Review: The Odyssey rustles up the spirit of early Sam Shepard in an irreverent double bill
To launch its 50th anniversary “Circa ’69” season, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble revisits that era with a smartly acted double-bill of Sam Shepard: the seldom-seen, early-career chestnuts “The Unseen Hand” and “Killer’s Head.”
Staking out the theme of rebel outcasts staring down their own extinction, a 10-minute opening monologue takes us inside a “Killer’s Head.” Strapped in the electric chair as he awaits execution, his thoughts turn to reveries of pickup trucks and horses. The rotating roster of performers includes Dermot Mulroney, Magnus Jackson Diehl, Jeff Kober and director Darrell Larson, whose creative association with Shepard dates back decades.
The bulk of the program is “The Unseen Hand,” which is Shepard at his gleefully irreverent best. It’s a sci-fi-western hybrid that undermines both genres — as well as character continuity, logic and language itself. Often hilarious, the play takes pointed swipes at familiar Shepard stalking horses: cliched American ideals of cowboy masculinity corrupted by conformity and mediocrity.
The poster child for such hollow icons is 120-year-old Blue Morphan (Carl Weintraub), the last surviving member of a once-renowned outlaw gang in the 1880s. Now a recluse living out of a rusted, wheel-less Chevy in a desolate part of Azusa, Blue is a stooped curmudgeon who spends his remaining days boozing and longing for simpler times “when you could settle things with a six-shooter.”
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A chance to recapture those glory days arrives with the colorfully staged extraterrestrial invasion by Willie (Matt Curtin, masterfully spouting long passages of gibberish), an alien on the run from tyrannical galactic overlords who rule via telepathic thought control through the hand symbol imprinted on his forehead (hence the title).
Seeking the gunslinger’s help in overthrowing his oppressors, Willie restores Blue’s youth (in a superb physical transformation by Weintraub). For added muscle, Willie also resurrects Blue’s outlaw brothers who likewise embody tropes of the Old West. One is a poncho-clad drifter (Jordan Morgan) straight out of spaghetti westerns, the other an elegantly suited bandit (Chris Payne Gilbert) in the Bat Masterson mold.
The Morphan brothers ride again! Only it’s a new century, and there are no trains to rob. The only prey in sight is a hapless cheerleader (Andrew Morrison), stripped to his skivvies, beaten and dumped by bullies from a rival team. Pondering whether this man is a threat or a savvy strategic ally, the brothers weigh their options: Plug him or let him pull up his pants? An existential dilemma for the ages.
‘The Unseen Hand’ and ‘Killer’s Head’
Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 8
Info: (310) 477-2055 Ext. 2 or www.odysseytheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)
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