Sam Shepard feels a Holy song coming on

The new year begins with an intriguing, nearly under-the-radar collaboration. American Conservatory Theater and Campo Santo have jumped into the ring formed by Magic Theatre and dubbed Sheparding America, a far-ranging celebration of Sam Shepard that promises to flare for years to come.

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Co-directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José and ACT’s Mark Rucker and performed in the near-round at ACT’s Costume Shop, Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard is an amalgam of Shepard texts with an infusion of live music. The prologue and epilogue come from 1969’s Holy Ghostly and the big chunk in the middle comes from 1972 Tooth of Crime (which Shepard revised in 1997).

The best part of the 85-minute show is, without question, the music, which is composed and arranged by cast members Tommy James Shepherd Jr. and Golda Sargento along with the band: bassist and keyboard player Rachel Lastimosa and guitarist Steve Boss. It takes about a half an hour to get to the first real song, but from there on out the vibrant music trumps Shepard’s cryptic text.

The prologue and epilogue are almost spoofs of the Shepard playbook: a dying cowboy (Myers Clark attempts to reconcile with his son (Ryan Williams French) in a desolate Western landscape with a random corpse (Isiah Thompson) and a Native American spirit (Dan Flapper).

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Then the middle section, which is like a Western movie by way of sci-fi fantasy carbonated by rock opera, reveals itself to be mostly inscrutable in terms of plot and character. But this is where the good music lives. Anytime Shepherd is singing or beatboxing, Holy Crime is fully alive. The same is true when Juan Amador as Ruido shows up to rap up a glorious storm. Another nice musical moment comes when Sango Tajima pulls out her violin and joins the band.

Energetically staged by San José and Rucker, Holy Crime and well performed by a keenly focused cast and is always interesting to watch, even when it’s completely baffling and feels like a workshop production of a very much in-process work. There’s a formula at work here, but it seems to need more music (and amplification – this music needs to be LOUD! even in an intimate space like this) and less Shepard babble.

Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard continues through Jan. 19 at the ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit

Wonky tone buries Magic’s Buried Child

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Vince (Patrick Alparone, standing) comes to terms with his family legacy and with Dodge, his grandfather (Rod Gnapp), in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Below: Tilden (James Wagner) shucks some corn, much to the consternation of his father, Dodge. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

By all rights, the Magic Theatre’s season-opening production of Buried Child by Sam Shepard, the man who helped build the Magic’s national reputation during his 12-year stay from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s, should be a triumph. Continuing the five-year Sheparding America celebration of the writer’s work, the production should be a potent reminder of just how electrifying, unsettling and beautiful Shepard’s writing can be.

This is not that production.

Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, struggles establishing the tone from the very start, and though some of the performances, most notably by Rod Gnapp and James Wagner, connect powerfully with the world of the play, much of the cast seems adrift in Shepard’s world, which is somewhere between reality and fantasy, truth and illusion.

Gnapp plays Dodge, the patriarch of an Illinois farm family that has seen better, more prosperous (and more sane) days. Dodge is relegated to a dingy couch, where he further damages his straining lungs with cigarettes and dulls the pain with whiskey hidden under the cushions. Gnapp plays grizzled and grumpy better than just about anybody, and he masterfully conveys humor and menace in ways that allow him to live in the naturalism of Shepard’s play and its lyricism.

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The same is true of Wagner as Tilden, Dodge’s son who was once a hometown football star but then came into some mysterious trouble in New Mexico and is now a damaged shell. Tilden’s damage somehow connects him to the enigmatic side of Shepard’s play. Every time Tilden heads out into the rainy backyard, he returns with armloads of fresh corn and carrots. Never mind that no one has planted any vegetables back there for 35 years. The only thing they’ve planted, if we can believe the family legend, is an unwanted baby boy.

The surrealism of the play kicks in when Tilden’s grown son (Patrick Alparone making the best of a shallow role) shows up for a surprise visit and no one seems to recognize him, which sends the young man into a tailspin, questioning his very existence. This is where Shepard’s play starts to feel like an inferior version of Pinter’s The Homecoming, especially in this production, where actors tend to pose awkwardly, as if for soap opera cameras, and deliver their lines in stilted cadence. There are scenes that feel almost like Shepard parodies here, which adds nothing to the tone of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which should be as creepy as it is enthralling.

You can feel Shepard leaning into Pinter throughout the play, with definite nods to Albee. But Buried Child, at least in this production, feels dated, confused and underdeveloped.

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child continues an extended run through Oct. 13 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Review: `Curse of the Starving Class’

Opened April 30 at American Conservatory Theater

Pamela Reed (left) as Ella, chucks artichokes out of the fridge across a prone Jack Willis as Weston and toward Jud Williford as her son, Wesley in ACT’s Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Photos by Kevin Berne


Shepard’s revised `Curse’ still packs punch
Three stars Let it bleat

Lambs, it turns out, are stage hogs.

There’s an adorable little lamb in the American Conservatory Theater production of Sam Shepard’s 1977 drama Curse of the Starving Class, and nearly every bleat emanating from the lamb pen got a laugh – or at least a chuckle.

That probably wasn’t Shepard’s aim, but he wanted naturalism, so he gets naturalism. When members of the Tate family want breakfast, they walk over to the functioning gas stove and fry up bacon and bread. Later on there’s some ham and eggs in a skillet. The title may include the word “starving,” but the Tates eat fairly well. Still, that’s not to say they’re not hungry for something. “We’re hungry, and that’s starving enough for me,” Mrs. Tate says.

Shepard has tinkered with his original ’77 script, most significantly turning it from a three-act to a two-act play, but what still registers is his view of the great American family and its ultimate dysfunction. The American dream is too big, too elusive. We kill ourselves and our families trying to achieve that dream, whatever it might be, and still we pursue it doggedly.

Weston Tate (Jack Willis) is a veteran – an air man – whose post-war life is a shambles. He’s drunk most of the time and ignores his wife, Ella (Pamela Reed) and his two kids, 20something Wesley (Jud Williford) and budding teen Emma (Nicole Lowrance). The wife and kids fend for themselves on a ramshackle desert ranch (beautiful, hyper-realistic set, complete with barbed wire, tumbleweeds and scrap-yard metal by Loy Arcenas) hoping against hope that dad will somehow straighten out and fill their empty refrigerator with food.

That refrigerator is practically a character in the play. Mom delivers a monologue to it and keeps peeking in, just in case the fridge, unlike life, has a surprise for her. The kids open the door to see if there’s any food. Groceries do occasionally arrive – mom has an assignation with a lawyer (Dan Hiatt) and gets some cash and groceries out of it. And then dad, on a bender, fills the fridge with artichokes.

Those artichokes later become projectile produce when mom – not pleased by the strange vegetables – hurls them across the room.

Many things are destroyed over the course of the play’s 2 ½ hours: a door, 4-H charts, a lamb, a car and, of course, dreams and lives. This is brutal stuff. As Weston says: “Family isn’t just a social thing. It’s an animal thing.”

Director Peter DuBois struggles with pacing in the first act. The natural rhythms are elusive, and it’s difficult to see where anything is heading (plus, what do you do after you have someone pee onstage?). But all the set-up has some nice payoff in Act 2. There’s blood, mayhem, nudity, napping, rebirth, death and a possible trip to Europe.

Reed (above left with Lowrance), who was so good as the wronged wife in ACT’s The Goat, returns to play another matriarch, this one much less likable, though Reed makes her awfully funny (and horrifying) and appealing (and awful). The really interesting thing is that in the original New York production of Curse, Reed played the angry daughter, and now, in this revised version, she’s playing the mother (a role originally played by Olympia Dukakis, another member of ACT’s extended family).

Reed’s Ella feels the most lived in of all the characters, though Willis seems to be having fun with the wastrel Weston. Williford (the one responsible for the nudity) is pouty and damaged as the son who has seen his “old man’s poison,” and Lowrance is a spitfire as the daughter who never met a screaming, angry fit she didn’t want to express to the utmost. Her tantrum and tirades are the highlights of Act 1.

As the economic downturn of the Tate family hits its spiral, Shepard quickly introduces some shady but entertaining figures (played by Rod Gnapp, T. Edward Webster and Howard Swain) before he turns Curse into a fully explosive tragedy with nothing good to say about the family unit.

Shepard seems to be saying that this is what happens to people who aren’t poor and who aren’t rich. They’re stuck in the middle with no hope, no prospects, no great love and a never-ending hunger that leads to terrible things. The playwright may have tinkered with the play, but he sure didn’t add a happy ending.

Curse of the Starving Class continues through May 25 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.