- Arrata Opera Centre
You don't often get to see a play during the height of a Calgary summer, so I was intrigued to discover recently that a handful of the city's theatrical alumni were launching a production of Sam Shepard's classic tale of sibling rivalry in the California desert. Directed by Sage Theatre's Kelly Reay, Pangloss Productions' staging of True West features Frank Zotter as Austin, a buttoned-down screenwriter currently house-sitting for his mother, and David Trimble as Lee, his older brother, a petty thief and a drifter.
The set of True West, a dated bungalow kitchen, is so intricately realized with its macrame owl hanging, gilded light switches and mounted spoon collection that I kept half-expecting my mother-in-law to wander onstage with a luke-warm cup of Nescafe instant coffee. It was only the Hank Williams and Patsy Cline soundtrack which greeted our entry into the theatre that kept her ghost off the stage.
The play opens with Austin struggling to put the final touches on a screenplay which he is preparing to pitch to a powerful Hollywood producer. His concentration and his patience are tested by the presence of Lee, newly arrived from a three-month sojourn in the desert, who swaggers about in ripped jeans and a dirty t-shirt, cracking open beer after beer. After Lee appropriates Austin's relationship with Saul, the Hollywood producer, and usurps his status as screenwriter, the brothers bluster and spar until they eventually assume each others personalities. The rivalry between the two brothers is so palpable and so rife, that it is no great surprise that the posturing evolves into intimidation and violence.
David Trimble and Frank Zotter are pitch perfect in their portrayals as the feuding brothers. We were rather taken aback by the sudden realization that they were almost identical in personality and vaguely similar in appearance to Frank and Dennis Reynolds from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Once seen, there was no unseeing the similarities. Strangely, this only added to the validity of the performances and to our enjoyment of the play. In all fairness, the Shepard play pre-dates the television show by decades.
Despite the brief appearances of the producer and the mother, True West is essentially a two-character play. Both the parts of producer and mother feel rather more like caricature rather than fully-fleshed characters, but I had the sense that this had more to do with the manner in which the characters were written than with their depiction.
There is a great deal of violence and humour (and humourous violence) in Pangloss Productions' presentation of True West. There is also a great deal of family conflict which rings all too true. We may not all have systematically smashed a typewriter with golf clubs or strangled a sibling with a telephone cord, but I am sure we have all wanted to.
True West plays until August 28/11 at the Arrata Opera Centre.