Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht
Anyone who believes science and art are not two parts of the same whole should go watch Curse of the Starving Class directed by Sylvaine Strike.
The performance demonstrates Newton’s first law of motion that when two equal and opposing forces act on an object, it will remain in a state of equilibrium. The opposing forces were the text and the clowning, with myself as the object. It was a strange sensation, that of being suspended while massaged by two magnetic fields. Not unpleasant. But I’m not sure it was the intention. And if it was, if Strike deliberatly levitated the mass of Shepard’s text with a Jacques LeCoq physicality of humour, then Bravo! Success.
I don’t know if want to not be moved, rather than accelerated toward a smash of feelings in watching Curse of the Starving Class. I had expectations. Turns out I may have walked into the wrong experiment. I was aiming for a particle accelerator and instead I arrived in the vacuum.
There’s this inner world of Shepard’s story, all contained in the kitchen shared by a hulking and almost always empty refrigerator, that ‘50s symbol of American modernism hollowed out by greed a generation later. The family. Corrupted by external forces, the outer world which now intrudes to devour its piece of flesh. This family is fucked up, been fucked up, and now a bunch of fuckers are coming round to visit. Let’s just say we don’t hold out much hope. Not that the text doesn’t have its laughs. Laughing at people being fucked up is something we love doing. There is so much scope. It’s a game we play as a species, guessing which way the person is going to writhe, whether they’ll duck, try land a blow, attempt to run. But we know he’s gonna go down at some point, in some way. There’s satisfaction in that. Certainty is soothing.
Strike lights up the outer world. Gives it real character, as only she knows how, with Rob van Vuuren a glittering gold-teethed menace called Ellis, and Antony Coleman as the fastidiously sleazy estate agent Taylor who comes slithering in. And later the ridiculous pair of violently incompetent debt collectors played by Damon Berry and van Vuuren. Berry also the stone faced helpful cop. She puts him in a spietcop helmet that could have been used for ‘Chips’. It’s the equivalent of a clown’s nose for the head.
So: The nightclub owner who tricked the old man to signing over the deed to the home while drunk in exchange for paying off his debt to some “hard men”. We laugh at him.
The estate agent who seduces the mom and sweet talks her into selling the home all the while having conned her husband into borrowing to buy worthless land. We laugh at him.
The hyeanic debt collectors who may have murdered the old man. We laugh at them.
Some people laughed a lot. Particularly the ones behind us.
The humour in the text is dark and cynical. It emerges from the absurd and is creeps up from beneath, while Strikes physical expressionism is overt; the characters become clowns, parodies at times. Felt like I was being asked to laugh at the wrong things. Where I shifted out of my equilibrium was during the monologues. Fantastic monologues. Especially by Leila Henriques as Ella in the beginning, and Neil McCarthy as Weston toward the end. These were the moments when there was no clowning, they were just delivering themselves.
All the same, the play was beautiful to watch. The act changes were genius, and in whatever way the actors were directed to play their roles, they were superb. The lighting design was masterful. Choosing to light beneath the false stage was interesting. Set design likewise, but again with the interesting, this time it being the suspended windows.
There was a lot of suspension going on. A live lamb was probably just what was needed to bring it down to earth – the land always a big thing for Shepard (we are not alone in our obsession) – but the director’s note states it’s not legal in this country. Yet a play has been running up the road with a live dog? Anyway, what a pity. Appreciated the cooking though, would’ve been a disaster trying to fake that one.
All in all Shepard’s text is at odds with Strike’s brilliant twist of physical peculiarity, thus a strange choice. Possibly misguided.
But hey! I watched a Sam Shepard and wasn’t moved, but entertained.
Curse of the Starving Class plays on the Baxter Theatre’s Flipside stage until 27 October. More info and bookings here.
Cast: Neil McCarthy as Weston, Leila Henriques as Ella, Roberto Pombo as Wesley, Inge Crafford-Lazarus as Emma, Rob van Vuuren as Ellis and debt collector, Antony Coleman as Taylor, Damon Berry as policeman and debt collector.
Director: Sylvaine Strike
Set design: Chen Nakar and Andrea van der Kuil
Lighting design: Manni Manim
Costume design: Andrea van der Kuil and Sue Steele.