An e-zine for happenings of local culture in Milwaukee and elsewhere

The Rote and the Writer, Alchemist Theatre, True West

Austin (Jason Will) has stolen away to the desert to have a stand-off with his typewriter, struggling to coax his next screenplay on to the blank leafs rolling through its paper carriage. He’s somewhere deep in the Southwest, house-sitting while his mother is on vacation. Even if his writing becomes more of a plow, he at least relishes the quiet.

Austin sits, sips coffee, and concentrates. Kimmer (Mitch Weindorf), a small-time Hollywood producer, will visit him soon to tour Austin’s story before it’s translated to film. Unexpectedly, Austin’s estranged brother Lee (David Sapiro) appears at the door like a dust storm, with barely a knock. Just how straight laced is Austin?

Lee holds himself up as the cracked mirror so we can better perceive the distorted angles and dark crevices of Austin’s family life. As Lee makes himself at home, rustling through his mothers drawers and cabinets, helping himself to Austin’s cheap brew while emitting a constant chatter, unconcerned with Austin’s concentration. You soon wonder if it’s actually Lee that is surprised to see Austin.

Like Rolling Stone

Lee, covered in a physical grime and unkempt, has the charm of a successful rug salesman. Lee launches into Austin, extracting his pity with persistent narrative of his troubles and guilt-trudging laments about Austin’s disregard for their alcoholic father. Wearing thin, and against his better judgment, Austin soon relents to Lee’s presumptuous ask to borrow his car. Austin just wants to be rid of his brother for a few hours and hopefully long enough to do business with Kimmer before Lee returns. Austin had offered Lee money, which Lee venomously refused. It slowly becomes clear what Lee really wants. In my head I begin to hear Bob Dylan sing, “… Once upon a time you dressed so fine, You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you ?…”

The Cat, The Yarn

Director Nicole Eggers takes few chances in developing her adaptation of Sam Shepard’s True West, beside empowering highly capable players Jason Will and David Sapiro to inhabit the verbose roles required to bring True West to life. Will convincingly portrays a tightly wound, Ivy League college grad, that predictably lacks an edge, coming unhinged relatively easily when enough pressure is applied. Sapiro, appeared challenged initially with playing Lee, however immersed himself deeper into character as the play worn on, exuding cringe-worthy qualities needed to give Lee the proper dimension. I found Sapiro’s performance particularly intriguing for this reason, as first impressions are nearly impossible to reverse, especially on stage.

Subtle metaphors worked there way into the production, through Eggers vision for the play. In one standout scene, Lee has conveniently returned to Austin in the middle of Austin’s meeting with Kimmer. Lee is carrying a t.v. and places it on the kitchen counter facing the audience. From that point forward, Lee and Austin are mostly opposite each other with the t.v. visually separating them.

During these scenes, Lee harps on his hard-living and surviving hand-to-mouth in the desert, while Austin meekly squirms for the safety of his measured intellect. The presence of the t.v. challenges the audience to determine who belongs on what side of the tube. Eventually, through his charisma and cunning, Lee is able to wiggle into the professional relationship Austin has established with Kimmer. As the action falls, Austin and Lee’s orientation to the television prop at key moments flip, then eventually become interchangeable.

And Dylan sings,

…You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely But you know you only used to get juiced in it

And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it

You said you’d never compromise With the mystery tramp, but know you realize He’s not selling any alibis

As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes

And say do you want to make a deal?…

True West disguises itself as drama filled with didactic episodes, but really a melodramatic psychological thriller (okay Im being melodramatic) might describe the play better. It hits you when Lee and Austin’s Mom (Deborah Clifton) arrives home early. Her ironic and underwhelming reaction to the aftermath of Lee and Austin’s prolonged interaction adds to the bizarre ordeal. A rare production that builds momentum, Eggers’ rendition of True West gathers your attention with each passing scene, rolling out humor, irony, conflict and degeneracy contained in Shepard’s story all the way to the curtain.

True West opened January 16th, and has weekend runs at the Alchemist Theatre through January 31, 2015 with all-show times starting at 7:30p.

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