Curtis Shepard is an ingenious actor. He’s to be remembered from performances with Children’s Theater, at the Arts Consortium, at the Museum Center and on other Cincinnati stages. But as he demonstrates in UnMasked, he is also an ingenious and energizing writer. He has that rare playwright’s knack for imagining a character, then arranging a spare dozen or two words that, when spoken, will ignite into a portrait. Not a caricature, mind you. Not a sketch or a type. A multi-dimensional character.
When actor Shepard takes over from writer Shepard, he adds a gesture or two, a signature tone of voice, a characterizing mannerism, and in nanoseconds there stands an individual zinging with energy, ready and able to lay some ideas on you and just as able to ask and deserve your attention.
Shepard says that everyone in the world possesses a very precious thing: his or her story. And they have two serious responsibilities: To live their stories and to tell their stories. A dozen or more times during his 60-minute unmasking he turns his back briefly and steps around a plastic lawn chair that in the only thing on the platform with him. When he turns back, somebody different is standing there, already plunging into the middle of his story. No preambles or reasons why. No scene-setting or excess exposition. You don’t hear many names or dates or much about background. Suddenly you’re up close and personal with someone you’ve never met, someone who immediately begins unmasking.
There’s a rapping hipster, but his rap is not stagy; it’s a natural manner of expression with him. Rhymed, rhythmic lines swim organically inside longer, unrhymed speeches. There’s a brain-damaged child with a talent for friendship — and for irritation. And there’s a wonderstruck dude who wakes up in a long white hallway with no doors and a floor of shining solid gold — shiny like, he tells us, a friend’s gold tooth when it was new. Sincere comedy and deep stress play equal parts in is his unmasking as he sorts out where he is.
Interviewed before the Fringe, Shepard said that the audience’s takeaway from his show should be that, “Everybody wears a mask; it’s important that we take them off and discover that we’re all the same and we all want to be loved and accepted and respected.”
In his 60-minute show Shepard unmasks eight distinct individuals, some rather fully, some less so — like an astonishing “little person” with the prominent breasts and the equally prominent mustache. Then, in a sudden finale that’s both startling and moving, he helps you realize that all along he’s been removing layers of masks from himself and, at the end, there stands Curtis, ready to be respected.
— Tom McElfresh