BWW Review: Catastrophic's CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS Is the Most Beautiful Dysfunction You'll Ever See
Pulitzer Prize-Winnng Sam Shepard's CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS displays the lives of the working-class Tate family as they navigate everything from suffocating debt, to teenage crime, to marital distress and back again. Checking the fridge for food (that is never there) is a regular routine-turned-ritual in this household that is deteriorating from the inside out. Shepard's play explores what it means to be trapped in the cycle of the starving class. He writes about a family cursed by an outside force, a force that leaves the individuals involved no option to dissociate themselves from the identifying feature of the cursed: the familial bloodline.
CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS is intense, bizarre and dysfunctional in the best way. The family structure Shepard crafts is like a train wreck--you want to look away, but you can't. Or maybe you don't actually want to, because it's that entertaining. Honestly, CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS is not normally the genre of theatre I gravitate towards, or generally enjoy at all. I was lucky to get the chance to challenge myself as a theatre-goer and be placed in the audience of a production I probably would never have chosen to see on my own.
Catastrophic Theatre's CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS pushes theatrical boundaries, or rather, defies the boundaries altogether. I'd regret to give away the spoilers that make this play and this production such a stand-out, but let's just say that it held many theatre "firsts" for me. When it comes down to it, this production of CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS did both the playwright's intricate work and the thematic intentions of the script absolute justice. Sometimes you see a show that has a great cast of actors, but the designs aren't sufficient. Or, there is clever direction, but the actors lack a true understanding of their characters. Every once in a while, you get to come across a show that checks out in all areas, and what a wonderful feeling that is.
It is not often you see a show that is so intelligently cast as was CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, thanks to Director Jeffrey Miller. These characters, and their interactions with one another, are layered with subtleties that require thoughtful and thorough actors in order to communicate effectively. Under Miller's direction, this cast was able to navigate the changing dynamic of the Tate family with what appeared to be second-nature.
Jayden Key played Weston and Ella's son, Wesley, a classic older brother character-albeit a bit more aggressive and hostile in his 'teasing'. Key's acting chops were made clear early on in the first scene, as he performed a lengthy monologue with well-defined insight of his characters' inner mentality. Wesley, like rest of the family members, has several layers to his persona, which Key made evident in his interactions with the other members of his family. Key's character required a large commitment to acting, and without giving anything away, he has quite a few moments that made the audience react in unison with cringe-worthy surprise or nervous laughter.
Courtney Lomelo was among one of my favorites, portraying a character you can sympathize with, while also questioning the choices she makes as a mother. Ella and her domestic roles of wife and mother are complex, twisted, and confused. Lomelo was able to pick up on each detail and nuance, delivering a wholly truthful picture of Ella as both a well-meaning (ish) mother, and a wife at her wits end.
Deadbeat-father Weston, played convincingly by Luis Galindo, was yet another favorite to watch. Galindo's Weston was exactly what the script called for--a compellingly volatile and unstable father, who somehow also had occasional moments of normalcy and even "rebirth" as he attempted to be a provider, father, and husband for his family. Galindo's scenes with Lomelo were captivating to watch because of the dynamic between the two, which was made even better when I learned they were spouses. There was an element of understanding between their performances that showed both actors were able to grasp the intricacy of Weston and Ella's debilitated relationship.
Any time the youngest member of the family, daughter Emma, was onstage, there was likely to be fits of screaming, overreaction, and no shortage of door slamming. So, exactly what you would expect from a teenager growing up in this house. Sarah Becker walked into each scene with a fiery confidence, and she earned the audience's favor in her hysterical, and relatable, approach to this exasperated teenage girl.
The cast also included Ronnie Blaine as a representation of the upper-class in the form of Ella's lawyer, helping her attempt to sell the Tate family land. Rounding out the supporting character were Kyle Sturdivant (Ellis), Charlie Scott (Malcolm), Troy Schulze (Emerson), and Abraham Zeus Zapata (Slater).
The story was framed within Ryan McGettigan's beautiful and functional set design. I feel compelled to add that the stove actually worked. When was the last time you saw real scrambled eggs made onstage? The set, staged atop a platform, illustrated the dingy kitchen of the household that the play takes place in. McGettigan's attention to detail ensures that you never get tired of looking at the same set. I found myself noticing the flooring, how the tile and the weathered wood made for such a detailed rendering of the household that was eroding--both literally and figuratively. Building onto the already great framework of the set were Lauren Davis' wealth of props, which were both numerous and, er, unique. Artichokes, anyone?
Sound Designer Tim Thomson and Lighting Designer J. Mitchell Cronin were an exceptional team. The very first note I wrote down about the show was regarding the unity of sound and light right from the get-go. With a team like this, even something as simple as transitions between scenes become an artistic feat. Costume Designer Macy Lyne's choices were just right for the characters and their wild, changing personalities.
Whether this type of theatre--the type that puts the regularly-hidden, outlandish side of humanity on display (and normally makes us uncomfortable to see)--is what you usually choose to watch or not, I challenge you to get yourself a ticket for this production. You won't regret it, and, at the very least, you'll get to see what happens when an intuitive director, a stellar cast, and an all-star team of designers get together to make some theatre.
Photography Credit: Anthony Rathbun
CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS runs from September 28th through October 21st at The Midtown Arts Theatre Center (MATCH) in Houston. All performances are Pay-What-You-Can. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:30pm. Visit matchhouston.org or call the Box Office at 713-521-4533 for tickets and information.