Theatre Information

WSC Avant Bard The Tooth of Crime

By • May 30th, 2012 • Category: Reviews, Virginia
The Tooth of Crime by Sam Shepard
WSC Avant Bard
Artisphere, Arlington, VA
Through July 1st
2:10 with intermission
Reviewed May 26th, 2012

WSC Avant Bard’s production of Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime is a fun trip, albeit one that I am not quite sure I completely understood. Shepard’s jive is a futuristic turf war of gun-slinging rock stars in fast cars. In this mash-up of a dystopia, the top dog, Hoss, feels threatened as a new guy, Crow, begins to infringe. Hoss consults a star-gazer and a DJ about his future as head honcho in Act One. Act Two is all about the “sing off” showdown between Hoss and Crow.

The ensemble is strong. Each member of the cast does a fine job of articulating meaning in Shepard’s tricky text. While I was often unsure of the literal meaning of the playwright’s words, I was never unsure of the character’s intent. Their efforts are to be commended in dealing with this kooky script. Special recognition ought to go to Graham Pilato, who, for a large portion of the play, takes on the task of playing a decapitated backup dancer, his head held on with a scarf. This was, in a word, hilarious–so much so that it did border on distracting, but I didn’t mind.

Kathleen Akerley’s direction was straightforward in terms of concept. In a play this complex, a straightforward approach feels necessary. The runway-style staging was a nice addition, and it is apparent that a great deal of time was spent with the language of the play. The ideas come through very strongly, and there are a few great surprise moments in there as well. There is an air of detachment between audience and actors that I am not sure was intentional, but for me, it worked.

Set Designer Jessica Moretti creates a bang-up landscape. The show is semi-in-the-round; audience flanks both long sides of a central platform with spaces on each short end. The simplicity of the bare platform (with a cool surprise I’ll remain mum on) combines well with beat-up road signs and a guitar-inspired throne on either side. Lynly A. Saunders’ costumes are well-balanced between cowboy and rock’n’roller, tinged with a futuristic sensibility. Crow’s flamboyantly “pop” costume serves as a nice contrast to the rest of the old-schoolers, who tend more toward a rock/punk/western feel. The music and sound design are well-executed. The rock music has the simultaneous feeling of a honky-tonk and a poetry jam. The lighting design (Jason Aufdem-Brinke) transitions cleanly. Often, I didn’t even notice a scene change. This was the design’s primary strength.

This production of The Tooth of Crime reminded me of watching Troilus and Cressida half-translated into Spanish: I get the overall concepts, the gist of the plot, and the character’s intentions, but I do not catch every single line. I enjoyed allowing WSC’s production wash over me in order to organically absorb it. It is an experiential piece, with fun music and necessary flash.

Director’s Note

There’s so much I’d like to tell you. I’d like to tell you about how Sam Shepard generated two versions of this play ten years apart—versions so radically different that characters are renamed and have entirely new motivations–and to ruminate on what was gained and lost in the re-write. Or about the dramaturgical hoops we jumped through for the first three weeks: my cast will groan and roll their eyes if I talk about the back story and world we had to create to make consistent sense of every one of Shepard’s lines and dramatic inventions, inasmuch as this involved a laborious description of how my index finger represented Music, my middle finger represented Driving (no coincidence that!), my third finger represented Air Waves (the Four Keepers and haunted by bloodthirsty Kelpies–none of which we ever get to meet), as well as a model of temporal anomalies that would be the envy of any Star Trek: TNG writer (the action of the play is in 1977, except in the cities where it’s the later 1980s, while the cars race along desolate roads in 2012–and one of the characters has been alive since 1850).

Whether you would ever be able to tell in watching this show that we decided the inciting action of Shepard’s world was the 1969 release of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” is really gravy–anyone who produces this play has a lot to solve, thanks to Shepard’s fantastic juxtaposition of Mad Max/Western/Rock Opera imagination and merciful paucity of exposition, and thus has to let go of the need to underline all their solutions. Here’s the one that’s most important to me:

Neil Young would never win American Idol. “Cowgirl in the Sand” would get no radio play today. The option exists with The Tooth of Crime to lean on the themes of natural and cyclical order, to highlight how one showman becomes obsolete and another takes his place, even to say that the waning artist brings on his own demise by having trucked in the first place in style and trends: live by the music video, die by the music video. But for me the play is about how artistry and soul have been replaced by showmanship and appearance–not just some tired plaint that “they don’t write songs like they used to” but more importantly that the value we placed on ragged voice telling a necessary musical truth has been lost in favor of which “singer” makes the most marketable product. As we watch Hoss and Crow battle one another, it seems to me worth asking which of them would still choose to sing–would need to sing, would exist in singing–were he alone on his porch meditating on the wide wasteland.

–Kathleen Akerley, Director

Photo Gallery

John Tweel John Tweel
John Tweel
John Tweel
Tom Carman (Foreground) Tom Carman
Tom Carman (Foreground)
Tom Carman
William Hayes, Tom Carman Tom Carman, William Hayes, Cyle Durkee
William Hayes, Tom Carman
Tom Carman, William Hayes, Cyle Durkee
John Tweel, Tom Carman John Tweel
John Tweel, Tom Carman
John Tweel

Photos by C. Stanley Photography


  • Crow: Tom Carman
  • Jakob the Jeweler, Keyboard: Mickey Daniel DaGuiso
  • Ruido Ran: Cyle Durkee
  • Doc, Drums: Vince Eisenson
  • Chaser, Guitar: William Hayes
  • Becky, Vocals: Jennifer J. Hopkins
  • Referee: Sam McMenamin
  • Meera: Graham Pilato
  • Hoss, Lead Vocals: John Tweel

Artistic Team

  • Director: Kathleen Akerley
  • Assistant Director: Sarah Barker
  • Scenic Designer: Jessica Moretti
  • Lighting Designer: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
  • Costumer Designer: Lynly A. Saunders
  • Sound Designer/Musical Director: Neil McFadden
  • Assistant Musical Director: Tom Carman
  • Incidental Music Composition: Tom Carman, Neil McFadden, William Hayes
  • Choreographer: Melissa-Leigh Bustamante
  • Props Designer: Kristen Pilgrim
  • Stage Manager: Jay Chiang
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Holland

Disclaimer: WSC Avant Bard provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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