Sam Shepard crowded into my fevered sleep in the dead of night. Just hours after seeing his two remarkable plays, The Unseen Hand and The Killer’s Head, at Odyssey Theatre, I started thinking about the shows in a half-conscious state and a memory struck me. It is the image of the actor/playwright striding away from the rising smoke of a burning plane towards the cinema camera. In The Right Stuff, he plays the role of Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. Then my restive brain called up a degree-of-seperation recollection that he had studied with Wynn Handman, founder of New York’s American Place Theatre, where I had studied back in the 1970s. Eventually, I fell back into sleep where I had my normal odd dreams.
The two plays mentioned above are one-acts. The Killer’s Head (1975) is a curtain raiser, running about ten minutes or so. A condemned man (Steve Howey, on the evening I saw it) is blind-folded and strapped in an electric chair of the “Old Sparky” design. In a sort of faux calmness, he talks about horses and trucks as the end grows nearer. The effect on this audience member was profound and gripping. The tension ratchets up, increasing when he goes silent. Director Darrell Larson is content to have an audience sit and absorb the minutes. When the inevitable occurs, the slowest light fade I have ever seen gives a release that is perfect.
The Unseen Hand (1969) is an outrageous, comedic romp. When the audience enters, one cannot but wonder what the heck will transpire. A old convertible, which we learn eventually is a 1951 Chevrolet, is rusty, beat-up, and has flat tires. Upstage, an electrical panel has KILL AZUSA tagged on it. It’s nighttime, and the old roadster is off a main road. The headlights of passing cars flash across the scene. Eventually, an old reprobate named Blue (Carl Weintraub), levers himself up in the back seat and clambers out of the car with the doddering slowness of a man truly ancient.
He wanders around the stage, talking to audience and swigging whisky. As played with delightful bravado by Mr. Weintraub, the character inevitably calls to mind old coots from the past, like Gabby Hayes and Walter Huston. But this is not a western. No, it turns out to be a playful science fiction comedy. Out of a flash of light and a huge amount of stage smoke, a short guy comes on oddly garbed and shaking as if freezing. It is Willie (the extraordinary Matt Curtin), a being from another world who has come seeking help from Blue and his gun-slinging brothers, Cisco (ebullient Jordan Morgan), and Sycamore (steely Chris Payne Gilbert). This is a little confusing until you figure out that Blue is a hundred-and-forty-something years old and Willie has managed to summon the brothers from the dead. You see, Willie’s people back from wherever he came from are woefully oppressed and only these desperados can help. (This is more plot than I like to expose, but anyone reading this will have forgotten by the time they go to the theatre.)
Another character stumbles in, his pants down around his feet. It is Kid (tall, earnest Andrew Morrison), an Azusa High School cheerleader who has been woefully abused by a gang of school thugs. He has been pantsed and whipped with belts. Pretty pathetic, but he is critical to the plot, of which I will say no more.
Under the keen direction of Darrell Larson, the pace of action is brisk. The show benefits from the talents of set designer Song Yi Park; lighting designer Bosco Flanagan; with costumes and props by Denise Blasor. Original music is composed by Mitch Greenhill, and sound design is by Mitch Greenhill and Bo Powell. The assistant director is Ashlee Bell Caress and the stage manager is Jacob Price.
The Unseen Hand and The Killer’s Head, produced by Ron Sossi and Bo Powell and presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, runs through March 8 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.