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.



‘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.

Winding the Shroud

It’s our final weekend of “Dead of Winter,” which looks like it’ll sellout anyway, but we did get a nice little last minute review from the Portland Tribune:

Dead of Winter
Lurking behind this evening of ghost stories is local playwright Steve Patterson, whose collaboration with actor Chris Harder led to a Drammy-winning one-man show in 2006.

Here, he presents three well-crafted tales that produce some genuinely chilling moments, helped by solid performances from Ben Plont and Trisha Egan and some simple but effective stage trickery. This is the final weekend.

— EB

8 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, Feb. 22-23, Performance Works NorthWest, 4625 S.E. 67th Ave., 503-777-2771,, $10-$12

An odd run regarding the press. There were scads of shows opening this February, which is good, I suppose, in that it indicates the vibrancy of Portland theatre: for a mid-sized city, there’s just a hell of a lot of production going on here. We started off with a ‘top five’ pick from the Oregonian, and then they completely forgot about us until today (closing weekend, alas), when they gave us a listing but no review. Followspot, a Portland theatre blog, gave us a spot-on perfect review for the show. We did an interview on KBOO radio–thank you, Dmae Roberts–got listed in the Tribune in a favorable way, popped up with listings in a lot of small papers, and got a fun review from Lewis & Clark College’s student paper, The Pioneer Log. Got a lousy review from the Willamette Week (though sometimes that plays in your favor), and the Mercury ignored us except for a listing on their website and a brief mention in their blog. I can usually squeak out a little more press coverage than that, but I think there was just too much stuff going on; everyone was competing for ink.

We did do a lot of Internet marketing with the this piece (including a very popular short online video clip), and that and some pretty good word of mouth (which is always the most effective promotion channel) lead to a solid run with a couple sold-out nights and only one small house.
All in all, good times.