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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Drama Offers Slice of Joyous '60s Americana

Sam Shepard's black comedy, 'Unseen Hand,' reminds us of the substance behind an often-maligned decade.

November 21, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Self-appointed pundits have lectured us as a nation about the evils of the '60s. That culturally explosive decade has been demonized--often by people who never understood it in the first place--so completely that the very mention of the phrase the '60s is uttered with a smirk and a rolling of the eyes.

But the '60s was also an era of liberated expression that redefined every art form. Sam Shepard was one of the American theater's supreme liberators at the time, and his "The Unseen Hand," in a rowdy, head-banging revival at the Eclectic Company Theatre, is undiluted, joyous, insanely '60s Americana.

Director Matthew Wilder's thoroughly conceptualized staging also brings into question the standard take on Shepard: that he wrote druggy, sloppy, scattered riffs rather than plays in the '60s, and then became a real playwright in the '70s. This edition of "The Unseen Hand," attuned to every word, comma and disjuncture that turn the play into a blackly comic collage, reveals a vision blending goofy anarchy with deep yearning, rock 'n' roll theater with the poetry of loss.

A 120-year-old cowboy named Blue Morphan (Silas Weir Mitchell has waked up in modern-day Azusa (which happens to also be the Southern California neighborhood Shepard grew up in). But unlike Rip Van Winkle, he's expecting company: his cowboy brothers Cisco (Michael Dunn) and Sycamore (Curt Kaplan).

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Blue runs into problems though. First, he's accosted by a visiting ET--Willie the Space Freak (Christopher Holloway), trying to recruit tough guys like Blue to help liberate the oppressed people back on his planet. (This is one of Shepard's best-ever jokes on '60s liberation movements.) Then, he has to contend with The Kid (Charles Santore), a gender-confused cheerleader airhead from Azusa who seems harmless but turns sinister.

Wilder provides each character with an operatic entrance, dramatically from the theater's far rear door, accompanied by David S. Thayer's kaleidoscopic lighting and intense, John Zorn-like music--all of it lending the usually small Eclectic stage epic dimensions. Shepard's characters are all like competing grand divas, hyper individuals placing their stake in a Far West strung between the 19th and, well, 29th century.

What is finally remarkable about play and production both is how they pump up the anarchic volume, demand maximum listener attention, and dare to rock your world, yet conclude with real bonding between men with hopes and dreams, some aware that their best days may be behind them.

Mitchell and Kaplan especially express this sense of humanity, cutting through their spaghetti western personas. Dunn suggests a different note of comic confusion, while Holloway and Santore go full throttle with outrageously inventive performances that could have gone so wrong. Holloway blends a vaguely mechanistic physicality with a haunted voice that makes him a cousin to Spielberg's own ET.

But before "The Unseen Hand" ends in a moment of stunning meditation, it is crafty, high-wire fun. That's another thing we could learn from the '60s.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "The Unseen Hand."

* WHERE: Eclectic Theatre Company, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Dec. 14.

* HOW MUCH: $7.

* CALL: (213) 957-0868.

FOR FOTO SLUGGED drama #1

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