Review: The Unseen Hand (Theatre Brouhaha/The Playwright Project)

The Unseen Hand is another gem of Toronto theatre from The Playwright Festival

The Playwright Project gives burgeoning production companies an opportunity to produce plays by an established playwright at venues in neighborhoods across the city. This year they are featuring plays by Sam Shepard and I saw The Unseen Hand in the basement of The Magic Oven on the Danforth.

I felt that I was somewhat familiar with Shepard’s work, but I was pretty astounded at the content of the show. It begins with an old man muttering to himself about his past exploits in the Wild West. He says he is at least 120 years old and one of three brothers who led a gang of outlaws in endeavours  like robbing trains.

His garrulous claims are proven true when he is visited by a man from another planet named Willie. He is descended from a race of baboons who have been genetically modified to be almost – but not quite – human so that their masters can justify enslaving them. The masters have also implanted a feature in their brain – the titular Unseen Hand – that causes great pain whenever they think of concepts that are beneath their lowly place in life. Willie has won a gladiator match and escaped earth to find the old man, Blue, make him young again, and resurrect his brothers, Sisco and Sycamore so they can help free his race from the domination of their overlords.

Soon another interloper appears, this one a male cheerleader who is hiding from bullies, and who happens to be very knowledgeable about methods of guerilla warfare. Willie makes good on his claim to be able to bring Blue’s brothers back from the dead, and they are true old West outlaws who don’t understand the concept of motor vehicles anymore that they understand the concept of male cheerleaders.

My companion for the night was my mother, who has been a great little theatre director and is the main influence that brought me to the love of theatre. Neither she nor I were familiar with The Unseen Hand, though familiar with Shepard’s work (at least in terms of True West and Lie of the Mind) and so were surprised at how outlandish it is. Now that I have been able to look it up and see that it was one of his earlier works, it makes more sense.

The themes of slavery and free will seem a little outdated (and also having the character embodying free will actually being named “Willie” is kind of a groaner) but given the interplay between western and science fiction genres, and the camp appeal, it came across as timeless while actually watching it. It helps that director Kat Sandler and her cast have an excellent sense of timing and ability to play for maximum humour. Kevin Ritchie, who plays Willie, puts on an especially athletic and impressive performance.

I really did not know what to make of this show while in the moment, but I was very entertained the entire time. It’s a sci-fi western set in the seventies, and it made a lot of sense to find out afterwards on Wikipedia that it had influenced the creation of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

My mother (being a mother) had some quibbles with the production: the car is referred to as a Chevy many times but the fender used to represent the car was not from a Chevy; the musician was a better guitar player than he was a singer;  and Sisco’s costuming seemed out of place. I know less about cars than I know about singing, but I agree that I had a problem with Cisco’s appearance, though mine was simply that his hair was too contemporary and clean-cut.

Yes, my biggest problem with this production is a haircut. Theatre Brouhaha’s take on The Unseen Hand is a fantastic opportunity to see a talented team of young theatre professionals do a play that should really be a camp classic.