Sunday, May 20, 2007

TRUE WEST in Fort Collins

I finally got enough time off during a weekend to check out some local theatre and headed up to Fort Collins to see TRUE WEST.

The drive itself would've been worth it. We followed 34 over from Estes Park through the narrow, spectacular canyons of the front range. It was more than fitting for the show's title.

Held in the "historic" Armstrong hotel, the show wasn't perfect, but it was definitely worthwhile. It's a play that always clicks for me in certain places no matter who is doing it. Visceral, funny, muscular and emotionally rigorous, it does what a lot of plays these days don't - it stays in one place for a condensed period of time. (I suppose it could be considered an "elevator play" that way.) In other words, it's not television. It's not a movie. It's a play.

I always appreciate that.

Last night's show also got me appreciating the play from another angle: Austin's angle. As the straightlaced, uptight brother, I always thought of his character as the less interesting of the two protagonists. But sitting in the back of the audience watching Lee take apart a typewriter, I found Austin to be the richer territory. He's the brother that Lee has come to see. And he has something Lee doesn't: An actual relationship with the "old man". He's seen the old man's teeth in a bag of chop suey. He knows what makes the old man tick. Lee, who wants to protect the old man too, doesn't. And no matter how much time he spends in the desert, Lee never will.

That understanding suddenly steered me away from always thinking that Sinise's version of Austin is the only one to do. From the new perspective, I could see the teeth speech as a taunting moment as well. And I could see that the play's early scenes could be enriched - since Austin at the top wants to leave the old man alone and get on with his life. And that is some of what drives his fear of Lee from the start.

There was one other great thing about the show - its scrappy sense of production. The lights weren't much more than up and down. The set looked pieced together from a junk yard. The whole thing had a kind of finger-in-the-face of more polite kinds of shows - a sort of we-don't-have-much-but-that's-not-gonna-stop-us attitude that is always good to be in touch with.

It mirrored the uneven scene work that Shepard's writing has and that today would make it an unproduceable play from a dramaturgical point of view.

After it was done, I asked my theatre campanion - Gregg Foster - if he thought it felt dated. Even with the typewriter, he said it worked pretty well for him. Not bad for a 30 year old play.

I know a lot of theatre has come and gone since it was first produced at the Magic in SF, but I wonder we might be better off going back to that uneven, unweildy, surreal naturalism that Shepard showed us so long ago. It has a spontanaeity that often feels missing from today's theatre (McDonagh excepted).

After all, audiences haven't been getting bigger since then.


E. Hunter Spreen said...

I love Shepard. True West is one of my favorites. I know his work is uneven, downright clunky at times, but damn the writing is so rich, and if you work it out in rehearsal it plays well, and you can give people a good night of theater.

I think you're right. There's a spontaneous, jazz-like quality combined with a raw emotionality, and the surrealism, plus a willingness to go balls out and risk failure that's missing in a lot (most) of the work I see. There's real meat there for actors, directors, and audience.

Question: Why aren't we seeing it more often in today's theater? What's changed?

Malachy Walsh said...

You know, I'm not sure what it is.

A lot of work, though good, often seems very "arty" or somehow "careful". It's almost so precise that while I can see how well done it is, it feels cold to me. Without any emotional heat.

Certainly there's been a lot of language based writing that's intriguing, but for instance, 5 FLIGHTS by Adam Bock - I enjoyed the play a lot but it didn't invigorate me the way that BURIED CHILD or MUD have. I felt like I was "smart" for getting it, but I also left the theatre feeling "that was nice, now what's for dinner?" Bock's clearly talented, but it was like there was no gravitas to the thing. Admirable performance, worth the $35 I put out for it, but, you know, after the craft, what is there?

And there's a lot of comedy written today that's funny but like, so what? It's often not much better than a cartoon network show. I'm not sure I'd feel good about it if I paid more than $10 for it, and even then, I often wonder, why didn't I just go to an improv show where the jokes may not go anywhere, but at least they're 100% fresh - and the fresher they get, the funnier they are.

I'd like to blame dramaturgs - or the emphasis on dramaturgically sound writing - but I have to admit that I've definitely made some work better with the advice I've gotten from a few of those folks.

Perhaps it's our insistence that everything has to feel right based on the seamless way that film and television can make almost any turn seem plausible (okay, maybe not ANY turn, but many).

I don't know.

I do like the unwieldy and unusual.

What do you think?

E. Hunter Spreen said...

I don't really know.

You can blame it on the dramaturgs.

You can blame it on the fact that
theater, like much of our culture, is seeking commodification as a primary value.

You can blame it on film and tv. But as a playwright/director who uses a lot of film techniques in my work - I think there's value in cross-pollination.

I don't discount how difficult it is to create something sublime. When I think of the moments I've witnessed onstage that have truly been every thing I believe theater can be or showed me a way that theater can be that I'd never imagined - well, I can count them on one hand.

So, at this point, I'd just appreciate an honest effort. I don't feel I get that often enough.

Sometimes the work it too precious. It takes itself too seriously - it's either too holy, too arty, too self-contained, too precise. I'm torn when I see this kind of work. Because I do like precision. I believe you can have a play that is tight dramaturgically and still have depth of feeling.

A lot of the work I see thinks it's more clever than it is. It's too aware of itself. It's more concerned with patting itself on the back for being so clever and hip. It kind of holds the audience in contempt. It's patronizing.

I don't think anyone sets out to consciously do these things - well, okay, some do. But I like to think that everyone's goal is to make good theater. I appreciate that there's a lot of effort that goes into making something worth watching, something that stops you in your tracks. But I see so little that stops me in my tracks and much that thinks it is so much more than it is - either out
of naiveté (which is forgivable) or arrogance (which grows tedious over

I used to blame it all on Post-modernism. It seems like the movement encourages a certain disaffected, hipper than thou-ness that values cleverness above deep thinking and feeling. It makes it easy to scoff at earnestness. Taking that pose, seems to be a way of creating a feeling of safety in an unsafe world. That may be a proper reaction.

But, beyond that, I feel that Post-modernism has changed the way we parse language. And as a result, the way we think and view the world - which I guess seems kinda obvious. My biggest beef is that I feel that it's changed the way we think about the creative process and the language we use to describe it. Why do we always say we stole an idea rather than that we were inspired? Anyway, that's tangential. Something on my long list of posts I'll never get around to.

oops. gotta go. crying baby!

Malachy Walsh said...

You make perfect sense to me.

Especially the part about the way many eschew earnesteness.

It does not help.