'Starving Class' Suffers From Lackluster Material

Photo: <b>Community</b>. Though the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley puts up an admirable effort, the original material hinders their production.
Tiffany Boswell/Courtesy
Community. Though the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley puts up an admirable effort, the original material hinders their production.

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Few word pairings carry potential for horror like "community theater." They can connote offensively bad productions, fiascos on an epic scale. Take "Revolutionary Road," in which Richard Yates uses a failed community theater production to frame over 300 pages of violent marital unhappiness.

But typically, we associate community theater with modest mess-ups and comical delights derived from watching others attempt to produce something appealing despite the disadvantages of low budgets and inexperience.

"Curse of the Starving Class," the new Actors Ensemble of Berkeley production, did have some of those features. As the audience took its seats, an unidentified man clambered awkwardly onto the stage, delivering a disjointed monologue and brandishing a t-shirt like a bullfighter's muleta. For a moment it seemed like the play was beginning, but a few seconds clarified that he was actually only trying to sell Live Oak Theater t-shirts.

The irony here was that the production's biggest flaw laid not in a cheap set or amateurish acting (this production had neither), but in Sam Shepard's truly terrible script. Set somewhere in relatively rural California in the 1970s, it tells the story of a family that, justifiably it seems, believes it is cursed. Not in the paranormal sense, but in the impoverished, dysfunctional, father-is-a-drunk-who-can't-hold-down-a-job sense.

The father, Weston (Andy Shapiro), doesn't appear until the end of the first act, when he stumbles in through the gaping hole left by the missing front door, which he had previously destroyed in a drunken rage. He proceeds to tell his son Wesley (Thomas Arndt) about his plans to sell their shabby house and large lot, unaware that his wife is attempting to pull off the same scheme.

The father-son relationship is strained. Wesley's unconsciously expressive face is more telling then anything he says or does, and recalls the angsty protagonist from "Dazed and Confused." The father, who behaves more like a schizophrenic than a drunk, casts a fearful shadow even when he's offstage.

Though the pair is solid, some poorly written sequences simply can't be resuscitated. In one scene, the father gravely but loudly laments the poison that infects him, and warns his son that someday this poison will affect him too. The poison metaphor is really just embarrassing, especially considering the straight-faced delivery. If Shepard was aiming for satire, he's too obvious.

One of Shepard's more redeeming characters is the daughter (Sionne Tollefsrud), a witty counterpoint to her stubborn brother. Tollefsrud, whose age is frustratingly ambiguous, masters the posture of a perpetually exasperated tween.

The script's freely flying barbs necessitate the constant preservation of these aggressive poses. During the confrontation between the father and his equally conniving wife, each uses shouting and gestures as tools of intimidation, though neither succeeds. The scene devolves into an animated argument over property rights, which is amusing but also bemusing, because neither side seems to have even a basic knowledge of the relevant laws. It's evocative of a Coen brothers movie, with everyone vehemently invested in his or her plan without actually having any idea what they're doing.

Despite the tension, an inexplicable force keeps this dysfunctional family together. Trying to pinpoint it is difficult, but one of the play's better aspects is this mystery. The actors themselves seem uncertain, as though discovering the characters for themselves. Without slick production, the genuine effort of trying to act-especially with dialogue as overly exaggerated as Shepard's-really comes across. Enjoying the show takes effort, specifically the lowering of standards, but this collaborative effort seems implied in the word community.

Tags: CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, ACTORS ENSEMBLE OF BERKELEY


Nick Moore is the lead theater critic. Contact him at [email protected]



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