Light from an unexpected source
Len Jenkin's fascinating if inchoate 1984 play "My Uncle Sam"
loosely sets a surreal detective story within a prosaic memory-play
frame. It's a shape-shifting picaresque with tenuous dramatic grip, but
director Joshua Moyse's new production gives it a stunningly clear,
fluid style, with a monochrome set haunted by Jason Mullen's stark
side-lighting and animated by Rachel Eberhard's sharply demarcated
The tightly focused setting often lends this rough diamond a genuine
gem-like gleam. Jenkin begins and ends the play with a narrator (Paul
Plunkett) recalling his childhood awe for his Uncle Sam (Joe Jordan), a
retired novelties salesman who spent his waning years resolutely alone
in a Pittsburgh hotel. These scenes point us in a conventionally wistful
direction, with the ramrod Jordan, though barely in his 30s, confidently
evoking age and regret.
The play then whiplashes into an increasingly fanciful tall-tale version
of Sam's young manhood amid a noirish nightscape of hoods, molls and
other shady characters. It follows young Sam (laconic Ben Cubbedge) on a
fool's errand at the behest of his purported fiancée, dance-hall
hostess Lila (sleek Amanda Decker) — a search for a missing person
that soon makes Sam the true absentee.
Moyse's committed cast throws itself into this shaggy-dog fantasy with
engaging verve. Not all the performers are quite on point with Jenkin's
wide-ranging voice, which aims for a pulp-poetic hybrid of sales pitch
and home truth, and the play has speculative codas rather than a
satisfying conclusion. But like the luminous crucifix Sam hawks with a
convincing patter, "My Uncle Sam" is a seemingly trifling
conjurer's trick with a resilient glow.
©2005 L.A. Times
My Uncle Sam No Patriotic Paean
This is not a play for first-time theatre-goers or aficionados of frilly, frothy fare. It's challenging, edgy, even difficult. But for those who enjoy dissecting a right-brain theatre experience as much as they enjoy having it in the first place, there is plenty of meat here to dig into.
The story - far from linear, highly allegorical and surreal - concerns the efforts of an adoring nephew to come to grips with at least part
of his favorite great-uncle's life and history. A 1940-1950's Pittsburgh-based traveling salesman of joy-buzzers, glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, x-ray glasses, and other novelties, in his prime Uncle Sam had at least one life-transforming adventure, when he attempted to track down a glamorous night club singer's brother who years ago had robbed her of some stolen money to which she feels entitled. Driven by her promise to marry him if he succeeds, Uncle Sam sets off on a sales trip mixed with a treasure hunt through a long-past Pennsylvania of the imagination.
His quest for the booty, and his nephew's parallel quest to understand Uncle Sam, takes us through a series of interesting and bizarre experiences that mix fantasy with reality in ever-varying doses. At every moment, there are layers of meaning and possibility that easily entrance those who are willing to come along for the ride. And don't be lulled by the "Garden
Interludes." They're interesting in themselves and offer a kind of intellectual rest stop, much needed, to be sure, but they also hold clues to the story line's carefully designed conclusion.
The acting is powerful throughout, with all eleven members of the cast providing memorable moments of intensity and internal exploration, even when they're not at the center of the action. Without intending to slight the others, I'll mention only two: Paul Plunkett's "parrot" characterization is a tour de force for several minutes, most of which take place in half-light when other action is occupying center stage. Similarly, Andrea LeBlanc gives us a stunning portrayal of what I took to be increasing drunkenness, without a word or a sound, her back to the audience, half hidden by a chair, while the play's central action swirls elsewhere on the stage. As the play progresses, the most significant action comes more and more to the center of the stage, but there are delights for the audience no matter where you look.
To avoid the dozens of costume changes called for by playwright Len Jenkin, Director Joshua Moyse and Costume Designer Rachel Eberhard have chosen to go with uniforms. The seven men are conservatively dressed like traveling salesmen in shirt, pants, and tie. The women's uniforms reflect more of a glamorous night club atmosphere, including stockings with unusual black patterns at the ankle and knee-length dresses slit almost to the hip. In lieu of most costume changes, the actresses frequently rebuttoned their bodices to show several different patterns of red and gray fabric, but the meaning or intent of these changes was never made clear.
One striking note is the steadfast imbalance in the sensuality of the piece. Perhaps because of the story's 1940s-1950s milieu, the four women we see here tend to rely on their beauty and sexuality, moving like dancers, walking in stylized ways, often sitting or standing in precisely choreographed positions with legs intentionally bared. The men show little sensuality, although a few of actors are fairly hunky and could pull it off, if asked.
Overall, there is a wonderful elegance to the production, with movement, song and dialog flowing back and forth all across the wide, two-level stage in compelling rhythms. [Practical note: If you sit too close, you're going to be doing a lot of head turning - like at a tennis match - and despite your best efforts you won't be able to catch all that's happening.] In fact, there's way too much action, emoting, and intention going on here for anyone to absorb it all in a single viewing. But Director Moyse does a fine job of balancing the play's more poetic elements with its sometimes rocky narrative through-line.
Sadly, the play feels a little too long, and it's extraordinarily difficult to follow through every nuance of story, meaning, and implication. The director and the actors do yeoman work in presenting this challenging piece in memorable moments for audience consumption, but be prepared to put in some time and thought afterwards if you expect to be able to tell anyone something meaningful about what you saw or what it was about.
©2005 L.A. Splash
Len Jenkin’s noirish memory play is like a David Lynch movie on steroids, bulked up on superfluous stylization that eventually diminishes a beguiling storyline and skilled performances. "He was exotic" is how The Author (Paul Plunkett) remembers his lanky Uncle Sam (Joe Jordan), who lived in a Pittsburgh hotel, smoked cigars, and traveled the Pennsylvania highways and byways selling joy buzzers and X-ray glasses. Sam relives his 1940s love affair with Lila (Amanda Decker), a duplicitous femme fatale who entranced the Young Sam (David LM Mcintyre) into searching for her long-lost brother, who has absconded with their family inheritance. But is the story the truth or merely the fantasy of a dying and ordinary man trying to make his life extraordinary? Director Joshua A. Moyse peppers his interpretation with intriguing staging and choreography, such as several peppy dance numbers on the adjoining stage, from which actors sinuously lip-synch jazz tunes and narrate snippets of Sam’s bizarre odyssey. But all the play’s elaboration, while at times pleasant to watch, belies its fundamental message of reaping the rewards of a simply led and commonplace life.
©2005 L.A. Weekly
The Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood present Len Jenkin's MY UNCLE SAM, a tale of one's uncle and some of the misadventures he had as a traveling salesman.
The story is told by the grand nephew of Sam. Sam was once a salesman of novelties items, ranging from snow globes, Chinese finger traps, glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, and other knickknacks that serve no real purpose but to amuse. He lived alone in a well-worn hotel in Pittsburgh. But Sam's story isn't just about how he peddled his wares. It seems that Sam was taking a correspondence course in becoming a detective. He receives his first 'case' with his meeting a woman he falls for known as Lila. It seems that her brother who owes her a sum of money is missing. He must use his gumshoe skills to find this missing man. It's not an easy assignment. From that point, he encounters others who are also looking for this man, while running into the usual mix of night clubs, mysterious characters, a few violent scraps, and other episodes that is part of the private eye world, while trying to sell a few gag joy buzzers, glow in the dark neckties, and some of those for mentioned Chinese finger traps!
This play has all of the standard elements one would expect from the Sacred Fools--a play that is full of unexpected twists and turns, loaded with colorful (if slightly odd) characters, and an ending that can take the results to anywhere and everywhere. In other words, an very amusing production! Joshua Moyse directs the entire ensemble of players, consisting of (in alphabetical order), Jermy Clark, Ben Cubbedge, Amanda Decker, Joe Jordan, Lyndsey Rose Kane, Tane Kawasaki, Britt Lafield, David LM Mcintyre (selected performances), Andrea LeBlanc, Jennifer Moyse, Theo O. Ogunyode, and Paul Plunkett. Most of the cast play multiple roles!
MY UNCLE SAM is one part detective noir, and one part 'my-uncle-was-a-great-man and-here's-why' remembrance piece. It's also slightly on the odd side, and this quality makes this show very amusing. The theater world needs more plays
like this one, and more theater companies like the Sacred Fools! This need is more than one could desire a whoopee cushion or a Hawaiian bobble head figurine! Somebody's gonna have to want one of those!
©2005 Accessibly Live Off-Line