Stern's Uneven Genius Can't Rescue Buried Child

Buried Child by Sam Shepard directed by Marcus Stern at the American Repertory Theater through February 4

Marcus Stern is a young, brilliant and extremely well-respected director whose arrival at the American Repertory Theater-and subsequently at Harvard-has been heralded by audiences and students as if it were the coming of the Messiah. The response to his productions of The America Play and The Accident, both on the A.R.T. New Stage, was so positive one would think he was paying people to say nice things about him (he wasn't). So, with that kind of build-up, it's a shame that his first production on the Loeb Mainstage isn't perfect.

Buried Child, Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a tragic, warped American family, is a disturbing text, even in this newly revised form. And Marcus Stern's production, full of bizarre, haunting sounds and images, is fantastic theater. However, it isn't entirely clear that Stern's production and Shepherd's text have all that much to do with one another.

The frightening, funny and awkward play begins with an extensive dialogue between Dodge and Halie, an old Illinois farm couple. They are old, screwy and hardly living in domestic bliss. Their son Tilden, who seems to have lost some of his faculties in an accident, is living with them. Bradley, another son, lives nearby and terrorizes the sick Dodge. Halie is obsessed with one of her sons who has died, and Tilden keeps bringing up another child who has died.

Into this dysfunctional mess arrives Tilden's estranged son Vince and his girl-friend, Shelly. Much to his frustration, no one seems to recognize Vince, and he leaves the house to find Dodge a bottle of whiskey. In the day or so that she's left alone with these frightening people, Shelly somehow manages to dredge up all the secrets that have been slowly consuming the family.

For the most part, Allison Koturbash's striking set design and John Ambrosone's gorgeous lighting work perfectly with the text. All of the action takes place in Dodge and Halie's open, spare, white living room. The stage is tilted and slopes toward the audience, creating the uncomfortable sense that the actors, at any minute, may fall into the empty orchestra pit. The sheer size of the steep, imposing staircase that looms in the background makes it seem to have much more to do with the action of the play than it actually does. But it looks great nonetheless, especially when the scrim behind it is somehow made to look like falling rain.

Some of the sound effects are inspired. The opening scene, which meshes the sound of rain and television static, is incredible; the industrial music that booms over the Lobe's sound system as Bradley shoves his finger into Shelly's mouth at the end of the first act is perfect.

But for the most part, the sound design is much less successful. In particular, the almost pointless use of separate microphones for the monologues and the incidental music (a wailing reminiscent of the Cranberries) is annoying and confusing.

Some of the actors are able to handle both the script and Stern's production. Phoebe Jonas reveals the humor, wit, and confusion of Shelly with depth and aplomb. Jack Willis' Tilden is a little too Gumpish, but it nonetheless perfectly frightening and funny. It's hard to decide whether or not it's Georgine Hall's costumes onher acting that make her so interesting to look at. Charles Levin, who also played Pa Ubu and Stephano this past year, reprises his role as an hysterical, loud, bumbling idiot (what range!)

It may have been Shepard's cruel writing, but Ben Evett doesn't seem to know exactly who he is or why he is on stage. He has a tendency to over- or under-act, and at the wrong times. Jeremy Geidt mumbles too many of his lines, but he's playing an old, near-crazy curmudgeon, so he can be forgiven. Both Evett and Geidt fail to convey and deep understanding of their characters, and come across as flat figures on the stage.

It has been said that Marcus Stern has an uncanny ability to bring out singular moments in a play at the expense of a certain overall cohesiveness. Three are stunning moments in Buried Child, like when Bradley shaves his father's head or Tilden carries a dead child up the stairs. However, some of Stern's sound cues, mixed with his odd, if intriguing, staging, make it difficult to glean the meaning from other scenes. And all of these moments don't seem to connect with each other in order to form a grand vision for the play.

Then again, that play itself isn't all that great. It's funny, but distressing and not terribly meaningful. Even if the production isn't deep, it is an amazing visual experience to marvel.