Thursday, April 10, 2008

True West

My review of True West (on now at the Playhouse) is in today's Westender.

True West
By Andrea Warner

Old-fashioned cinematic westerns typically depict the clash between good and bad, order and lawlessness, in the simplest of white-hats-and-black-hats terms. By avoiding this construct in favour of a more murky reality in True West, playwright Sam Shepard challenges the entire concept of the “Wild West,” that mostly fanciful cornerstone of the United States’ finely-crafted national identity. At True West’s tragi-comic centre are Austin and Lee, a pair of starkly contrasted brothers that Shepard uses to explore a variety of American myths throughout the dense 90 minutes, including “real” Western landscapes lost to suburban sprawl (Calgary, anyone?), what constitutes male identity in modern society, and that dramatic perennial, family conflict.

Austin (a flawless Vincent Gale) is the good son. A playwright trying to score a million-dollar deal, he struggles to hammer out a script in his mother’s kitchen. Lee (Brian Markinson) is a wanderer and a thief, whose sudden appearance is not an entirely welcome surprise. When a producer shows up to hear Austin’s pitch, Lee sidelines the meeting, successfully selling his own story about a “true” western . The brothers are forced to work together on Lee’s screenplay, their “good” and “bad” qualities morphing as Austin spirals into a drunken stupor and Lee tries desperately to prove he’s a capable writer.

Markinson’s Lee is complex and dangerous. Like Austin, the audience is suitably scared of his short fuse, but director Dean Paul Gibson allows Markinson to attack his first scene with such ferocity, he is left with little room to maneuver. A slower build would have created an even bigger payoff. True West’s final confrontation is tenser than a gunfight at high noon, boldly and wisely refusing to provide the audience with a cookie-cutter hero who rides off into the sunset.

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