The room smelled inexplicably like gasoline and sweat socks, and I really had to pee.

These were my distractions while watching the first of three lesser-known Sam Shepard plays shown at the KA Mansion—the Kappa Alpha house at St. George and Bloor, to the uninitiated. As the actors alternated between overacted bursts of unconvincing mania (which included breaking crockery and lots of screaming) and painfully earnest refrains, I scanned the staging room—a makeshift lounge of church pews and vinyl-upholstered furniture—desperate to locate an alternate exit. My desire to evacuate my bladder far surpassed my wish to endure the rest of the one-act.

Fortunately, the play was short and the intermission that followed—not to mention the next two shows—made the evening worth my while.

The Candles are for Burning Co-op is a community theatre troupe without even a website to their name, the sort of grassroots performance collective I’d always just assumed didn’t exist in bustling, high-culture Hogtown. I’m glad to have been proven wrong, even if it had to happen in a smelly, dilapidated frat house.

Community theatre often lacks the polish of mainstream, “real” stage productions—and the budgets, actors with training, adequate promotion, and legitimate venues—but in my experience, it’s usually worth watching. It’s for the same reason that alternative craft shows are worth visiting, why anonymous indie music acts are worth hearing, why ramshackle art shows are worth witnessing – it’s worth it for the heart. It reminds the creatively inclined in us all that, even though we may be choosing alternate paths, the outlets are there if we look for them.

Inspiration aside, some of the performances were actually good. Like, “wow, I can’t believe this guy is performing this in the front room of a frat house” good. The one-man delivery of Killer’s Head, which traces the last mundane thoughts of a man as he awaits his death on the electric chair, was so convincing I nearly forgot that my bare thighs were adhered to a pleather sofa—I was half-expecting to find the plush velvety cush of deluxe playhouse seating beneath me.

The closing act was Cowboys #2, a somber game of cowboys and Indians that featured two solid performances and a stolen “Road Closed” sign, all of which made for an endearing finale.

The three plays were written between 1965 and 1975, and it shows. Artistically lingering in the aftermath of modern drama movements while simultaneously echoing the generational angst of Vietnam-era America, existential futility is a central theme of each of the pieces. In 4-H Club, the first play shown, the central character talks yearningly about “going away,” as though abandoning the squalor of his present surroundings won’t lead him, transplanted, to repeat his fate somewhere else. Cowboys #2 shows a pair of buddies unwilling—or unable—to occupy a realm of reality, living a make-believe Western scenario until one of them dies.

Killer’s Head is chronologically the latest of the pieces, which might explain why it is the most nuanced and subtle of the three. Shepard was a young playwright in his early twenties when he wrote the other two pieces. With Killer’s Head, composed a full decade later, the interim development of his style comes through quite clearly. 4-H Club and Cowboys #2 are over-the-top critiques of commodification, capitalism, and the unbearable folly of youth that sometimes fail to ground themselves in relevant terms; Killer’s Head is stark and brooding, but it packs an enduring punch.

Overall, for a low-budget community theatre production, the staging and performance were commendable: as in the best grassroots theatre, ingenuity and passion took centre stage.

Cowboys #2 (not pictured) RATING: VVVVV

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required