Review: THE UNSEEN HAND and KILLER'S HEAD Showcase Sam Shepard's Loners in the Middle of Nowhere or at a Dead End
Sam Shepard, who left this world in 2017, was an American playwright and actor whose plays adroitly blend images of the American West, pop motifs, science fiction, and other elements of popular and youth culture. His settings are often a kind of nowhere, notionally grounded in the dusty heart of the vast American Plains. His characters are typically loners, drifters caught between a mythical past and the mechanized present; his work often concerns deeply troubled families, lovers or friends.
Shepard's THE UNSEEN HAND joins Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's 50th Anniversary "Circa '69" Season of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the company's inception, coupled with Shepard's gritty and audacious KILLER'S HEAD.Longtime Shepard collaborator Darrell Larson who directs both plays, shares "We live in a society that's always been heavily influenced by the Western mythos. This is a crazy comedy with space freaks, cowboys, cheerleaders and super-fun technical elements. It plays like a cartoon - but it's also tragic. Underneath, it's about toxic masculinity and the havoc it causes, and about trying to save the world. Sam explores these ideas deftly and profoundly."
What happens when 1880 Western bandits are brought back to life in Azusa, CA by a space alien? It's as if E.T. meets the Old West in THE UNSEEN HAND, Shepard's hilarious yet foreboding sci-fi Western about a trio of legendary cowboys resurrected to help a mutant extraterrestrial free his people from slavery. The title refers to what I can best describe as an invisible Big Brother entity who places his hand on the head of an enemy, then squeezes until the victim's pain becomes so unbearable it creates insanity... and then death. So who better to ride in to the rescue than hot, gun-toting heroes of the Old West?We first meet Carl Weintraub as Blue, a 120-year-old ex-cowboy now living in a '51 Chevy convertible by the side of the highway in Azusa, of all places. But he seems right at home living in the middle of nowhere, accepting his lot in life in much the same way that Samuel Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives, and while waiting they engage in a variety of discussions and encounter three other characters.
But at least in THE UNSEEN HAND we do meet the three other characters, although I have to admit I was just as confounded about the overall purpose of both plays in much the same way. It just seemed as if everyone was waiting around for something to happen and that process was the only real storyline. Blue's two long-dead outlaw brothers summoned back to life are portrayed with enough swagger to light a campfire without matches by Chris Payne Gilbert and Jordan Morgan as Sycamore and Cisco. Many thanks to costumer Denise Blasor for fulfilling the need of so many to be in the presence of such testosterone-fueled Wild West men!Matt Curtin carries on with energetic physicality as Willie the face-tattooed Space Freak who has come to Earth to find salvation for his race. And Andrew Morrison plays an Azusa cheerleader bullied by his peers for not being "manly" enough. And it certainly did not help his case that Morrison seemed comfortable enough to walk around in his jockey shorts with his workout plants around his ankles! Without a doubt, both Willie and the kid could have stepped out from any Theatre of the Absurd play, bringing back head-scratching theatre memories from 1969. Yes, I do remember that year! While I am not sure why there was a need to include the much shorter, 10-minute, solo character play THE KILLER'S HEAD prior to the tale of Wild West Brothers reunited on the outskirts of Azusa, the piece does give an actor the chance to let us see inside the head of Mazon, a blindfolded man strapped into an electric chair, just prior to the switch being thrown. On the night I attended, Chris Payne Gilbert brilliantly let us see into the mind of a man about to be put to death whose crime we never told. But in his last few minutes on Earth, he does share with us are his most pleasant memories of horses, trucks, driving up and down Highway 5 through Central California.
Perhaps his absurd situation reliving the happiest times of his life to alleviate his fear of imminent death, speaks to the deepest fear within all of us. But at least he knows where and when the end of his road is going to be. Future actors in the role include Dermot Mulroney (Feb 7-9, Feb. 14-16), Magnus Jackson Diehl (Feb. 20-23), Jeff Kober (Feb. 28-March 1), both plays' director Darrell Larson (Feb. 5, March 4), and Jonathan Medina (March 6-8).The Odyssey's creative team includes set designer Song Yi Park, lighting designer Bosco Flanagan, and costume designer Denise Blasor who, along with Rob Fox, designed the many quirky props 120-year old Blue has collected over the years in order to turn the broken down 51 Chevy into his comfy campsite. But be forewarned, there is an incredible amount of stage fog blown into the theater which had several audience members coughing and using their programs to try and clear the air around their faces. My advice is to try and sit as far away from the old car as possible, as the fog is generated from the other-worldly entrance spot behind it. Original music is composed by Mitch Greenhill, and sound design is by Greenhill and Bo Powell. Performances of THE UNSEEN HAND and KILLER'S HEAD take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through March 8 at The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. Additional weeknight performances are scheduled on Wednesday, Feb. 5; Thursday, Feb. 20; and Wednesday, March 4, all at 8pm. Tickets range from $32 to $37 with discounts available at select performances for seniors, students and patrons under 30; call theater for details. "Tix for $10" performances take place on Wednesday, February 5 and Sunday, February 16. For reservations and information, including upcoming after-performance special events, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Enci Box