Curse of the Starving Class

“You can’t believe people when they look you in the eyes. You gotta’ look behind them. See what they’re standing in front of. What they’re hiding” Sam Shepard

Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and actor Sam Shepard’s family drama, Curse of the Starving Class, directed by Sylvaine Strike and starring an impressive cast, comes to the Baxter Flipside stage, for a limited season, from 15 to 27 October, at 7.30pm.

This collaboration between the Baxter Theatre Centre and the University of Stellenbosch Woordfees (US Woordfees), sees the return of multi-award-winning director Sylvaine Strike to the Baxter, following the sold-out success of Endgame recently. She heads up a sterling cast led by Neil McCarthy, Leila Henriques, Rob van Vuuren, Anthony Coleman, Roberto Pombo, Inge Crafford-Lazarus and Damon Berry.

Johannesburg-based Strike has become widely respected as a leading director in South African theatre for her fine work that has won her many accolades. At the Baxter alone over the years she has directed Endgame, Moliere’s Tartuffe, This Miser, Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof, The Travellers and Black and Blue.

“I have been burning to stage this play for the last decade,” says Strike. “The death of Sam Shepard last year made me reflect on the importance of his work. My vision for the staging of the play, a year after his death and 40 years after he first penned it, was to keep it simple, to honour his story and therefore keep it set in America, with the wild, large, desolate and universal characters he created. Their demands to succeed, to transcend, to become better, dream bigger, leave and re-invent themselves elsewhere, is just as much our reality as it is any struggling American’s. Now, more than ever, it is starkly and frighteningly relevant.”

She continues, “Shepard’s plays are almost always about identity, often suggesting that land defines where it is we come from and who we are. We are a product of our ancestors, ‘it’s in the blood’, if you like. Capitalist schemes – from small family loans, to dodgy investments – continue to fool the desperate. Today’s America is still acutely reflected in this piece, yet its themes contain a common human experience. However, and sadly so, it is no longer just the American dream that is shattered – it’s also the global dream that has been smashed.”

Regarded as one of America’s most celebrated dramatists, Sam Shepard, who died in July last year (aged 73), has written nearly 50 plays with contemporary classics Buried Child, Simpatico, A Lie of the Mind and Cowboy Mouth, just being some of them. He has created an expansive body of work which is best described as poetic, unapologetic, darkly funny, edgy, emotionally charged and painfully raw. He has received ten OBIE Awards for his writing and directing, apparently the most ever given to any writer or director. As an actor he has performed in at least 52 films which include a string of box office hits. Amongst them are films such as Steele Magnolias, The Pelican Brief, Paris,Texas, Frances, Black Hawk Down, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Notebook, Baby Boom and Swordfish.

Curse of the Starving Class is the first of Shepard’s family tragedies, balancing darkly delicious comedy and biting satire. Hilarious and bold, funny and unsettling, the powerful drama continues to reflect a universal brilliance in an increasingly collapsing world. Its portrayal of a dysfunctional family on the brink of financial despair, while struggling for control of their run-down farm, remains relevant today.

During its short run at the US Woordfees in Stellenbosch earlier this year, critics raved about the production. MatieMedia said, “Strike’s adaptation is riveting from start to finish … compelling” while TheatreScene Cape Town described it as “a gripping spectacle”. Diane de Beer wrote, “Holding all of this together is Strike’s insight, which is where her genius comes into play.”

Set on an avocado and sheep farm in Southern California, the Tate family is headed up by a drunken father, Weston (performed by McCarthy); a burnt-out mother, Ella (played by Henriques); a rebellious adolescent daughter, Emma (Crafford-Lazarus) and a broken, but idealistic son, Wesley (Roberto Pombo). Each is entrenched in their own futile search for freedom, security and ultimate meaning in their lives. They seem to have become victims of a pathological carelessness, which permeates their DNA, their every move. They live their lives with a reckless abandon that is indicative of having nothing left to lose.

The outside world,  in the form of a creepy lawyer, Taylor; a nightclub owner, Ellis; and 2 weird hit men (played by van Vuuren, Coleman and Berry) bleeds into the family home, through the broken door, but Weston as the head of the family, fails to protect his brood from conmen and predators. The symbol of a sick lamb with maggots kept in the kitchen suggests the blurring of order, while Emma desperately and unsuccessfully attempts to flee, screaming into an empty fridge that her family is not part of the starving class.

Set design is by Chen Nakar and Andrea van der Kuil, with lighting design by Mannie Manim and costumes by Andrea van der Kuil and Sue Steele.

15 Oct - 27 Oct

Starts: 7:30 pm

Drama / Flipside

Sam Shepard’s powerful play continues to reflects a universal brilliance in an increasingly collapsing world. Now more than ever, relevant in its portrayal of a dysfunctional family on the brink of financial despair struggling for control of their rundown family farm. In the play conflict almost always revolves around identity, often suggesting that land defines who we are. A hilarious, bold, funny and unsettling production.