The Denver Repertory Theatre is a new company inhabiting an old railroad station hard by Denver's light rail. It's a terrific building that houses a collection of artists' studios and boasts shining wood, interesting rooms and crannies, bits of antique furniture and odds and ends of art. In other words, it's a perfect site for a theater. One of the rooms has been turned into an intimate performance space, with two walls joined to define a playing area fronted by rows of folding chairs on risers. I attended the Rep's production of Sam Shepard's True West on Valentine's Day, and someone had placed a Hershey's Kiss on each chair.
The play tells the story of two brothers and the fratricidal struggle they wage in the home that their mother has left empty while she goes on vacation. Austin, a screenwriter on the edge of his first big break, is working on a script. His brother Lee has dropped in uninvited. Lee is a drunken, pitbull-fighting, desert-wandering, thieving cowboy who wanders round the house bragging, swilling booze and making Austin's work impossible. The ultimate indignity occurs when Lee corrals the producer Austin has lined up and gets him to back his own barely formed, inarticulate concept of a script -- and in the process, to abandon Austin's movie. Trouble is, Lee needs Austin's skills if he's to complete his project, and Austin is in no mood to cooperate. By the time the brothers have played out their murderous rivalry, their mother's kitchen is filled with stolen toasters and her tidy home is a shambles.
True West is open to varying interpretations. Some critics have seen it as an exploration of two competing models of American manhood -- the cowboy loner wandering the empty purity of the desert versus the conventional, married, middle-class suburbanite. It's also about sibling rivalry at its rawest and most primal, a no-holds-barred fight for primacy, glory in the world and the approval of the absent mother. But it seems to me that Lee and Austin are in some sense the same person, representations of dual aspects of Sam Shepard's own psyche. All of the characters in any play are figments of the same writer's imagination, of course, but Lee and Austin are more obviously both opposites and twins. That's why their arguments and the power relationships between them are so fluidly irrational and why neither can ever score a decisive victory over the other. From his earliest plays, Shepard's identification with cowboys and the mythical West has been obvious, and it's not much of a stretch to see the playwright also in the tamed and domestic Austin, tapping away at his keyboard and thirsting for success, Hollywood style. I think this is why it feels so natural for actors to alternate the two roles on different evenings, as Robert Kramer and David C. Riley will do in this production.
The primary issues animating True West involve the eternal battle of order against chaos and the impossibility of finding an authentic way of living. The script is full of such phrases as "the true West," "a ring of truth," "a true story," "something authentic." Lee's abortive screenplay describes two protagonists who chase each other through darkness, lost and afraid. These figures obviously represent the brothers themselves. Lee and Austin continually exchange mannerisms and personality quirks. In a particularly telling moment, Lee suddenly develops Austin's critical acumen, condemning his own writing as cliched. But he also explains how the two of them will work together to fix his wretched script: "You can use your literary tricks," he tells Austin, "but they'll do what I say."
Denver Rep's production of True West succeeds because of the intense performances of David C. Riley, who was Austin on the night I saw the show, and Robert Kramer as Lee. Riley's concentration is commanding during the play's long, silent beginning as he watches Lee tromp around the place. He's afraid and appeasing, but he's also nursing a smoldering, suppressed anger. In the second act, Riley cuts loose, leaping maniacally about the stage, toasting slice after slice of bread, humming, yelling, squeaking, flashing a wolflike smile that's pure Jim Carrey. It's a funny, powerful, appropriately puzzling performance. Kramer plays it straighter and gruffer as Lee, but he, too, is very effective. The actors filling the play's two minor roles cannot match Riley and Kramer for talent and commitment. Christopher Bray is slight and a little stiff as the producer, Saul, and Karen Kargel lacks a specific interpretation of the daffy mother.
The entire production could have been more cleanly focused. Riley is the founder of the theater group, so I don't know if it was possible for director Isaac Brown to rein him in, but I think his performance would have been even better if he'd damped it down periodically and avoided repeating some of his manic bits so much. I'd like to have seen a more pristine set, too, the brothers' dark and dreamlike violence playing out against a shining kitchen and neat rows of gleaming toasters. Nonetheless, the Denver Repertory Theatre has announced its existence with authority.
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