Saturday, January 18, 2014

True West by Sam Shepard, Weird Rodeo at the Off Center, January 9 - 25, 2014

Weird Rodeo Austin TX
(image: Weird Rodeo)

CTXLT review


by Dr. David Glen Robinson

The question one could ask is why a brand-new theatre company would challenge a play as complex and difficult as Sam Shepard’s True West for its premier production. And the question contains the answer—because it is a challenge, and all who see it can measure the company’s skill in their upward progress climbing the monument. That's the first reason to shout “Bravo!” at this show, one of the few.

Weird Rodeo wisely short-circuits some of the difficulties by assembling a highly talented cast and crew. The first stand-out is David Boss as Lee. He is superbly costumed and styled by Lindsay McKenna for his role, and he's an actor who has shown us he can easily learn and spout thousands of lines while physically stomping through any number of flaming sets. His role clearly drives the dialogues and action of the play, and Boss is easily capable of doing this in True West. But here is a note for director Jerry Fugit: Boss and all the actors need clear pause points for reactions and heightened intensity. Boss can fire daggers and poniards from his eyes, but he needs a few more opportunities in this play to do so. It’s not all machine-gun mouth and phone cords. The weaponry metaphors are apt.

Bob Jones as the movie producer Saul Kimmer matches his subtlety to Boss’s power. Lee addresses Saul with the predatory look of a coyote eyeing a rabbit. But Saul’s instincts are those of a rattlesnake, not a rabbit, and he correctly sees the brothers Austin (Chris Hejl) and Lee for who and what they are. Saul slithers through the story with complete control, a fact we notice only later. Bob Jones does excellent work, making his reactions and taking his silences as needed to flesh out his character.

The story of True West is well known: after years of separation family members come back together with the intensity of hypergolic solid rocket fuel, a trope perhaps invented by Sam Shepard. The biblical Prodigal Son parable it ain’t. The father is absent, said by Saul to be “destitute” which the entire audience takes to mean “insane.” Dad fled to the Desert, and here we see the first layerings of meaning on Shepard’s conception of Desert. The meanings Shepard gives it are largely chthonic, steeped in desolation and darkness. Mom (Bobbie Oliver) is in the Far North touring Alaska, a desert of another sort. The criminal but romantic seeker Lee sees the Desert as a refuge from authority and control, while Austin, educated and tame, fears it. Between scenes coyote voices on the soundtrack howl songs of death.

The Desert underlies the more surficial titular theme of the West. And here's where Weird Rodeo succeeds in the task it set for itself. We see clearly the distinction between brother Austin’s real West (freeways, palm trees and golf courses) and Lee’s unstated but described True West. All is made plain by Lee’s verbal homage to Kirk Douglas as the last cowboy on earth in the movie Lonely Are the Brave. Lee would have given his life to have worked in that film in any capacity, but Austin, the Ivy League screenwriter, has never seen the movie. The production ultimately accomplishes its theatrical and literary goals by making the West distinctions clear and dealing with their implications.

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