In the well-known Greek creation myth, the Titan Cronus desperately seeks to prevent the prophecy that one of his offspring will overthrow him, as he did to his own father, Uranus. Cronus’ mighty power and desperate attempts to avoid his fate prove useless, and soon his enraged son, Zeus, appears to wage a climactic battle for the throne of the world. The concept of generational conflict, with the old guard battling a ruthless new breed, has filtered down through countless storytelling traditions, and now WSC Avant Bard explores this fundamental struggle through the lens of Sam Shepard’s post-apocalyptic rock fantasy, The Tooth of Crime.
The Tooth of Crime takes place in a ruined desert wasteland – supposedly all that remains of the American southwest after some calamity has wiped out any semblance of society. The only order that remains is “The Game,” a confluence of violence and rock music. The combatants are “Markers” who fight to secure vast swaths of territory with different musical styles and weapons, under the strict rule of “The Keepers.”
Aging rocker Hoss rules as the undisputed champion of the Markers until the arrival of Crow, a violent young Gypsy Marker with no regard for rules or the old ways. Crow’s goals and tactics violate everything Hoss stands for, and more than just territory hangs in the balance as they duel upon the black stage.
Director Kathleen Akerley has done a remarkable job molding her actors’ tongues and personas to fit Shepard’s challenging language. The playwright’s dense lingo seems to draw upon such sources as Old West, Doo Wop, Rock, and Mexican Spanish, as well as Shepard’s own fertile imagination. Interestingly, Shepard deliberately eschews major exposition in favor of embedding each character’s secret history deep within their words and cadence. This puts the onus on the audience to suss out the necessary context from the characters’ outlandish speech.
The choice proves to be a double edged sword. At times, the exchanges are fascinating, hinting at a savage world where language has evolved into a sort of weapon in and of itself. However, the vocabulary sometimes wades into overly dense, self serving territory, like a long stretch of opera deliberately left without subtitles. The strong performances are hobbled by lengthy passages without any linguistic lifelines, wherein the audience is left to tread water in an unfamiliar ocean of language. The appearance of a hilariously blunt, plain-spoken referee late in the show only underscores the issue.
The solid cast rises to the challenge of Shepard’s tongue twisting dialogue and Burnett’s slightly more discernible lyrics. John Tweel makes a likable, gruff leading man. As legendary Marker Hoss, he employs a mix of bravado and vulnerability to flesh out a complex portrait of an old school rocker battling a strange and hostile future. Cyle Durkee is perfectly cast as creepy DJ Ruido Ran. This spaceman of the airwaves chews each word with gusto, divining Hoss’s future with a wave of his royal purple fan.
Tom Carman is mesmerizing as Gypsy killer Crow. After exploding onto the stage to start act two with the electro-creep number “The Rat Age,” Carman grabs the spotlight in a stranglehold and doesn’t let go. He preens and struts sporting red leather and dark eyeliner, like the flame haired lovechild of David Bowie and Mick Jagger. He carefully tests every step he makes, as if the floor is about to drop away at any moment. Carman’s young, fresh-faced appearance conceals a vicious, coiled energy, which lashes out as his confrontation with Hoss reaches full bore. It’s a bravura performance from a young actor who, I predict, will be captivating audiences for years.
The musical presentation is frustratingly inconsistent, with captivating moments often disrupted by muddy acoustics and mixing. The actors sing their hearts out, but their efforts and many of Burnett’s inventive lyrics get lost in the wail of instruments or audio fuzz, which is a shame. Solving the sound balance issues would immediately reinvigorate the challenged musical numbers.
On the positive side, scenic designer Jessica Moretti has constructed a bold vision for this dystopian rock fantasy. A black slab bristling with tiny lights forms the central platform, while rusted road signs and other abandoned symbols of Americana surround the performers on all sides. A throne of guitars sits against the theater’s sun blasted desert backdrop, giving an unintended nod toward the epic conflict at the heart of the ubiquitous “Game of Thrones.”
The Tooth of Crime presents a mind-bending glimpse into a bleak future where music and ammunition are king. If you can get past the sound issues and tongue-tied passages, you’ll find a raft of rich performances set against an immersive wasteland atmosphere. Come for the inventive fusion of western, science fiction, and musical themes; Stay for Carman’s Crow, a dark rock god who grows more dangerous and fascinating with every passing minute.
The Tooth of Crime is running in repertory with The Bacchae thru July 1, 2012 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA.
The Tooth of Crime
By Sam Shepard
Music and Words by T. Bone Burnett
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Music Directed by Neil McFadden
Incidental Music Composition by Tom Carman
Choreographed by Melissa-Leigh Bustamante
Produced by WSC Avant Bard
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission