Theater Review: KILLER’S HEAD & THE UNSEEN HAND (Sam Shepard One-Acts at the Odyssey)

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by Joan Alperin on January 30, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


When I think of the late Sam Shepard, his plays Fool for Love, True West, Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class usually come to mind. I was totally unfamiliar with Killer’s Head and The Unseen Hand now playing as a double bill at the Odyssey in celebration of the theater’s 50th anniversary.

Killer’s Head first premiered at New York’s American Place Theatre in 1975 starring a then unknown Richard Gere. As part of the Odyssey’s Circa ’69 season, this ten-minute rambling monologue stars Steve Howey and will be played by several other actors throughout the run, including Dermot Mulroney. A blindfolded man is strapped into an electric chair as he awaits execution. It took me a few minutes to understand what was happening, as the murderer goes on and on about buying a new pickup truck and horse breeding and training. How avant-garde is the writing? The most interesting part was at the end: after a jarring light and loud noise, the man dies. I have no idea why Shepard wrote it. It’s James Joyce, Ambrose Bierce, and Sam Beckett on an LSD trip. Only Shepard cultists need apply.

Luckily the second play on the bill is much more interesting. The Unseen Hand is E.T. meets the Old West in Azusa. Meet the 120-year-old Blue Morphan (the excellent Carl Weintraub) who has been living for 20 years in the back of his broken-down 1951 Chevy convertible on the side of a highway. A survivor of The Wild West, he tells us about his two long dead brothers and babbles on about things that frighten him, including drivers in fast cars that occupy the roads. In a puff of smoke comes Willie (Matt Curtin), an alien from another space and time, obviously not from Earth.

Willie lets us know that his race has descended from baboons and that his people are enslaved. Then Blue’s two dead brothers, Cisco (Jordan Morgan) and Sycamore (Chris Payne Gilbert) appear. These legendary gunslingers, killers and rapists have been resurrected to help Willie free the inhabitants of his planet. Also in the mix is The Kid (Andrew Morrison) who was plucked from a fast moving car. The Kid loves Azusa and he enjoys talking about every landmark in his home town.

As with Shepard’s best works, The Unseen Hand is at times extremely funny, but it’s also commentary on the loss of innocence and individuality. It’s very unpredictable and profound, proving once again what a great writer Shepard was. It’s an offbeat and occasionally perplexing night of theater, but the actors hurl into the material with wildness – rowdy, rough, and ready. Sure, some may be bewildered by the 85-minute play, but you won’t be able to turn away from the acting, expertly guided by director Darrel Larson.

photos by Enci Box

Killer’s Head & The Unseen Hand
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A.
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2;
Wed (Feb. 5 & Mar. 4) & Thurs (Feb 20) at 8
ends on March 8, 2020
for tickets and dates, call 310.477.2055
or visit Odyssey

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