Double-billed with “Killer’s Head” at The Odyssey Theatre, the measured craziness of Sam Shephard’s “The Unseen Hand” illuminates the complex chaos of the 21 st century.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 1/30/20 – After half a century, the late Sam Shephard’s “The Unseen Hand” remains a one-act comedic exploration into science fiction fabulosity that jibes a little too well with today’s world. Written when Shephard was in his late twenties and first produced in December of 1969, the play is a crazed mixture of cowboys and aliens with a big dollop of resurrection and strange ritualistic behaviors. Directed by Darrell Larson as part of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary “Circa ’69” Season, the play feels anything but dated. In contrast, it sheds remarkable light on the divided soul of Donald Trump’s country, where the American dream of a real democracy is on the brink of what feels like disaster and devastation.
Before “The Unseen Hand” starts, “Killer’s Head” opens the show as part of the Sam Shephard doubleheader at The Odyssey. A short one-person play about the nervous babblings of a man in an electric chair, waiting for the switch to be pulled and his life to
end. Many talented actors, including Dermot Mulroney and Jeff Kober, will take on the role for a weekend during the show’s six-week run. On opening night, Steve Howey, famous for his co-starring role as Kevin Ball in Showtime’s award-winning series,
Shameless, took on a difficult part with an authentic, gritty bent.
Rather than focus on the ultimate danger, the man in the electric chair talks about trucks and horses. Reminiscing and planning for the future, he does whatever he can to avoid the reality of the present. Even as the electricity is ready to flow, it’s obvious he wants nothing to do with his current fate. Hence, as a prelude to the much longer one-act adventure that occupies vast majority of the time on stage, “Killer’s Head” reveals the lengths a human being will go to repress trauma and disaster. Indeed, when faced with certain death, doesn’t embracing delusion make a whole lot of sense? Isn’t it somewhat of a smart move to escape into the comfort of dreams?
The comfort of dreams is questioned again in the second part of the night with a dynamic, rapid-fire production of “The Unseen Hand” by Sam Shephard. The lasting power of the one-act play is undeniable. Although it reads like an offbeat comedy about
cowboys and aliens, the play offers deeper currents of commentary when performed on stage. Indeed, it is surprising to discover how such an absurdist farce can shine a light on the divided madness of a country in the hypocritical grips of Donald Trump’s warped administration. As you can see, I already have chosen a side.
“The Unseen Hand” begins with Blue Morphan (Carl Weintraub) waking up in home sweet home, an abandoned Chevy in the desert on the outskirts of Azusa, California.
Once part of an outlaw band with his two brothers, Blue is now a homeless recluse, spending the last of his 120 years on this planet drinking whiskey and talking to ghosts. Wanting to listen to the radio still working in the rusted husk, Blue attaches jumper cables from the car battery to an electrical substation box. To his surprise, Blue gets a lot more than just an old Elvis song. Instead, in a burst of blue light, a strange man-like creature appears out of nowhere with a black hand burnt onto his face and forehead.
Willie, this bizarre alien entity, has traveled many light-years from galaxies away to find Blue. Played for comic relief by Matt Curtin, he feels like another incarnation of the wonderful alien performance by Jeff Bridges in the underrated John Carpenter film, Starman (1984). Like the alien created by Jeff Bridges, Willie appears human in form, but not in movement. Curtin gives off a sense of other worldliness.
After calming him down, Willie offers Blue a supernatural temptation that takes his breath away. In exchange for bringing his brothers back from the dead, the aliens want the wild outlaws to fight for their freedom. Since their tyrannical overlords sound a lot like the cronies of President Trump, the play suddenly feels contemporary. Before he can make up his mind, the process of resurrection has begun. As Willie checks out for a little while, Blue’s first brother returns from the dead – a classic good old bad boy named Cisco (Jordan Morgan).
As Cisco, Jordan Morgan taps into the archetype of the innocent cowboy from classic television serials. Stepping out of the world of Bonanza or The Lone Ranger, Cisco doesn’t question his resurrection or anything else for that matter. He’s a man of action
who’s tough as a nail, handsome as a pinup, and dumb as a post. In the world of today, Jordan Morgan represents the voter who follows the wagon train without questioning why it’s headed over a cliff. He has shed the skin of past trauma, moving forward into
the future without a care in the world.
In contrast to Cisco, Blue’s other brother couldn’t be more different. As played by talented actor, Chris Payne Gilbert, Sycamore is not happy to be brought back from the dead. Such a resurrection lack security, and the modern world freaks him to the bone.
All he wants is what he knows and understands from his old life, and it feels like he’s hiding a deep trauma that might never be revealed. Gilbert plays Sycamore with a world-wearied paranoia that feels reminiscent of op-eds in today’s newspapers.
Finally, another character enters the story when the Kid (Andrew Morrison) arrives, a high school cheerleader left alone in the desert after being tortured by Azusa bullies.
There is an argument to be made that the Kid is the toughest part in the one-act extravaganza because he goes through three different incarnations of character. Since the whole play cannot be given away, his changes cannot be revealed. Nevertheless,
he’s instrumental in the later decision-making of the other characters. As the Kid, whether he’s a cheerleader or a damn revolutionary leader, Andrew Morrison lights up the stage with a kinetic passion.
If you think I have given too much away and the play is spoiled, you are barking up the wrong tree. “The Unseen Hand” is not about plot points but performances. The absurd plot points in the storyline are shadows. Behind those shadows lurks the meaning of the play and the whispers of the playwright. Through extremity, Sam Shephard uncovers how human beings make choices and how they deal with the prospect of freedom in the lens of uncertainty.
As the director, Darrell Larson is celebrating the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary “Circa ’69” Season by addressing through art a turbulent time in American history. No matter the external negativity and the televised craziness, you remain
responsible for your own choices. You can’t opt-out of your responsibility as an American citizen. Thus, freedom should never be taken for granted because it does not exist unless it is used. If you choose to be free, then you will be free. Still, the contours
and boundaries of that freedom remain highly personal.
As you define your life, is that choice made through a lens of awareness? Or are you embracing with a dumb smile the blissful ignorance of Cisco? Finally, my definition of freedom is not your definition of freedom. Just because I give you choices does not
mean that you will make the choices I prefer. Indeed, the deep division that is tearing apart the American dream ultimately is an argument over choices.