02 April 2017

True West, by Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard’s True West tells the story of two brothers, Austin, an educated and semi-successful screenwriter struggling to write a love story, and Lee, a robber who drifts through the desert Southwest and effortlessly makes up a movie storyline he lacks the skill and knowledge to write. These brothers clash over everything from their relative lifestyles, to their alcoholic father, to Austin’s ability to steal a toaster, to Lee selling his movie idea to Austin’s agent, Saul Kimmer. While there are moments of harmony—or near harmony—when the two brothers are drunk, by and large they are at one another’s throats as each tries to gain an advantage over the other.

I saw the M.T. Pockets production, directed by Sean Bonnette, on opening night, and I think it was very much an opening night performance, complete with jitters and settling down into the characters. The actors—Sean Marko as Austin, Robert Wolfe as Lee, Justin Grow as Saul, and Nicole Davis as Mom (who is only on stage for a few minutes)—are generally better than the performances they gave, and I expect that if I had come to any other performance, it would have been better.

The problem was the cohesion and timing of the acting just wasn’t there. This became most evident in the stage fighting, where the timing was just a disaster. In the first stage violence, Austin offers Lee money to leave the house, and Lee grabs Austin by the sweater and yanks him out of his chair. Wolfe didn’t convey a ferocious lunge when he grabbed Marko. It looked slow and clumsy. Now, I know that stage violence is extremely difficult to choreograph well, and I’ve seen a lot of unconvincing violence on stage. But the reason we have this brief bit of violence so early in the show is to indicate that Lee is not a man to be trifled with, that he’s a tough guy prone to anger. There are several more scenes either with violence or the threat of violence, and they were never convincingly timed.

In general, Marko and Wolfe’s timing was off for the first bit of the performance, where it seemed like they were speaking memorized lines rather than conversing. However, they did quickly settle into the parts and become more natural. Wolfe especially settled into Lee’s role within the first few minutes of the show, moving naturally back and forth across the stage—because Wolfe tended to command the stage space for much of the show, while Marko’s Austin remained safely behind his typewriter desk (spacing which is reversed during the second half of the show as Lee settles down to work on his screenplay and Austin begins drinking in earnest). Marko took a bit longer to really assume the role, but by the intermission his performance was much more natural. Similarly, Grow’s first appearance on stage as Saul was much more wooden than his second appearance. Given the general improvement of the performances as the show went on, I’d say this was opening night exerting its influence.

The other thing to note about this performance is that this is the first show with M.T. Pockets’ new LED lighting, which gets a mixed review. In general, the LEDs lit the stage well, distinguishing clearly between night and day scenes. However, my big complaint is the blue-white light on the front pole of the overhead lighting rig, the one stage right. It may seem odd to pick out one particular light for complaint, but it was substantially brighter than all the others, and during the night scenes (which were lit from above, whereas the day scenes were lit from behind the audience) that blue-white light projected a single bright patch in the middle of the floor. During the second half it became clear what this patch was for, as Austin and Lee sat drunk and back to back in that circle of light, while everything else dimmed—so that particular LED functioned almost like a spot light. However, for much of the show, it was simply a distracting bright patch in the middle of the kitchen floor.

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