Just a Story About Some Cowboys

Curse of the Starving Class

Written by Sam Shepard

Directed by Heather Gunn

At the Loeb Experimental Theater

Through July 30


SEE, I guess this Sam Shepard fella wants us all t' think he's th' prototype rugged Westerner, th' last cowboy. That's why he's in all those movies, playin' th' big steer with th' bad teeth. N' that's why he writes plays like Curse of the Starving Class.

Curse is one of those plays where all th' characters, even tho they're earthbound Westerners, give monologues that're nice and poetic-like, tho they don't realize it. It's sorta a poetry of restlessness, of loss, of foreboding. Only the characters don't know it, 'cause they're just stringin' words t'gether, fast as they can. Sorta like Jack Kerouac, drivin' thru Colorado like a prophet, n' sayin' t' himself, "Wow!" Sorta like what you'd say if you subconsciously knew someone was gonna sneak up behind you and dump a bucket of shit on your head, but there was nothin' you could do about it.

'Cause th' decadence n' entropy in Shepard's West are as inevitable as passin' out after you drink eight Pabst Blue Ribbons in 15 minutes. Part of th' reason is that th' characters are all so damn self-destructive. Curse is about a family whose members have what one of them describes as "poison" in th' blood. They're alcoholic, they're violent, they're venal, they're ornery.

Worst of all, they fantasize too much. Ever th' pioneers, Shepard's characters always dream of movin' on t' somewhere else, like Mexico, Alaska or even Europe (ironic, huh?), as if movin' would make them into different people who maybe weren't so self-destructive. Th' members of th' family also dream that things would be better if they either sold their fallow avocado ranch or if they fixed it up. It doesn't hit 'em til th' end that their fantasies are impossible, that they're doomed.

N' th' reason they're doomed, besides th' "poison" in their blood, is what one of 'em calls th' "creeping disease" that infects th' whole West. That means these people are poor and stupid. You know they're poor 'cause their fridge is empty, n' you know they're stupid 'cause they open th' fridge door about every three minutes, as if somethin' would have appeared in there since th' last time they looked.

In case you don't get th' point about th' "disease," th' mother acts real paranoid about germs, n' a lamb gets maggots. Also, there's an impending plague of another sort: what th' son calls a "zombie invasion," zombies bein' all th' slick nobodies who're buyin' up land in th' West n' turnin' it into housin' developments n' shoppin' malls.

There's also some weird Christian symbolism. Th' identities of th' son n' th' father merge. Dad's name is Weston (Western?); Junior's is Wesley. In th' third n' final act, Dad talks about feelin' "reborn," like it was "Christmas," n' he baptizes himself in a tub of cold water. Junior does th' same, puts on Dad's clothes, n' Mom confuses him for his father. Junior also goes out n' slaughters a lamb n' practically washes himself in lamb's blood. Beats me what all this Christian symbolism is doin' in a play whose characters are as poor spiritually as they are materially; maybe Sam's just tryin' to increase th' mythic dimensions of th' play, or somethin'.

ANYWAYS, th' family consists of Weston (Donal Logue), Wesley (Daniel O'Keefe), mother Ella (Holly Cate) n' daughter Emma (Ellen Bledsoe). Weston is the drunken, violent father whose debts n' poor judgment are th' reason th' family is up shit creek t' begin with. Wesley is an arrogant chip off th' ol' blockhead, another one of those Shepard man-children who wears flannel shirts n' still has strings of model airplanes hangin' from th' ceiling in his room.

Emma is th' only one in th' family who has more brains than God gave a chicken, but she doesn't realize that she, too, is doomed 'cause she carries Dad's "poison" in her veins. Ella, of course, doesn't carry it, but she makes up for it by bein' self-righteously angry at th' rest of her brood. This is th' archetypal Western family, says Shepard; th' Cleavers or th' Huxtables they ain't.

As you might guess, Weston n' Ella don't get along too well. Each is tryin't' sell th' ranch from under th' other's nose--Weston t' a tacky nightclub owner named Ellis (Caroline Bicks), Ella t' a slick lawyer who's th' head zombie (Ethan Mintz). This sounds like th' set-up for a farce, n' it would be if everyone wasn't so serious n' aware of th' future about t' crash down on 'em like a watermelon on an anthill.

Actu'lly, th' funniest part of the show is th' costumes. I liked Weston's hobo outfit that makes him look like Emmett Kelly Jr., Wesley's jeans that sit too low in th' seat and that zip instead of button, Ella's sensible shoes with heels th' size of hockey pucks, Emma's cute little shitkickers and Ellis' golden drugstorecowboy suit. I 'specially liked what th' two thugs (Laurence Thomsen n' Eric Oleson) wear: plaid bellbottoms n' white chaps, respectively (n' the yo-yo is a nice touch, Laurence). Not too accurate--no self-respectin' Westerner would be caught dead wearin' these costumes--but creative noneth'less.

Yeah, n' th' actin' is pretty good, too; least I didn't catch any weak spots. But th' actin' don't seem t' matter too much anyways in a play where everyone is an archetype n' th' outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Since everythin' is so inevitable, Curse of the Starving Class seems, like some other Shepard plays, t' be about one act too long. But Shepard's benighted poets have a certain eloquence, n' it's worth seein' the show just t' hear some of th' crazy things they say.