play on You Tube:-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zMUlOrwnOw-We need to educate inexperienced reviewers to support community theater and not kill it off. It is possible to give an constructive critical review with out using destructive framing.Thank You

  • splattworks

    Jonathan–I admit, that was probably an awfully big hammer to use. Here's hoping Mr. Moore lives another day and grows into a critic of grace and distinction. Over the years, I've had good reviews, and fair reviews that raised questions or pointed out problems (it's not as much fun, but can help improve future productions), but the ones that seem to float around the Internet for all eternity are the hack jobs written by students, burnouts, or those imagining themselves hipper-than-god (and who, inevitably, seem to get it wrong–those hip-goggles are hell to see through). And they're the ones that make me reach for my hammer.Anyway, carry on, and thanks for doing such a terrific script and for your thoughtful comments.Best,Steve

  • linkage

    Steve,I did a diary reviewing the review:http://www.streetprophets.com/storyonly/2010/4/30/14948/5510I think your readers will find it interesting.I'm glad I found your blog, and I'm planning to read it as soon as I finish up this.Jonathan (linkage)

  • Townes

    Hey You! Yeah you, the Steve Earle-looking guy! I need to talk to you about something. Are you comfortable? Maybe you'd like a drink?OK cool, so now I need to talk to you about your little blog. Specifically that thing about the "Curse of the Starving Class" as put on the Actor's Ensemble of Berkeley. K?Before you start shitting on a college kid you might want to ask yourself: have I seen this production?I have a hard time believeing anyone but the production team or possibly close family/friends could consider this play worthwhile.So we have three possible outcomes.1. You're an old friend of the director or lead2. You saw the play, unaffiliated, but suffer from delusional tendencies.3. You didn't see the play.The first two aren't actually that bad. Venial sins perhaps.But the third one, oh boy, a couple hundred rosaries isn't gonna save you from critical damnation. You need another drink? OK Old Fashioned coming right up.Because, ya see, the problem with being a blind arm chair critic like Option No. 3 is that you've just outted yourself not only an idiot but as a passionate one. Just like Sarah and all the her Tea Friends! Option No. 3 means you're no better than the people who take Mick LaSalle to task for trashing a movie they themselves have yet to see. And those people are cows from Contra Costa County.Oh forgot you're from Oregon! Silly meBut this is all hypothetical of course. Let's assume that you saw the play why don't we?Did you not notice or did you just particularly enjoy the actor's missing their cues in the first 2 minutes? Or how about the flubbed lines? Were those just appeals to somebody's realist funny bone?What about when the CHP officer came out dressed in an Air Force Air Men's uniform, with denoting signia still attached, was that a Brechtian wink? Would it have been too much to ask him to shave his beard and remove his earring for the production?Did you like the lisp with which the "son" delved into a monologue that felt like a cheesey rip-off of a Toby Wolff story?And talk about the writing! Yikes! Jeez! You're a playwright, right? 'Cause I need to ask ya somethin: how did Sam Shephard con people into believing that this is a well-written, worthwhile work? Cause I would love to write hackneyed lines like "What are ya dreaming for?" and get paid for it. See, I don't suppose to know anything about Sam Shephard or theatre in general. But based on this play, irregardless of the shitty production, I fear for American theatre. Because if Sam Shephard is a heavy-weight, a bigwig, a lama of playwrights who inspires you or any young turk then Hollllllyyyyy Fuck I wish theatre dies a quick and painless death. For the sake of the audience of course. You guys can keep writing overwrought, half-baked beat poetry about the common man like Odets. Or meditations on subjects like the "Family" or the "Home" and litter the stage and script with overbearing signifiers of such. Just keep it to yourselves.Another drink perhaps? A Spoonful of sugar huh?What I'm getting at, is that YOU, Mister Writer-of-50 plays, should know better. Cut the surliness. Get off the computer(it's so cute when you older folks try to understand the internet) and go outside. Play with your kids. See? So much better than getting all indignant about some perceived assault on community theatre going down in Berkeley.Have A Nice Day! 🙂

  • splattworks

    Dear Townes:Sir, I am sorry, but I really must take exception to your comments. I would never, ever be so gauche as to add sugar to a perfectly innocent glass of whiskey.Regards,Steve

  • comepassion

    Townes, Surely there are many other places to direct one's pique rather than at a generous man who has given hours of his time to direct a group of local aspiring actors (including a 14 year old), and/or at those actors, and/or at other volunteers who created sets and costumes in their spare time with no budget and/or at a blogger whom you admittedly know nothing about. Perhaps the Daily Californian might have selected a student reviewer who actually has an interest in theater, rather than someone who doesn't even have a familiarity with one of the country's foremost playwrights. Perhaps you might explore a bit more about Shepard to put your opinions or your experience with the material in context. Pointing out room for the ensemble's growth would seem to be fair play in a review of this kind. A scathing critique of Shepard, with a few back-handed compliments or scathing insults for the actors just seemed, well, confusing.

  • Zachary Kinard

    Wow. I love this script. I recently saw a community theater production in Harrisburg, PA close to my hometown, and seeing it, even with the pitfalls of a small budget and amatuer actors (though these were hardly factors) did nothing but confirm my love for it and set me thinking about the various metaphors throuhgout. Sorry this person doesn't like it.

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