Years ago a bunch of us were talking about our favorite movies. “The Princess Bride” came up and almost everyone chimed in with their favorite moment or scene from the movie. The conversation abruptly stopped dead in its tracks when someone said, “I didn’t get it.” Dumbfounded, most of us just stared at them in disbelief. Someone finally said, “What’dya mean you didn’t ‘get it?’ What’s to get?”
Not all of us “get” the same things, of course. One man’s piece of garbage is another’s treasure, and all that. So it follows that a sense of humor varies from one person to the other.
Sometimes “getting” something is not the issue. You can’t “get” something if it’s not written, presented, or spoken of in an effective way. This takes skill; the sort of skill we sometimes take for granted and which takes time to develop.
I went to a theatre to see an evening of one-acts by a trio of skilled film and stage writers, but I’m not sure that these three pieces were good representations of what most of us know these writers for. However, it was fun to see that even the very best among us has a need to practice their skill set, and that not every last thing they create is an instant hit.
The three one-acts were by Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Sam Shepard. Allen’s piece—which was every bit a Woody Allen piece—felt like an exercise designed to flush out the concept behind his film “Match Point.” The Steve Martin and Sam Shepard pieces were absurdist; at least they seemed to be an attempt at such. But then, I’m no academic, so what do I know of absurdist from quirky comedy? Anyway, Martin’s piece was about a magician obsessed with his assistant, which echoed bits from his “Shop Girl” film. It was OK. But, God knows what Sam Shepard was going for when he wrote the one-act play, “The Unseen Hand.”
I don’t think it was ever meant for film, as he was primarily working in theatre when he wrote it in 1969 at the diamond-in-the-rough age of 25. Whatever it was meant to be, “The Unseen Hand” made me feel as though I was either a bourgeois twit too shallow for her own good, or that I’m right-on-the-money when I say that Shepard should not have attempted to channel Samuel Beckett or Lewis Carroll. Or, for that matter, the writers of the original “Star Trek” or “Twilight Zone” TV series, however influenced he may have been by their work. What I can do is excuse “The Unseen Hand” as a youthful attempt at all of that, for it played very much like the student work I used to go see when I was in college.
The problem of presenting early works of well-known writers is that they were not yet at the level of accomplishment that later pushed them into the spotlight. Had I a better sense of that before I saw the presentation (it might have been mentioned in the Director’s notes in the program, but I arrived too late to read the program), I would have been able to see the play differently. Still, for a professional theatre company to decide to present three not-quite-to-snuff pieces by otherwise very accomplished writers, however laudable, is a strange choice.
Because Sam Shepard’s piece threw me for such a loop, I have to share more about it. I’ll start with a review of the play I found on the internet, dated from a 1989 production in Chicago:
For “disposable drama,” which is what [New York Times Theatre Critic] Clive Barnes called Sam Shepard’s plays in 1970… Shepard’s comic science-fiction allegory [The Unseen Hand] resonates with a power and wisdom you would hardly think possible in a work this silly… [the play deals] successfully with issues of free will and self-limitation. … And if you don’t bother to reflect on it, you might think—as Clive Barnes thought—that you’ve just seen a crazy, somewhat incoherent, but diverting little comedy (Barnes’s exact words in regards to The Unseen Hand: “I scarcely understood a word.”)
–Jack Helbig, Chicago Reader, 1989
Fifteen years after its first production, when Mr. Helbig saw “The Unseen Hand,” Shepard had emerged as a leading figure in both film and theatre. So the only reason I can figure as to why Mr. Helbig saw any redeeming quality in the play might be because he felt compelled to go digging for it in light of Mr. Shepard’s otherwise accomplished work. I can’t help but wonder what his assessment would have been had he seen the original production when Shepard was still an unknown.
Helbig was right about one thing: The play was definitely was incoherent. He might have thought this “diverting little comedy successfully dealt with issues” of one kind or the other, but I most certainly didn’t see it. In fact, some years later, after Clive Barnes made his comment about Shepard’s early work, Shepard stated in an interview he agreed with Barnes’ assessment of his early plays as being disposable. This was one of them.
The following is my take and synopsis of the production I saw of “The Unseen Hand”:
The scene is an abandoned 50s era convertible Dodge on the side of a country highway in the middle of nowhere, outside the town of Azusa (“Everything from A to Z in the USA”). An old, twangy-sounding geezer dressed in the 1880s pioneer clothing and a Mexican serape wakes up in the back seat and proceeds to carry on a clearly delusional conversation with a non-existent driver. This goes on for a while. We get bored, but at least we know it’s the late 60s and that the old guy hates hippies.
Suddenly a weird character with an ET-like glowing-green index finger is thrown onstage. This odd-ball person is bald on top, with grey long hair sticking out from under a tennis headband. A striking black hand-print is on his scalp. The costumer gave this creature a sort-of 80s vibe, with broad shoulders, crop jacket, pants tucked in black flat-soul boots. Black makeup covers his eyes like a painted-on mask. The character talks in that corny, stilted way, given to characters whose first language is not English, like Tonto in the old Lone Ranger TV series. The new character with the hand print on his head and a glowing green index finger tip seems to know our friend in the car, “Blue,” but Blue… don’t know him. Figures him for one of dem goddamned long-haired hippies.
Through the strange antics of the odd–ball, who we learn is called “Willy,” we discover that Blue is 150 years old, and Willy is the outcast from another planet—a planet of baboons, who were turned into humans by some other sort of other aliens; crazy marauding scientists who enslaved Willy’s baboon culture for experimentation. Willy is trying to free his world from the Crazy Alien Scientists and, somehow, knew to come to Earth to find Blue and get his former band of outlaw comancheros back together to help free his planet (and, using his green-glowing index finger, which, by the way, didn’t always alight on cue, and something more about how he was able to escape his planet, which I wasn’t able to follow).
Willy is controlled by the Black Hand on his head, and often descends into strange fits as a result. He does all the weirdo things extraterrestrials (allegedly) do, like speaking in tongues, throwing conniption fits and writhing on the ground. The finger goes off and on sometimes, too. Just in case we aren’t entirely clear about the “other worldliness” of the fits, the mic’d voice of the actor playing Willy goes into a reverb echo, and the stage lights change to bright strobes. Then Willy collapses, and the stage lights go back to normal. This happens a lot.
Turns out, Willy already has made contact with Blue’s former bank-robbin’ gang, who turn out to be his two younger brothers, Cisco and Sycamore (I believe the names Blue, Cisco and Sycamore are supposed to be a satirical hat-tip to old Western movies and novels, but maybe I’m wrong). Both brothers have been dead, lo, these 75 or more years, killed in a heist gone bad (but one that Blue escaped to live to be 150. We never learn why).
After a couple of Willy’s fits the dead brothers appear, one at a time. Cisco’s the first one. A real whipper-snapper this guy is, complete with the falsetto hillbilly drawl and a lot of ya-whooo-lets-go-have-us-a-high-time-in-the-old-town-tonight cornball B.S. We spend a lot of time—too much time—learning the whole backstory of the brothers, and get really bored while Blue explains to Cisco how much things have changed in the 75 years he’s been dead. We don’t care that Cisco is caught up! WE want to understand what the hell’s going on, so please spend more time getting US up to speed…but I digress…
In the meantime, after another one of Willy’s fits, Blue is made a young man again, which is demonstrated by the actor standing up tall and dancing a little jig of sorts. This is important to Willy because he needs all three brothers in their former fightin’ form. Then Sycamore shows up (after yet another of Willy’s fits) looking like a 19th Century “out west” banker, complete with black bowler hat. Sycamore doesn’t want to have anything to do with Willy’s plans for the three of them to save Willy’s planet.
Suddenly, we have conflict in the plot! But that’s as far as it goes. Nothing about Sycamore’s reluctance is resolved.
Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention Cisco and Sycamore know Willy from way back (way back…where?! when?!) and have absolutely no questions about, 1) being risen from the dead, 2) being risen from the dead by a weird creature named Willy, 3) how their brother Blue has lived to 150 years of age, 4) being asked to save a planet of baboons turned human from mad alien scientists. No questions, whatsoever. However, the playwright thought it was important to bore us to death with Blue’s long dissertation to Cisco about how things have changed in the past 75 years (*ugh*).
In the middle of all this arrives the comic relief (because this has been a very serious play up to this point…?) A teenaged boy, dressed in a gleaming white cheer outfit with a red letter “A” emblazoned on his chest (for Azusa, from A to Z and everything between in the USA, as someone is always prone to repeat) is thrown from a passing car and rolls onto our weird little scene. The teenager’s pants are down around his ankles and his legs are covered in large red scars and welts. We sit patiently while he, somewhat drunkenly and for a loooooooong time, shrieks, curses and berates the jerks who just tossed him on the side of the road. His ranting and scolding goes on, and on, and on, and on…all the while his pants stay down around his ankles. Thus the comic relief, I suppose.
Eventually he notices the weird bunch staring at him. An exchange of confusion ensues. It was actually refreshing to see the characters on stage in the same state of confusion as the audience.
Anyway, one thing and the other, and Willy freaks and fits and passes out…again…and the brothers argue who got who killed on that last heist…and suddenly, Cheerleader Boy goes into another loooooong rant about how they need to organize like a guerrilla war gang to save Willy’s planet-of-the-apes from the Weird Science Aliens. We get a looooooong academic, and totally hysterical lecture (by that, I don’t mean “funny,” but a character on the brink of a breakdown) on the inner workings of guerrilla warfare by Cheerleader Boy. Oh, no…the pants remain down around the ankles because, as he whines at one point, the fabric of his pants chafes against the welts of the “belt-whoopin’ he got from those dumb assholes.” So, the pants stay down around his ankles the entire show (but the bit about chafing at least affords us one small explanation for the whateverness that’s happening on stage).
But now, we have the real problem: The playwright, having painted himself into a corner with absolutely nowhere to go with the “plot,” throws a hail-Mary by pitching Willy into yet another non-sequitur fit, this time sucking the Cheerleader into it with him. The Cheerleader is left for dead, or maybe for a blithering idiot shivering on the floor (it was hard to tell). Having channeled the Cheerleader’s energy and his guerrilla warfare insight, Willy declares he is at last free of the Black Handprint on his head, points his glowing green index finger off stage left and runs away, never to be seen again.
The brother’s hem and haw. Cheerleader Boy continues to lie on the stage shivering. Blue and Cisco shrug, and decide to make a go of it in the world outside Azusa, but Sycamore decides to stay. They say good-bye, in a strangely calm and anti-climactic manner, especially after so much yelling, jumping and fit-pitching, and Blue and Cisco saunter off stage right.
Just like that, Sycamore suddenly turns old and bent, talkin’ in the corny twang like his ol’ brother Blue, and starts going on and on in conversation with the phantom driver of the convertible ’59 Dodge. He crawls into the back seat of the car, wraps himself in his brother’s serape, falls asleep, and lights fade to black.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it was a good 30 seconds before the audience started to clap.
OH! I forgot. There were some ping-pong balls, like about 10 or so, that fall from the sky the last time Willy was in a fit and channeled Cheerleader Boy, which helped the audience know that his planet-of-the-apes was at last free. I am not making this up. (According to a friend who read the script) it’s written in the script for ping-pong balls to fall down on the stage from above.
At least I had one thing to look forward to in all of that “Waiting for Guffman” whateverness: The Cheerleader, played by a well-figured young man, was not wearing the sort of underwear a teenaged cheerleader youth of that era would most likely be wearing, which would be “tighty-whiteys.” No. The actor chose to wear a jock strap. Now, maybe, as he was playing a cheerleader, who, in the course of his activities of cheering might feel the need to be in a pair of athletic supporters rather than just undies. I don’t know. I’m not a man, so I won’t comment further on that.
The point is he wasn’t actually a cheerleader; he was an actor in a nonsensical play. Staying true to period dress is not that important, especially considering he’s not in a film, but on stage in front of an audience; a very small stage in a very small auditorium, designed to give actor and audience the feeling of reach-out-and-touch intimacy.
Because of this intimacy, each and every time he flailed, flopped and fell about in his constant state of hysterical hysteria that rivaled Willy’s fits (and, which I mentioned would go on for long periods of time), the audience got a fabulously detailed view of his very well-endowed anatomy, as well as an excellent opportunity to observe how very black the hairs on his bum were. From where I was seated, I got the particularly awkward view of not only his black haired full-monty behind, but also a peek-a-boo of his anus the entire time he was in his final fetal position at the end of the play; a position he remained in for the last 10 or more minutes of the show. Why the actor chose to collapse with his bum pointed downstage toward the audience instead of discretely upstage, I will not speculate. I mean, I’ve heard of “upstaging” other actors, but, as I said, I will not speculate.
Anyway, like the person who didn’t “get” The Princess Bride, I didn’t “get” The Unseen Hand, but I’m sure someone was having a good laugh.
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