Dancing bears and a Wild West alien: Black Box PAC presents three Sam Shepard one-acts

sam shepard review

Michael Gardiner, left, and Daniel Yaiullo co-star in “The Unseen Hand” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

For New Jersey theater-goers whose taste for absurdity isn’t quenched by The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s current production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” I would recommend a trio of one-act Sam Shepard plays — “The Unseen Hand,” “Action” and “Little Ocean” — currently being presented together at The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

“Action” and “Little Ocean,” which last about 40 minutes each, are followed by an intermission, and then the approximately hour-long “The Unseen Hand.”

Beckett was one of Shepard’s main influences, and his imprint can be seen all over these three rarely revived works, which — in the hands of Black Box PAC’s game-for-anything actors, under the direction of Matt Okin — make for a lively, surprise-filled evening of head-spinning entertainment.

I used “rarely revived” in the previous paragraph, though that is actually an overstatement when it comes to one of the evening’s offerings, “Little Ocean.” Though produced in London in 1974, “Little Ocean” has never been published, and has never been produced in the United States before now.

From left, “Little Ocean” actresses Danielle MacMath, Sarah O’Sullivan and Ilana Schimmel.

I found it, honestly, the least rewarding of these three works, an aimless collection of monologues and skits having to do with pregnancy and related topics (including the Biblical story of Adam & Eve) featuring three actresses (Danielle MacMath, Ilana Schimmel and Sarah O’Sullivan) who play multiple characters, with a variety of accents. O-Lan Jones — who was married to Shepard from 1969 to 1984 and co-starred in the ’74 London production — served as a creative consultant for the Black Box PAC production, and writes in the program that “Little Ocean” represents “a rare excursion into a completely feminine world for Sam.”

I can see the value in rescuing a work by a major playwright such as Shepard from obscurity, and giving those interested in his work a chance to see it onstage. I also understand, though, why Shepard never published “Little Ocean,” or returned to it.

There are more substantial fireworks, though, in “The Unseen Hand” and “Action.”

“The Unseen Hand” (1969), improbably, blends elements of science fiction and westerns, with Schimmel as a jittery extra-terrestrial, Willie; Michael Gardiner as an ornery, loquacious 120-year old man, Blue Morphan, who lives in his car; Daniel Yaiullo and Arthur Gregory Pugh as Blue’s formerly dead outlaw brothers, Cisco and Sycamore, whom Willie is able to bring back to life; and Jeremy Niles as a straightlaced, bullied male cheerleader, Kid.

It’s the most plot-driven of the three plays, has the most elaborate set (consisting, mostly, of that broken-down car and assorted junk) and builds to the evening’s most explosive ending. But like the other two, it has plenty of space for bizarre humor, long speeches, philosophical overtones, and general unpredictability.

“Action” (1975) is the most “Waiting for Godot”-like of the three plays. Gardiner, Schimmel, MacMath and Niles play four friends or relatives (I’m not sure) spending a desolate holiday together. All seem to be in a daze, as if they’re trying to recover from a trauma. And everything seems to be a big off: The big holiday meal, for instance, turns out to be a huge turkey, and water.



Liza (MacMath) fixates on household tasks. Lupe (Schimmel) seems obsessed with the fact that she can’t find the place where they left off in a book that they are collectively reading. Jeep (Niles) fills up a bucket with water from the well outside, and discovers that the bucket is full of fish.

Shooter (Gardiner) retrieves a chair with great difficulty, but once he sits down in it, he decides he’ll stay in it forever. “I’ll need a bedpan and some magazines,” he announces.

There are some great opportunities for physical comedy here, like when Shooter and Jeep see if they are able to do some soft-shoe dancing while sitting, or pretend to be dancing bears.

Like “The Unseen Hand” and “Little Ocean,” “Action” hints at all kinds of statements about politics, modern life and culture, etc., without ever cohering into a big, easily summarized one. I’m certainly not going to try to tell you what it all means: I suspect the late Shepard, in fact, would have been horrified if anyone ever had the audacity to make an attempt.

The Black Box Performing Arts Center will present “Action,” “The Unseen Hand” and “Little Ocean” through Oct. 8. Visit blackboxpac.com.

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