nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
October 5, 2006
If you can expect anything from Nicu's Spoon, the fascinating company behind this revival of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, it's that they will do the unexpected. The main twist in this otherwise straightforward production is the casting of deaf actor Darren Fudenske in the pivotal role of Tilden. The decision, much like this production as a whole, bothered me at first but ultimately was something I found rewarding.
The play begins with Dodge (Jim Williams), an old man, huddled under a blanket on a couch, bathed in the light of his television. He is having a loud conversation with his offstage wife Halie (an occasionally too shrill Wynne Anders), which is eventually interrupted by the appearance of Tilden, their adult son, who is bearing a load of mysterious corn. Dodge is helpless, and none of his family seems terribly interested in helping him. A pall hangs over everyone; Halie cannot stop talking about her lost son, and Tilden, who has moved back in with his parents, can accomplish little. Halie goes out to socialize with the pastor (she often leaves for days at a time, Dodge tells us), leaving Tilden to care for Dodge. Tilden waits until Dodge falls asleep, steals his whiskey, and leaves. The next person who appears is the middle son, Bradley (David Marantz in a bravura performance that goes from terrifying to hilarious in a matter of moments), who shaves his father's head, cutting him, and then vanishes.
Into this mess appears the seemingly normal Vince (the very appealing Erwin Falcon) Tilden's estranged son, with his girlfriend Shelly (Wendy P. Clifford). Vince hasn't seen any of his family in six years, and is expecting the idyllic world of his childhood. Instead, he arrives to find his grandmother absent and that neither his father nor his grandfather recognize him. He goes out on an errand, leaving the confused and terrified Shelley alone for much longer than she expected. Tilden quickly warms to her, and hints at the dark secret that started the family's decline.
In discussing this production, one obviously has to talk about the major choice, which is the casting of Fudenske as Tilden, and I honestly don't know how I felt about him. I simply could not understand a single one of his lines. The other characters occasionally repeat what he is saying, but major plot points are missed because of this, and I had to go back and re-read the play to see where the major revelation of the second half is being foreshadowed. As it is, it comes out of nowhere. On the other hand, Fudenske is an impressive and compelling stage presence, and I found Tilden tremendously likeable and felt great sympathy for his plight. The problem was that it was hard to tell exactly what that plight was.
I think director Stephanie Barton-Farcas would have done well to have the actors go for a less broad, more realistic performance style (especially Anders and Williams). Shepard's play is absurd enough, and I think the play would have been a little more believable had we been watching more realistic characterizations. Once Vince and Shelley enter and the mechanics of the plot get moving, however, the tension of why everyone is acting so strangely and what kind of secrets are being concealed held my interest, and I was interested and entertained through the end of the two hour and twenty minute running time.
Buried Child was Shepard's breakthrough play, winning him the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Shepard was unhappy with the original production, however, and Nicu's Spoon mounts his 1995 revision of the script. The mix of tragic and comic, realistic and absurd, can be hard to do, and there are many moments throughout the production that didn't quite feel right to me. They were outweighed, however, by the good, and I left the theatre moved and satisfied even if I wasn't entirely sure why. Whether they all work or not, I congratulate Nicu's Spoon for making truly bold and different choices, and look forward to seeing more of their work in the future.