Theater Around The Bay: Robert Estes recaps Boxcar’s Shep In Rep Festival

Seeing the brilliantly realized Shep in Rep at Boxcar brought back memories of both my first time ever seeing a play and of directing my first play.

Late in the summer of 1980, I took a journey from the placid suburbs of Walnut Creek to the then strange locale of Fort Mason (which, I soon figured, out was the suburbs of the city). I can’t understand this now, but at the time it seemed like such a harrowing undertaking that I took my dad along for comfort.  I was already twenty but just going to the city required a guardian. Odd? I guess I grew up slow—very slow.

The purpose of our expedition: to see the world premiere of a new play at the Magic Theatre (a place I obviously had never been to before) called True West. How perfect that just about the only play I’ve ever been to with my dad is by the master of the father/son play: Sam Shepard.

Driving across the Bay Bridge that night, I remember thinking, “I have no idea what this play is about; what if it is really weird?” My dad is solidly conservative but he loved the desert rat, Lee, played by Jim Haynie, and the comedy of the play. We both could see my brother and me in the conflicted brother characters of Austin and Lee, each desperately wanting to be the other.

When I look back now, I wonder, what if I had taken him to a different Shepard play? For instance, Curse of the Starving Class, which I directed at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley in 2010. By most standards, Curse is a weird play.  Unlike True West, it is not about relationships in our family. It is about the other family; the dysfunctional family: the family that the neighbors feel sorry for.

In this other family the brother is mean to his sister- early in the play he pisses on her charts. The daughter dreams of escaping. The son can’t quite measure up to the father.  The mother is sporadically concerned for her daughter but just can’t understand her.

Funny, I’ve never been mean to my brother. My brother never dreams of escaping- he just travels all the time for other reasons. I’ve always measured up to my dad. And my mother has always completely understood me. If you believe one shred of the above, I’ve got a great piece of desert land in Hot Springs to sell to you (just like the worthless plot the father buys) and I’ve got a great way for you to live in denial: just pretend that Curse is not about your family in a very basic way.

In directing Curse, the great discovery was that the “other” family became our family. Yes, the Tate clan might be just a tad more dramatic then your family or mine, but they are as tied together as closely as yours or mine: they know each other as well as yours or mine know each other, they dream of escaping just as every family member does at one time or another, and, not to give away the ending, but you might say that they share the same common fate. The “other” is us.

To Boxcar’s credit, their revelatory productions in Shep in Rep made each of the “other” families in True West, Buried Child, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind our families as well.

Robert Estes is a local director and dramaturg, theater supporter and fan. He’s now also the latest in our line of guest bloggers sending in their impressions and experiences of making and seeing theater in the Bay Area. Got a story yourself? Let us know!

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