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Bros Before Foes: Not-So-Gentle Shepard

Ed Rampell: Shepard is as skillful at writing as the Flying Wallendas are at executing highwire acts fraught with peril, and after the intermission the playwright pulls a second act switcheroo that I didn’t see coming.
True West

Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark

TRUE WEST Theater Review

From almost the split second when the proverbial curtain lifts on Danny Cistone’s realistic SoCal house set, Vs. Theatre Company’s production of Sam Shepard’s True West crackles with tension. In this gripping, grim drama that’s so edgy I sat on the edge of my seat throughout the two-acter, two estranged brothers encounter one another for the first time in quite a spell at their mother’s (stage/screen stalwart Carole Goldman) home located near the Inland Empire while dear old ma visits Alaska.

Although the younger of the two, Austin (Johnny Clark, Vs. Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and co-founder) seems to have his shit together. In addition to being a family man, Austin is a reasonably successful screenwriter, who has a major pending deal with Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (stage and screen veteran David Starzyk).

Andrew Hawkes’ Lee emanates ominous vibes, as if central casting at the Spahn Ranch gave him this Charlie Manson-like role. Lee has been living in the Mojave Desert for three months, but think impoverished misfit and loser from Loserville - not Old Testament prophet. The older brother is menacing towards Austin, and Lee, who is a petty criminal and burglar specializing (symbolically?) in liberating TV sets, is filled with envy for his kid bro’s familial and career successes.

The pair is quickly launched on a collision course, exacerbated by Saul’s arrival to take a meeting with Austin regarding his unfinished script, for which no contract has been inked yet. He’s supposed to be gone but Lee - who is as predictable as a psycho Trump tweet - crashes the tête-à-tête and interjects himself into the story conference. As an aspiring screenwriter I found myself being extremely resentful of Lee’s intrusion and insinuation into the situation, jeopardizing his brother’s shot at the big time.

Shepard is as skillful at writing as the Flying Wallendas are at executing highwire acts fraught with peril, and after the intermission the playwright pulls a second act switcheroo that I didn’t see coming.

But Shepard is as skillful at writing as the Flying Wallendas are at executing highwire acts fraught with peril, and after the intermission the playwright pulls a second act switcheroo that I didn’t see coming. True West is an acerbic rumination on the movie biz, but beneath that Shepard rips the layers back, revealing the downward trajectories that dysfunctional funky families can propel the children they spawn on. Although Lee and Austin’s father never appears onstage, the haunted memories of him they recount are truly harrowing. One can only wonder what misery little Sam must have experienced growing up…

Scott Cummins tautly directs his ensemble who all deliver incisive performances, with Vs.’ verses always eloquently recited. The aptly-named Hawkes is the cast’s standout. I couldn’t help but wonder what acting technique Hawkes was steeped in in order to conjure up the chilling Lee, who looms like a bird of prey. Immersed in his role, did Hawkes deploy the Stanislavsky Method or what?

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In addition to being an award-winning bard Shepard, of course, was also a noted thesp, appearing in movies such as the 1983 astronaut pic The Right Stuff as sound barrier-breaker Chuck Yeager and in Terrence Malick’s 1978 cult classic about hard times, Days of Heaven. But my favorite film co-starring Shepard was 1982’s Frances, a biopic about Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange was Oscar-nommed for depicting the real life troubled actress), with its own commentary about Broadway and Tinseltown.

true west

Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark

I’m not sure why Shepard entitled his heavy drama True West. Is it some sort of reference to frontier authenticity, like Lee purports his zany story to be? Or because Shepard’s play takes place in the Lower ’48’s westernmost state? Or is the moniker a sly reference to “True North” - a geographic designation that is also a philosophical notion, a fixed point in an ever-changing, turning world? Who knows? In any case, Shepard disputes Keats’ poetic notion that “truth is beauty” because the truth ain’t pretty in this play.

Without revealing plot spoilers, it’s not for nothing that this production employs someone designated as a “Violence Designer” (Ned Mochel, whose credits include working for the renowned Steppenwolf). By the end of this two-hour or so dizzying drama about trauma, the wrecked household is literally messier than any other stage I’ve ever laid eyes upon in my whole life. But I didn’t have to ponder what “technique” the cleanup crew used after each performance to straighten out the carnage of this ferocious True West: It was obviously the Kominsky Method.

I found this well-acted, superbly written, superior production about writing to be riveting and upsetting. It is highly recommended for those who love their drama to be thought-provoking, hard-hitting, to pull no punches about the human condition yet leavened by a wry wit and mounted in an intimate setting. For viewers who prefer wearing seatbelts while experiencing cathartic theater, this is your cup of hemlock. True that!

Vs. Theatre Company presents True West, which plays at 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through August 31, 2019. Vs. Theatre is located at 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 90010. For info: www.vstheatre.org. For tickets: https://vstruewest.brownpapertickests.com .

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/). Rampell is co-presenting the 400TH Anniversary Anti-Slavery Cinema Commemoration to observe the 1619 introduction of slavery at Jamestown, Virginia on August 25 at the LA Workers Center.