Upon entering, the set is more evocative of a garage jam session than a theater performance. Vocalist Ben Braverman ’10 points to the safety exits “in case the band sets the guitars on fire.”
And while the audience giggles at the joke, “The Curse of the Starving Class” by Sam Shepard is the kind of play in which such a spectacle is no surprise. Elevated above the audience on a steep ledge, the play’s grunge band “Fool Horse” is quite literally a rock-and-roll tribute from heaven.
It is easy to imagine Shepard — who was an eccentric drummer, herdsman, bus boy, orange picker and sheep shearer before becoming a playwright — highly approving of director Brian Reed’s ’07 production. With an invitation to dance in their seats, the audience can feel the powerful influence of music in this piece.
As an introduction, the funky ’70s-throwback overture moves through slow and mellow to spirited original songs that foreshadow the melodramatic plot. The abrupt yet seamless changes in this medley reflect a greater instability in the Tate family’s home, beyond the moody fluctuations of Emma Tate’s (Tara Rodman ’07) newly discovered PMS.
Each member of the Tate family has a different American Dream, and each Dream resists compromise. Ella (Danielle Frimer ’10), the exhausted mother, wants to move to Europe with her romantic fantasies; naive Emma, the pubescent daughter, with her overwhelming imagination just wants to get out; Wesley (Josh Odsess-Rubin ’08), the idealistic son, tries to mend his broken family; while Weston (Max Broude ’07), the drunk father, continues to wreak havoc.
Although the characters want to escape their present condition, they inevitably reenter the doorless kitchen having endured only abuse from outside. There is violence, cheating, betrayal and fear but also a deeper love that makes them return. Interestingly, the poignance does not emerge from the multiple themes that weave in and out of the complicated plot but rather from the careful details that hint at this intricacy.
For instance, the final action that closes Act Two before intermission is the sudden slamming of the refrigerator door, the only source of light and sustenance — not only of the physical, but also the emotional kind. The swooping motion of Broude’s arm is reminiscent of Colline’s final deep breath to blow out the candlelight in the last scene of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Both actions are marked by a forceful subtlety, the careful and enchanting work of a talented actor.
Reed employs well-placed details in order to draw knowing smiles from his audience: a story about an eagle that cannot be remembered, the faded negative print of an American flag glowing orange and green in the spotlight, and the traditional flag magnet that falls to the floor each time the refrigerator door is shut. Even the sloppy “#1 Dad” hat that Weston endearingly rests on his head draws the kind of captivation that the monologues lack.
Not that the monologues are unbearable. Shepard is known for giving his characters endless, often incoherent and sparsely haunting speeches. Phrases like, “Crying soft. Soft crying,” repeated by Wesley in the first scene are too abstract to follow. But the soft guitar and bass line behind such verbal introspection releases the impending gravity and invests more power in the cadence of the words.
In fact, much of the play is grounded in its recurring details. Although everything seems to have gone awry in Act Three, the play’s constant attention to nuance reminds the audience that there is still control in the midst of chaos.