Theatre of the Reconstruction

at the Garage

For “disposable drama,” which is what Clive Barnes called Sam Shepard’s plays in 1970, The Unseen Hand holds up remarkably well. Written more than 20 years ago, Shepard’s comic science-fiction allegory resonates with a power and wisdom you would hardly think possible in a work this silly. There just aren’t that many plays about 120-year-old loners, resurrected Wild West outlaws, and aliens from other planets that also deal successfully with issues of free will and self-limitation. And this one does so in such an easy, unpretentious way that 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 were: “I scarcely understood a word.”)

The play concerns the 120-year-old Blue Morphan, the last living member of a once-notorious, now-forgotten band of outlaw brothers. For the past 20 years, Blue has lived in an abandoned Chevy in the desert on the outskirts of Azusa, California, drinking too much, eating only canned food, and carrying on long discussions with people who aren’t there.

One day this crazy old coot is visited by Willie, a strange bald man with a black hand burnt into his pate who tells an incredible story about having traveled two galaxies in search of Blue. For the first time in decades, Blue’s credulity is tested: it seems Willie belongs to a race of genetically enhanced Madrills, “fierce baboons that were forced into human form by the magicians of Nogo.” These magicians then enslaved the evolved primates, forcing them to labor in Nogoland’s diamond mines.

Like so many other aliens, Willie has powers far beyond those of mortal men. However, his advanced mind is restrained by the ominous “unseen hand.” Whenever Willie dares to think thoughts that transcend those of his magician masters, he feels a mind-numbing, thought-befuddling pain: “Whenever I think beyond a certain circumference of a certain circle, there’s a hand that squeezes my brain.” This happens quite often, since Willie and his cohorts have “capacities for thought and feeling far beyond those of [their] captors.”

So what does Willie want with a bitter, old alcoholic loner? Well, it seems only Blue, with the help of his deceased brothers, Cisco and Sycamore, can lead Willie and his people in their revolt against their captors. Quicker than you can say “What in tarnation?” Willie performs a strange ritualistic chant and dance that pull first Cisco and then Sycamore back from the dead.

Cisco is more than happy to join Willie’s crusade, but Sycamore has other plans. He wants to reorganize the gang and continue the spree interrupted by their untimely deaths a century before: “The Morphans ride again, except this time in a whole different century. This time we don’t make no mistakes. We stick to trains and forget about banks and post offices.” There’s only one problem: “There ain’t no trains to rob no more,” Blue explains. “Just planes and Hovercrafts and such like.” You can just about taste Sycamore’s disappointment when he says in a sorrowful voice, “No trains?” The only thing that cheers him up is the discovery that there are trains in Nogoland.

The plot’s complications continue in this vein: the Morphans do manage to help Willie, though hardly in the manner any of them would have expected.

Although his plot could have been lifted from Star Trek, Shepard never descends to the melodrama and preachiness that ruin so many other sci-fi stories. Certainly, hundreds of playwrights before and since have tried this kind of wry, self-conscious science-fiction allegory and failed miserably. Only crafty Shepard could have carried this one off.

Happily, Theatre of the Reconstruction is equal to the task of bringing Shepard’s play to life. Their stripped-down production, performed with a minimum of props and light cues, really flies, though it’s performed in what can only be called one of the worst performance spaces in town–the dark, drafty, and dirty Garage.

L.D. Smith’s five-man cast, however, seem hardly affected by their less-than-ideal performance space. Even on nights when the cast and crew outnumber the audience–as they did the night I went–the actors perform with such intensity and inspiration that you would have sworn they were playing to a full house.

Scott Baker in particular, with his odd primatelike movements and his eccentric delivery, makes a very credible alien. And Jim Bernacki and James Thoresen are suitably grizzled and gritty as Blue and Cisco Morphan. Only Paul Tamney, who plays his character as a cheap imitation of Rick Moranis, and Smith himself, who makes Sycamore Morphan too intellectual and distant, are not up to speed.

Still, it’s a pleasure to see actors who know what they’re doing and really throw themselves into the work. Just as it’s a pleasure to see a play that combines comedy and wisdom so well.