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.