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Curse of the Starving Class


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Steppenwolf Theatre Company

I couldn't stand the idea that everything would stay the same. . . . I kept trying to piece it together. The jumps. I couldn't figure out the jumps. From being born, to growing up, to dropping bombs, to having kids, to hittin' bars, to this. It all turned on me somehow.

--Weston, Curse of the Starving Class

Whether through fear, habit, or fate, Sam Shepard's characters in Curse of the Starving Class just can't figure out the jumps--how to see the patterns in life. For them the big links --within the family, between the family and outsiders, between humans and the land, and between generations--snapped sometime before the play begins. What we see merely completes the curse.

Vintage Shepard from the early 70s, the play charts the ordeal of a sitcom family turned surreal. Shepard paints their doom in telling stage pictures, many having to do with food: a refrigerator that, empty or full, satisfies no appetite; food that's cooked but seldom eaten; a pile of soiled laundry; a smashed kitchen door that leaves the home open to anyone; a maggot-ridden, sickly lamb. Most haunting is the description of an eagle and a cat that tear each other apart in the sky--because it's so close to what the Tates do to each other.

In this stripped-down, morally exhausted world, bodily functions--urination, menstruation, digestion, sleep--become ends in themselves. Shepard depicts these functions with all the gross-out gusto of a giggling seventh-grader.

Ella and Weston, the Tate parents, may own their own home but are still dispossessed. They want to sell their house and land (and sell each other out) and take off--separately. Ella's doomed dream is to take her kids to Europe--though, as the daughter forlornly points out, "We'd all be the same people."

A hard-drinking brawler, Weston "cares for" his dysfunctional clan by filling the refrigerator with cheap but rotten artichokes and fulminating paranoically: "I'm being taken for a ride by every one of you!" Shamelessly, to quench his thirst for drink, he wants to literally liquidate his property. (As Ella says to him: "You've found a way of turning shame into a source of pride.") When Weston finally develops some pride of ownership--a family, he discovers, is "a thing of nature"--the self-reform is futile; it's already too late.

The parents' hostility and fear also infest the children. Emma, an earsplittingly loud tomboy, wants to run off and become a mechanic in some far-off town. The other alternative is to embark on a life of crime. Whichever comes first.

Wesley, who tries to feel secure by filling his room with model airplanes, fears his mother will sell the homestead to condo developers, who will make it into one more "zombie city." Eager to stop the deal, Wesley tries to take on his father's authority, but he only helps to complete the curse.

Father and son carry a self-destructive "poison," an "explosive in the blood." The funniest and saddest thing in Curse is how energetically each Tate tries to escape this curse, which only grows bigger the more it's denied.

Shepard's tricks have started to pall; his recent plays have so successfully parodied his own style--the quirky symbol mongering, the monologues like a clumsy rock guitarist's riffs, the heavy-handed deconstructions of burnt-out western myths--that they make even his early, original works seem retroactively predictable. The Tates are cut from now-worn cloth.

But no question, Curse of the Starving Class offers the Steppenwolf Theatre Company a chance to return to their down-and-dirty Shepard roots--A Lie of the Mind (which they did in 1987), Fool for Love (1984), and True West (1982). Usually the Steppenwolves have found fresh ways of refurbishing Shepard's hilarious incongruities, forced images, and overall lack of compassion.

Clearly relishing his theater's vast stage, director Randall Arney has created cunning images of his own--most of them, unfortunately, more vivid than the script. In Kevin Rigdon's sprawling set, huge transformers and power lines menace the home; the cutaway kitchen looks very vulnerable (but sadly it undermines the force of that crucial missing door). Richard Woodbury's sound design catches even the sinister hum of the power lines. Rigdon's cycloramic backdrop subtly reflects his own wonderful lighting: a bright blue sky can crash into black, curdle to red, or flicker and flame to show an offstage explosion.

It's harder to find onstage explosions in this dutiful revival. Maybe Steppenwolf is no longer hungry enough; in any case, they don't always negotiate Shepard's jumps. Varying acting styles and energy levels undercut the illusion of an ensemble, and as happens with Steppenwolf actors sometimes, you can sense a condescension to the white-trash characters.

The older Tates fare best. Moira Harris's Ella is a hapless, ineffectual control-freak mother; clapping her hands in frustration or screaming at her indifferent family, Harris manages to connect with the other actors in unexpected ways. (Watch how tenderly and toughly she strokes Wesley's hair.) Robert Breuler puts his big bulk into high gear, ably contrasting Weston's grungy "before" with his weirdly cleaned-up "after."

Like John Malkovich as Wesley in Goodman Theatre's 1979 production of Curse, like Larry Figliulo in Mary-Arrchie's 1986 version, Jim True fully exposes himself as the son, whether pissing onstage or messily devouring the contents of the refrigerator. Strangely, despite the energy, his famished Wesley seems withdrawn and distracted, as if he'd left the family long ago. Pushing Emma's bratty excesses over the top, Kathryn Erbe drowns out her character's yearnings and pain with an irritating whining.

In the non-Tate roles, Alan Wilder plays the land-grabbing lawyer, Taylor, with a weaselly fervor, while Rick Snyder as Ellis, the bullying new owner of the Tate domain, chills the bones with his eruptions of mirthless laughter. Unfortunately Snyder later dons a gratuitous Indian wig to play a thug; the costume is far more than just vaguely insulting, as costume designer Erin Quigley must have known. Shouldn't Dances With Wolves have discouraged such slurs?

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