Initially famed as the rebel spokesperson for the tumultuous 1970’s and early 1980’s, Sam Shepard is known as an outsider who introduced the violent, surreal, and chaotic into the theater. In the hippie days of the “Village Voice” and experimental small New York theater, Shepard shone as the exemplar of all things rebellious and angry. Especially enamored by tales of the Old West with requisite cowboys and Indians as examples of the macho gone very wrong, Shepard also ventured into science fiction and social satire as his repertoire grew and developed.
One of only a handful of writers to cross over to mainstream theater from off-off Broadway venues, Shepard revolutionized modern theater by introducing hidden family, sexual, violent, and “masculine” themes interspersed with a large dose of uncontrolled, often toxic fury. By 1980, Shepard was the most produced playwright in America after Tennessee Williams and won a host of awards and a 1979 Pulitzer Prize. To commemorate the Odyssey Theatre’s fiftieth anniversary, two one-act Shepard plays originally performed nearly fifty years ago are again seeing the light of day in Los Angeles.
KILLER’S HEAD is a ten-minute monolog by a man already blindfolded and strapped into “old sparky” and waiting for the electricity to flow. His thoughts are peppered with long silences as he recounts the challenges of horse racing and the beauty of high horsepower trucks. First produced in 1975 with another one-act play (“Action”), KILLER’S HEAD purports to examine a killer’s last thoughts. One must wonder whether a man with only minutes to live might not have more fulfilling thoughts to consider. First played by an unknown Richard Gere, the performer currently reviewed was Chris Payne Gilbert. In the course of the play, seven other actors will take on the role for a few days each (Steve Howey, Dermot Mulroney, Magnus Jackson Diehl, Jeff Kober, Darrell Larson, Jordan Morgan, and Jonathan Medina). Gilbert offered a powerful portrait of a murderer facing death.
THE UNSEEN HAND is set in the Southern California desert and tells the story of the 120-year-old Blue Morphan (Carl Weintraub), the last living memory of a once notorious (but now unknown) band of outlaws. Blue lives in a rusty abandoned Chevy on the outskirts of Azusa, drinking and chatting with invisible friends. Then Blue has an unexpected guest named Willie (Matt Curtin), a genetically altered mandrill primate who claims to have traveled through two galaxies to ask for help in freeing his enslaved people. Enter Blue’s two long-dead but now resurrected cowboy brothers Cisco (Jordan Morgan) and Sycamore (Chris Payne Gilbert), as well as Kid (Andrew Morrison), an Azusa cheerleader recently assaulted for not being masculine enough. Directed by Shepard master Darrell Larson, THE UNSEEN HAND has been described as an allegory tapping into very contemporary issues, including the loss of innocence and individuality (Mel Gussow, New York Times, 1982)” and a comedic “`disposable drama (Clive Barnes)’ which holds up very well (John Melbig, Chicago Reader, 1989).” The current cast certainly did a yeoman’s job of bringing Shepard’s stories to life.
From a historical perspective which honors Sam Shepard’s early work in experimental theater, this double bill was intriguing. At the same time, both plays often prove confusing and difficult to follow. They clearly reflected the ethos of the hippie era – both comic and tragic – but times and styles change. Shepard’s early work might almost be seen as the male version of the feminist movement, in that he studies the world from the perspective of the macho guy and all that viewpoint entails. Aficionados of Shepard’s work, as well as drama history buffs, will clearly enjoy the double bill. However, early Shepard might also be seen as an acquired taste.
THE UNSEEN HAND and KILLER’S HEAD run through March 8, 2020, with performances at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays (2/5 and 3/4 only), Thursday (2/20 only), Fridays, and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets range from $32 to $37 (Tix for $10 available on 2/5 and 2/16). For information and reservations, call 310-477-2055 ext. 2 or go online.