You can pretty much draw a bead on the Tate clan once Wesley takes a piss all over little sister Emma's science project. Not only is the teen stunningly blasé about what he's just done; his mom Ella barely lifts a finger in Emma's defense. Even feisty Emma is kind of restrained in her reaction-then again, dysfunction's been these folks' stock in trade since day one, when alkie patriarch Weston moved 'em out West on a whim.
Sam Shepard's Obie-winning Curse of the Starving Class-a Cygnet Theatre entry co-produced by Cygnet and Carlsbad's New Village Arts-charts the fall of a family whose wits aren't so much unraveling as imploding. The Tates have just enough money and food to get by, just enough to tantalize them into visions of moving to Europe or, at the very least, of stability on their desperately failing farm. Soon, an emotionally bankrupt Ella declares those goals out of reach. The curse, she says, has taken on a physical presence as "tiny little swimming things, making up their minds without us."
Her murky declaration colors Shepard's symbolism in this 1977 script, which features a maggot-infested lamb, the kitchen table as a makeshift bed, brief full nudity, fallout from Emma's (Rachael VanWormer) first period and an empty refrigerator everybody yells at like it's a character in the play.
Come to think of it, it is a character in the play. It stands there as judge, jury and executioner, overseeing Weston (Bill Dunnam) and Ella (Dana Case) in their noisy attempts to sell the property behind each other's backs.
Director Francis Gercke has everybody looking the script straight in the eye-this cast, especially Joshua Everett Johnson as Wesley, is great at maintaining body language through the rapid-fire dialogue. Sean Murray's set, Mary Larson's costumes and the rest of the tech work wear like iron (that's a compliment). But just as we're enjoying all that, two major developments-a shady speculator's call to corruption and the suggestion that the curse is generational-take the play into the realm of societal analysis. The carefully conceived dramatic effects are significantly compromised, and they're tough to recover.
Ella's wrong, of course. There's no curse of poverty on her family, and Shepard's ill-advised to imply as much. But there certainly is a starving class in America, rich with fodder for Sam's '60s counterculture sensibilities. That's the only problem with this well-produced show, but it's a biggie. The play wants to be social commentary and intimate heavy drama at the same time, and we're often left without enough information to process each side.
Sometimes, Shepard seems a little uncomfortable with both.
This review is based on the performance of Oct. 15. Curse of the Starving Class runs through Nov. 6 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. $22-$26. 619-337-1525, ext. 3.
Small step, giant leap
It took 120 years for Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado to hit San Diego's Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre. Of course, there was no such place until a few days ago-and now that there is, this acclaimed entry is in the right place at the right time in local theater history.
The Lyric Opera San Diego season opener may be set in Titipu, Japan, but it's actually a spoof on Victorian British pomposity and arcaneness. Love interest Yum-Yum (Lisa Archibeque) is caught in a maze of sociopolitical intrigue-but in the best light operatic traditions, it all works out amid director Leon Natker's poise. The real news is that San Diego has a beautiful, desperately needed midsize venue (736 seats) in a hoppin' neighborhood, and the list of future tenants is as dense as the Mikado script. The show has its logistical bumps, but its Oct. 14 opening marked a minor watershed in the city's artistic development.
The Mikado runs through Oct. 30 at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., North Park. $26-$40. 619-239-8836.