Why does Denver need yet another theater company? What can a new group producing plays in a downtown storefront theater offer us that older, more established theaters aren't already providing?
People once asked those same questions about Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, formed during the Seventies by a handful of students from Illinois State University. More than a few skeptics derided the company back then; some even constructed an epithet from its name by inserting a scatological term where "wolf" belonged. The nickname wasn't entirely inappropriate: Many of Steppenwolf's early efforts were clearly amateur in tone and quality.
Then two of the ensemble's members, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, appeared in a 1982 New York revival of Sam Shepard's play True West. As a result of their highly charged, emotional portrayals, Steppenwolf earned accolades from audience members and critics. Nine years later the by-then-famous group moved into a new $8 million facility in Chicago, where its members continue to produce thought-provoking plays.
Such a tale of theatrical rags-to-riches is certainly an inspiration to the members of the HorseChart Theatre Company. Formed last year by several graduates from Southern Methodist University, the local ensemble is now presenting its own revival of Shepard's play about families, Tinseltown and the Old West. And director Brett Aune's absorbing production proves to be a remarkable achievement.
Lee (Matt Saunders) and Austin (Philip Russell) are two estranged brothers who unintentionally reunite in their mother's Southern California home. The pair resumes its long-dormant relationship by engaging in arguments that arise more from the men's similarities than from their differences. Lee is a desert-dweller who periodically returns to civilization in order to make his living as a thief. Austin is a moderately successful screenwriter in search of his big break. Envious of Austin's relatively cushy lifestyle, Lee decides to pitch his own movie idea to Saul (John Tretbar), Austin's Hollywood agent. When Saul decides to develop Lee's script instead of Austin's, the brothers' conflict escalates into a war that dwarfs even the most legendary of sibling rivalries.
Overcoming a shaky first fifteen minutes, the actors hit their stride midway through the second act. Saunders is a simmering cauldron of emotion as Lee, oozing with charm one minute while exploding with vitriol the next. Russell's portrayal takes a while to gel: Early in the drama, for example, he responds to some of Lee's taunts before his character has even had time to hear them. Midway through the first act, he corrects that mistake to deliver a well-crafted portrayal for the remainder of the play.
As good as this production often is, HorseChart has a way to go before its name is synonymous with theatrical heavyweights such as Steppenwolf. Still, it's refreshing to watch a new group of ambitious actors successfully gain a local foothold. They've even managed to avoid scatological nicknames for their group. Not even John Malkovich can boast of that.
True West, through January 31 at The Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 458-0755.
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