REVIEW – Curse of the Starving Class – Stanford Summer Theater

Watching Sam Shepard is a bit like discovering maggots in your sink. Just hear me out, it’s not a bad thing. And, you can stop your faux shock at the metaphor of maggots. Don’t try to pretend you’ve never skipped doing dishes for a week in June and fruit flies made whoopee on them and you awoke on Friday to find them squirming about on Monday’s ketchup-smeared plate. Please. We all know it’s happened at least once. But, back to the review of Stanford Summer Theater’s production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. And, who am I kidding, also back to maggots.

So, upon sitting down in the theatre, I knew to brace myself a bit. Shepard is dark, dingy and his characters seriously depressing and damaged as a general rule. As I waited for the show to commence, I admired the stunningly real set. Peeling paint, swollen seams, a busted door. The details really were admirable and frankly essential for this play.

I sat anxiously, trying to prepare myself for Shepard, knowing you can never really fully prepare yourself for Sam. Not unlike approaching a neglected sink that stands to serve as a reminder that you’re a terrible procrastinator and your priorities need to be shifted, you think you know what to expect (a bit of mold, maybe a slight odor, certainly not a pretty picture), but often times it’s maggots you get.

Act 1. Like discovering maggots in your sink, the initial series of emotions are disgust, shock, horror and fear. These characters are messed up. There’s lots of yelling. A life of regret and disappointment is displayed in the very fibers of their clothing (great costuming), the expressive creases of their foreheads, and in their seriously atrocious, abnormal behavior.

Then comes denial. This is not happening. That’s just risotto, it’s not moving! I’m not that person with maggots in their sink. I’m from Palo Alto! These character can’t be real, no one lives like this. And, what did they just bring on stage?! Are you serious? And, what did he just do?! Is this for real? There was a lot of that going on too which was exciting (in my 37 years I can actually say I saw at least two things in act 1 alone that I have never seen on stage before.)

And, like the wiggly live rice grains in your sink, these characters are trapped. Circumstantially, the characters are trapped, but I think also the actors were a bit cornered and challenged with this opening section too. Some really strong choices contrasted with muddier ones made the first bit hard to gauge. It kept me on my toes with its inconsistency, the highs definitely high for me and the lows (there were some clichéd acting/directing choices here and there) were by no means horrendous, but rather just by contrast, average.

Certain monologues were abruptly and dramatically lit and blocked downstage of the scene in a way that confused me. I wasn’t sure if it was internal thoughts being expressed or the other character on stage was in fact listening to them. Was it a dream, was it all subtext, was it for our benefit alone, just a gimmick or theatrical device? I’ve not seen this production before so although I understand Sheperd’s penchant for keeping you questioning, I wasn’t sure if those were the parts that should have been vague. There is life on stage. There is life in my sink. Act 1 left me conflicted as I wasn’t sure I was going to care enough or believe in this “life” on stage enough.

Act 2. As you move past phase one of maggot discovery, there is a wave of fascination that comes over you. The science and emotion of it all takes over. How did they get there? Do they like being in your sink? Do they even know they are in your sink? Do they feel pain? Is that why the writhe about so? What if I just let them be? Would they be happier as flies? Help me help you maggots! Act 2 had me more sympathetic and focused in on moments and I think that’s due in part to the structure of the play and part to the clearer acting and directing choices.

The stakes were raised significantly in this act and we saw some fantastic variety and levels with new characters entering and transformations beginning to take place. Motives and desires were clearer and interesting. I was engaged. This act really lightened up for me. There seems to be hope and movement. Would these characters rise out of their festering environment and fly away to elevated dreams? Would they shed their restrictive skins, sprout wings, and take for greener pastures? More surprises and momentum in this act really made it stand out. Some excellent work here for sure.

Act 3. The realization that the best thing to do for everyone involved, is to banish your pale, segmented pupae to the drain, drown them with disinfecting soap, and flip the disposal switch sending them to maggot heaven. As much as you’d love to help nature take its course and complete the circle of life, you are on the top of the food chain, and this disgusting genocide that you’ll have no real choice but to commit, is not only your own fault, it’s your punishment for your laziness. And, finally there’s this; A fly only lives to procreate in your sink again and then die immediately after, so really, you’re doing them a favor by putting them out of their misery, now. End the cycle. Do it.

With the exception of one prop in the end of the 3rd act that didn’t hit the mark of required realism, I gotta say, this play ended strong. Oh you may have destroyed every last sign of those maggots, scrubbed and run that disposal for minutes, but the ghosts and memories of this despicable event cannot be erased. You do get a truly perfect slice of Sam in this rarely produced play, and the message in the end is loud and clear. Wholly depressing, but loud and clear. You could hear the audience realize they had just heard that last line of the play. That’s all you get people, nothing to see now, move along. Deflated. Frustrated. A slow motion nooooooooo. Perfect. Life immitating art is a beautiful thing.

This is not an easy play and clearly by the random shape this review has taken, it’s a layered, peculiar, thinking piece. Lots of bizarre requirements in order to produce it properly and Stanford did an admirable job with such an ambitious project. A committed and dedicated cast turns out a very respectable production that warrants a firm 4 our 5 jewels in the review tiara. One thing for sure, you will not likely see a play like this again for a long time, maybe ever, and that certainly is worth the experience. I can also heartily recommend getting there early to locate parking and the theatre, bringing a coat as the theatre is a tad cold and cleaning your dishes immediately after use. Curse of the Starving Class plays through August 12th at the Piggott Theatre on the Stanford Campus.

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