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Theater review: 'Curse of the Starving Class' at Open Fist Theatre Company

April 21, 2011 |  7:30 pm

Curse Leave it to Sam Shepard to flout W.C. Fields’ advice — “Never work with children or animals” — by brazenly casting a live lamb in “Curse of the Starving Class,” his desolate, bilious, hilarious and heavily symbolic portrait of a California farm family in crisis, which is being revived at Open Fist Theatre Company.

Naturally, Juju (as the lamb is identified in his head shot in the lobby) steals the show. The night I went, Juju’s well timed bleats got laughs that even Fields couldn't have imagined, and at intermission, nobody discussed the set (which Victoria Profitt has realized creatively while staying true to Shepard’s description), the staging (by the skillful director Scott Paulin), the talented cast, or the significance of “Curse” in Shepard’s oeuvre and American theater.

We spoke of Juju.

It’s not as if Shepard wasn’t warned. And of course, he’s too canny and tongue-in-cheek a playwright not to have planned the whole thing. The actors are obviously in on the joke. Kevin McCorkle, as Weston, the repulsive alcoholic father, plays off the woolly diva’s interruptions so skillfully that his soliloquy becomes a dialogue. The son, Wesley (Ian Nelson, who has a young James Franco thing going), casually sweeps up Juju’s droppings — very considerate for somebody who has just urinated on his sister’s 4-H project and will shortly butcher the lamb (offstage, thankfully).

Indeed, the most jarring aspect of “Curse” is that every person is horrible. It’s as if Shepard is mocking our expectation that a struggling American family will be like the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”: noble, unlucky patriarch; loving mother struggling to keep the family together; son of few words but pure heart; dreamy, writerly daughter. 

Instead we get the monstrous Weston (he’s actually even more odious when he reforms and starts talking about the beauty of life), a venal mother (the tremendously entertaining Laura Richardson) who enthusiastically betrays her children; alternately dutiful and destructive Wesley; and a daughter (the precocious Juliette Goglia) who at first seems like the family’s only hope (well, except that the 4-H project she’s so dedicated to involves eviscerating her pet chicken) but proves the craziest of the bunch.

The play’s undeniable power lies more (as in Greek tragedy) in its bleak evaluation of the human condition, its fertile symbols (the eerie blue light of the empty refrigerator that the characters keep opening), and the astonishing quality of its language. Open Fist’s production keeps faith with Shepard's mysterious vision. But they might want to hire a less attractive lamb.

 -- Margaret Gray

 “Curse of the Starving Class,” the Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 4. $35. (323) 882-6912 or Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Photo: Kevin McCorkle, Ian Nelson with Juju the lamb, and Laura Richardson in "Curse of the Starving Class." Credit: Maia Rosenfeld