Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: The child returns…Magic Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” is still gripping after 35 years—through October 13, 2013

No one recognizes Vincent (Patrick Alparone, center) when he returns home and tries to reconnect with his father, Tilden (James Wagner, right), and grandfather, Dodge (Rod Gnapp, left) in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

No one recognizes Vincent (Patrick Alparone, center) when he returns home and tries to reconnect with his father, Tilden (James Wagner, right), and grandfather, Dodge (Rod Gnapp, left) in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

Tightly held family secrets are unearthed in Magic Theatre’s revival of Buried Child, Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning odyssey about finding one’s way back home and finding one’s place in that home.  The play, directed by Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco, opens Magic’s 47th season and continues its “Sheparding America” celebration of the playwright’s 70th birthday−up this November.  Buried Child premiered at the Magic in 1978, during the exciting eight-year period that Sam Shepard was the theatre’s playwright-in-residence, a time when he also unveiled such classics as True West (1980) Fool for Love (1982)−productions which I, then an undergrad at UC Berkeley, attended and which deeply and viscerally impacted me.  Despite winning the Pulitzer, Shepard reworked Buried Child for its 1995 Broadway revival and it’s this version that Magic currently has on stage and has extended through Sunday, October 13, 2013.

Buried Child remains a dark detective story of sorts, devised in such a manner as to enmesh the audience in the festering wound of the endlessly complex and broken American family.  The 35 year-old play is as relevant as it ever was and the acting is exceptional in Magic’s revival. Special touches like the sight and sound of torrential rain and the startling crack of breaking beer bottles by sound designer Jake Rodriguez and scenic designer Andrew Boyce are elevating.

Rod Gnapp as Dodge, the aging, alcoholic, emasculated family patriarch. Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is at Magic Theatre through October 13. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

Rod Gnapp as Dodge, the aging, alcoholic, emasculated family patriarch. Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is at Magic Theatre through October 13. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

The plays opens in a ramshackle living room, with Dodge, the father and family patriarch, glued to the couch, covered with an Afghan, sneaking drinks from the bottle of booze he keeps hidden in the cushions. Rodd Gnapp, last seen in Magic’s Se Llama Cristina, again outdoes himself in this principal role, delivering a broken man with a serious case of emotional dry-rot.  Unable to face the consequences of his past, Dodge lies unshaven and passive on the couch, rasping and hacking.

Upstairs, his wife Halie (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), talks at him non-stop, in a blistering unrelenting monotone, as she readies herself for church and a visit with Father Dewis (Lawrence Radecker), a priest she’s having an open affair with.  This is not the first time she’s stepped outside her marriage; the dark consequences of her past infidelity have devastated the family.  Instead of facing her pain, she revels in the past glories of her sons who are enshrined in old family pictures lining the walls of her bedroom.  Her investment in the dream, has caused her to erect a kind of mental fortress around her memories (real and imagined) and it will take two outsiders to obliterate lay waste of them. Balthrop Cassidy is great with the unseen banter but when she appears in person, she seems to be working too hard at playing a parody of Halie rather than just being the complex piece of psychic work that is Halie.  This is a noticeable contrast from the ease with which the other actors embody their characters wounds.

As two adult sons make their entrance, it becomes apparent that the dysfunction extends beyond the marriage. Tilden, the eldest, (James Wagner) who lives with his parents, seems confused and easily shaken.  He lumbers around and dumps down a huge pile of fresh corn which he says he’s just picked from the field in the backyard, a field which has been fallow for years.  One-legged amputee Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones), a victim of a chainsaw accident, is combative and scary.  He lives close by, close enough to come over and harass his family whenever he pleases.  The whole lot of them exhibit symptoms that solidly put them in DSM-IV territory for trauma, an area that has long captivated Shepard.

With the unexpected appearance of Tilden’s twenty-something year old son, Vince (Patrick Alparone), and his girlfriend Shelley (Elaina Garrity), the past rears its head.  While Vince has only been gone for six years, no one will acknowledge or recognize him.  He is desperate for affirmation and yet has been stripped of his identity.  His solution–to run away.  Patrick Alparone does a masterful job of navigating the minefield of emotions and expectations associated with coming home to what he remembers of his family and meeting up with this abominable clan. His third act transformation, his return home–to ownership of himself and the farm–is palpable.  Elaina Garrity nearly steals the show with her very believable Shelley, an outsider, immune to the family dysfunction, who functions as a mirror to the audience. Shallow, disengaged and skeptical at first, the willowy young woman, ultimately proves relentless in her quest to get to the truth and unearth the secret.

Vince (Patrick Alparone) brings his girlfriend Shelly (Elaina Garrity) to his family homestead after a long absence in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child playing at Magic Theatre. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

Vince (Patrick Alparone) brings his girlfriend Shelly (Elaina Garrity) to his family homestead after a long absence in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child playing at Magic Theatre. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

Buried Child functions brilliantly on many levels while casting out psychic hooks that reel in the wounded amongst us, bringing us to confrontation with our own demons.  At it heart, it is about the ways that family members withhold from each other and perpetuate more hurt as they attempt to shield themselves from the unbearable pain of having broken a moral code. There is no hero, there is no forgiveness but there are many villains and many victims. When the truth emerges, the characters, nursing their wounds, grudges and regrets, can’t bring themselves to move beyond their entrenched patterns despite the fact that reality has shifted.

Loretta Greco has revitalized the Magic Theatre since she was appointed Artistic Director in 2008. She is able to mine emotion and insight from every remark, every nagging resentment that is expressed in Shepard’s masterpiece.   “For almost two decades I’ve longed to work on Buried,” said Greco.  “I believe that in 1,000 years philosophers and civilians alike who are searching for meaning will still be mining the depths and Sophocles’ Oedipus, Chekov’s Three Sisters and Shepard’s Buried Child.”

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Details: Magic Child has been extended through October 13, 2013.  The Magic Theatre is located in Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd. Building D. 3rd floor, San Francisco, CA. Parking is readily available at Fort Mason Center.  Performances:  daily performances Tues-Sunday.  Tickets:  Tues, Wed, Thurs: $45 to $55; Fri, Sat, Sun: $50-60.  Purchase tickets online here or by phone (415) 441-8822.  For more information about this play and Magic Theatre’s 2013-14 Season, visit

October 1, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review–Magic Theatre’s “What We’re Up Against” a female architect’s first job has her navigating male jerks, air ducts and the profession itself–through March 6, 2011

Is sexism still alive in corporate America, or do most people believe that women have made it and if they aren’t experiencing success, it’s more about them and their lack of abilities? Acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck, tackles sexism and the rough and tumble world of office politics in What We’re Up Against, her clever new play in its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre through March 6, 2011.

When a team of old-school architects is under the gun to design a mall expansion but can’t figure out the design for the air ducts, all hell breaks out when Eliza (Sarah Nealis), a brash new associate they can’t stand, has the answer.  Instead of calling Eliza in to discuss her ideas, they bad-mouth her and plot to sabotage her.  After six months of slaving away and getting no notice at all for her considerable effort, Eliza concludes that she does not walk the same halls of power as the others do and gets angry.  When she asserts herself over her plan for the mall expansion, she rocks the firm to its core.  What’s going on?  Is Eliza being discriminated against because she’s female and her talent is threatening or it is more her brash style and refusal to adapt to the firm’s corporate culture and pace that is causing the problem?   

Rebeck’s “Mauritious” endeared Magic audiences in 2009 and “What We’re Up Against” is based on a eight minute scene that Rebeck wrote a few years ago that unfolds quickly through a series of charged conversations amongst colleagues that can be stacked up in numerous ways.  For Rebeck, context is key.  Because the audience enters the drama at its apex, there is no real basis for evaluating the truth of the claims that are made but that won’t stop us from speculating about what’s really going on in this office.  The play is wonderfully staged by Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who has managed to re-create a sleek office environment with a few rotating props.

Sara Nealis plays Eliza in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against.” Eliza talks to her superior Ben about her frustrations about being systematically ignored by Stu and everyone else. Why is Weber given work when he has only been at the firm for six months--while she is given nothing. Photo: Magic Theatre.

The first act begins with deceit and builds on male disregard for Eliza.  Stu (Warren David Keith), the project’s lead architect, is angry that he’s been duped by Eliza into thinking that her design for the ducts, the logjam in the mall design project, was done by a man instead of “this cunt.”  Ben (Rod Gnapp), also a senior architect, doesn’t seem to like women either but recognizes that if Eliza has solved the problem, the project can move forward.  Be forwarned, the play opens with obscenities and doesn’t let up.

Eliza will be familiar to most of us— she’s young, blond, ambitious, outspoken, hardworking, and extremely talented—she’s likable but can be despicable too.  We’ve all met her, actually most of these characters, at some point in our professional lives.

Eliza’s interaction with her associate colleagues, Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) and Weber (James Wagner), is what makes this play worth the price of admission.  In this firm, ideas are translated and added to by coworkers, especially the slaving associates, while the principals, Stu and Ben, take on the alternating roles of creator and critic.   Being a good designer is everything but the criteria for “good design” is highly subjective.  

Everyone works to support the star, the designer at the top of the pyramid, who Stu and Ben are directly responsible to.  The system itself is authoritarian and outdated.  Sexism may define Eliza as a scribe to the males in this office but the system itself defines everyone but the star as second banana.  It works like a caste system with obtuse rewards and harsh punishments.  Everyone wants attribution and recognition but it’s hard to determine who is contributing what.   A few minutes into the play, you ntoice that no one seems fulfillfed.

Pamela Gay Walker (left) plays Janice , and Sara Nealis (right) plays Eliza in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against.” Eliza talks to Janice about being given an office the size of a broom closet at the end of a hallway. Photo: Magic Theatre.

Janice, a more senior associate, has thrown in the towel long ago, accepts her lesser position in the firm, and goes along with the boys.  In this dog-eat-dog setting, she has lost her fight, her confidence and resents Eliza’s drive and her bluntness.  Weber is the young male pup in the group.  Since the firm is ruled by a male-pack mentality, he’s protected and given chances to excel despite his lack of talent.   Stu and Ben are themselves under the thumb of the firm’s jet-setting guru, who they slave away for.  

Rebeck takes the topic of sexism and complicates it with strong personalities and an ambiguous context for evaluating professional success.  “What We’re Up Against” stands as a fascinating portrait of the human condition and a very unappealing firm. 

Run-time:  One hour and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Median Income for men in architecture: $70,330

Median Income for women in architecture: $55,805

In architecture, women earn 70% of what men earn.

Up Next at Magic Theatre:  Playwright and burlesque performer Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, winner of a 2010 Obie Award, opens April 21, 2011 at the Magic Theatre and runs through May 22, 2011.  When a flower falls in love with a blushing bride, can he complete a quest to become a man and win her love?  Taylor Mac and dozens of Bay Area artists tackle love, marriage and Prop 8, using vaudeville, haiku, drag queens, ukuleles, dream ballets and everything else in Mac’s theatrical arsenal. The Lily’s Revenge is a rolling world premiere with Magic Theatre, HERE Arts Center (New York), Southern Rep Theatre (New Orleans) and The National Theatre of Scotland.

Details: Magic Theatre is located on the third floor of Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, at the intersection of Marina Blvd. and Buchanan Street.  Parking: Low cost parking is located just inside the gates of Fort Mason Center (entrance at the intersection of Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard) and free parking is located just outside the entrance to Fort Mason Center, a short walk from the theatre.   Tickets: $20 to $60.  Box office (415) 441-8822 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting or     Seating: Audience members sit in three sections—2 side sections and a center section, and production are designed so that each vantage point provides a different experience.

February 19, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment