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Curse of the Starving Class (at the Abbey Theatre)

You know, just once I’d like to see a play about a functional American family living within their means and completely satisfied with their circumstances. Still, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class is a fairly solid deconstruction of the American Dream, a play that was – when produced – a prescient condemnation of a society living well beyond their means. Indeed, there are more than a few uncomfortable laughs during the play that suggest it’s just as relevant today (especially when certain characters trumpet land as a solid investment which only increases in value). Curse of the Starving Class is a solid production from the Abbey that handles a well-respected play in competent manner, but isn’t necessarily exceptional.

On the fence about it...

There were several moments during the performance when it seemed the play was running the risk of bursting off the stage and into the audience, as characters hurled chairs around and threw artichokes like footballs. The chair fell off the edge of the stage into empty seats, while the artichokes stopped just short. In fairness to the cast and crew, the performance did cackle with a sort of energy that helped make the material (which is fairly grim stuff) engaging and interesting – the cast in particular throw themselves into the roles wholeheartedly.

That said, I do have a minor complaint with the performances, but I feel it’s a fair one. After all, us Irish folk are the first to complain when an improbable Irish accent pops up in an American film or television show, so it’s only reasonable that we should hold ourselves to the same standards. The American accents in the play feel a little forced and a little awkward. In fairness, it’s something I’ve noticed in many an Irish stage performance, with the last truly uncanny American accent I heard from an Irishman on stage coming from Aidan Gillen in American Buffalo years ago.

The fall of a family...

The cast here feels like an eclectic and random selection of various popular and iconic American accents transposed into a Californian setting. In particular, Joe Hanley channels his inner Al Pacino for the role of patriarch Weston Tate – it’s very much Al “Hoo-Ha!” Pacino, and an accent that feels very much rough New York as opposed to Californian. The whole Tate clan seem to speak in differing American accents, which just perplexes me. To be fair to the supporting cast, Enda Oates manages a solid (and understated) accent, while Ronan Leahy offers such a bombastic parody of a Southern accent it’s hard to remain too cynical.

None of this really weakens the production too much, but it does feel slightly strange – the differences aren’t pronounced enough to seem like a conscious commentary on the country itself, but they are distinct enough that they are easy to notice. Still, most of the cast do sterling jobs in their roles. In particular, Joe Hanley is responsible for a lot of the play’s charm in a nice scenery-chewing role as a drunken and neglectful father, and Andrea Irvine is solid as his long-suffering wife, Ellis. Perhaps Rose O’Loughlin and Ciaran O’Brien need time to settle into their roles as the two children, but the rest of the cast do a fine job.

They're all cowboys out there...

The production design is solid. I’m not mad about the set, which attempts to represent the Tate household as something of an incomplete structure. I get the idea, but something about it doesn’t quite sit right – it seems like there was a lot more that could have been done. On the other hand, the set is brilliantly messed up and almost destroyed over the course of the play, which stands a testament to the engineers involved – there’s a genuine sense of chaos unfolding before the audience within the structure, something I suspect can be quite difficult to organise within the confines of a nightly play on a stage like this. Like the set itself, the elements that add up to create the mess (clothes, door frames, chairs and artichokes) are all relatively simple, but their use suggests considerable skill.

Curse of the Starving Class is a fine attempt to bring Shepard’s darkly comic tragedy to the Abbey Stage. It’s not the best performance I’ve seen this year, but it’s certainly far from a bad one. If you’re interested in the source material or the themes, it’s well worth a look.

4 Responses

  1. I agree 100%. Excellent review. I too found the accents a little jarring, and I don’t think this is a small point when we consider that the Abbey Theatre is our national stage – those things should be correct at this level.

    I was there the same night as you (unless the chair fell into the pit on another night!). Maybe it was just me, but did anyone else find Andrea Irvine a little hard to hear? I had to strain a little to catch her words – she was on a different vocal level to everyone else.

    Overall, a good production but by no means flawless.

  2. I have to depart from some of the views voiced here. Also with Peter Crawley’s review in the Irish Times.

    Sam Shepard’s 4 tragic family dramas ARE just that: tragic. Extreme in their characters, absurdist and surreal in their telling. Like Beckett’s plays they revel in the bizarre and fascinating characters, unfamiliar language and minimal settings.

    The Abbey theatre describes this play as a ‘dark comedy’. But it isn’t, it’s a dark tragedy. Two women sitting next to me on opening night illustrated this confusion very well: at the start of the play, they were relaxed and dressed up for a great night of theatrical entertainment. Laughing along at the silly people on stage, they tittered at Wesley urinating on his sister’s project, they sniggered at Weston’s desperate state and smiled at Emma’s antics outside the house. Between Act 1 and 2 they seem to have been anesthetised by the ‘humour’ and left to appreciate only the technical accomplishments, visual impact and Joe Hanley.

    In this Abbey production, the potential impact of ‘Curse’ is, I think lost. Wesley’s introspection is replaced with proclamations. Pain and menace replaced with laughs and titters. Abuse and destruction replaced with knock-about antics.

    I want to be transported by the strangeness of the play. Instead the scenes feel almost real and human, with a supporting laugh track.
    I want to love this pproduction. I wanted to sit in the audience and try to piece together the minds of Wesley, Weston, Ella and Emma. I feel robbed of the chance to be an observer of the cursed family, instead I saw a tragic-comic, muddled version of what should be a truly tragic play.

    As Hanley, Irvine, O’Brien and O’Loughlin work so hard on stage and Fay directs his cast so well, it makes is so much more disappointing that he did not apply that talent the direction of the play itself.

    • Fair point and thanks for the comment. I’ll concede to not being a huge expert on Shepard, but I think you raise some valid points.

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