Adelaide Fringe: True West, Bully ~ theatre notes

Friday, March 05, 2010

Adelaide Fringe: True West, Bully

Last night's dip into the Adelaide Fringe was a testosterone-soaked adventure, packed with rivalrous brothers, bad fathers, bewildered or dead mothers, homoeroticism and the spice of criminal behaviour. And it's fair to say the two shows I saw covered the entire spectrum of artistic quality, from heart-lifting excellence to the kind of direness that briefly delivers you into the full-blown existential anguish of miserable boredom. But I o'erleap myself. First to the excellence.

Flying Penguin's production of Sam Shepard's 1980 masterwork, True West, well rewards the two hours relentless concentration it demands. It's a great play, but like a lot of great plays, rarely done - this is the first time I've seen it on stage. I sometimes wonder why Australian companies seem to behave as if there are about a dozen plays in the canon - excluding Shakespeare, of course, whose ubiquity is such that he doesn't count. Shepard is a writer it would be good to see more of, and True West shows us why: his plays are lawless, literate, intelligent and superbly theatrical. Their dramaturgical roots are in writers like Beckett, Pinter and Pirandello, but these influences are habituated to a uniquely American psychology and dialect, the slang of rock'n'roll and trash culture. A serious study of Shepard's oeuvre would teach budding playwrights far more than any number of workshops.

Like much of his early work - A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child - True West explores the American mythos through a drama of the violently dysfunctional family, but here the action is lean and spare. The title is taken ironically from a pulp magazine specialising in Westerns, and part of its driving obsession is the ambiguity of "truth" - what, after all, is a "true story"? It's basically a two-hander, the bulk of the play consisting of dialogues between estranged brothers Austin (Renato Musolino) and Lee (Nick Garsden), who reunite in their mother's suburban LA home. Austin is a screen writer about to sign a deal with producer Saul (Geoff Revell), and is house-minding while his Mom (Chrissie Page) visits Alaska; Lee is a drifter and part-time burglar.

At first their characters are an exercise in contrast, but as the play progresses their roles reverse to show how each brother is a complex mirror of the other's frustrated desires. Austin, the materially well-off Ivy League graduate, loses his film deal when Lee's crazy evocation of a contemporary trucker western (which sounds something like Stephen Speilberg's Duel, with added horses) attracts Saul's attention. A yearning for an authentic connection with the land - Lee's walkabouts in the Mojava Desert - is contrasted with the meretricious desire expressed in movies, but in Shepard's mirror these extremes collapse into each other as differing expressions of the same yearning, the spiritual emptiness inside the soul of post-war America.

David Mealor's production reflects the play's lean aesthetic: Kathryn Sproul's contained kitchen-sink set, simply and effectively lit by Mark Pennington, is enclosed in the larger space of the theatre, emphasising its theatricality and artifice. The action is backed by Cameron and Tristan Goodall's Paris Texas-style electric guitar and folksy electric banjo, which generate long haunting growls against the crickets and barking dogs of Chris Petridis's sound design.

Part of Shepard's skill is how he unlocks anarchic extremes in a text that appears to be a naturalistic, real-time play, making his kitchen-sink play (yes, there is a sink) behave in ways more akin to absurdist drama. It permits a histrionic extremity in the performances which all four actors exploit, generating powerful and highly theatrical performances. At various points I wondered about the almost mannered acting, but like the dialogue of Tennessee Williams, this reflects a similar artifice in the writing, and it's well modulated. As the brothers, Garsden and Musolino go for it, get it and bring it home. The performances are delivered with total and compelling commitment, revealing both Shepard's grotesque comedy and his ability to open the aching voids in his characters.

After that, retrospective wisdom tells me that I should have gone home. But duty drove me on to see Bully, an hour-long monologue in rhyming verse by British import Richard Fry. This show inexplicably generated four-star raves at the Edinburgh Fringe: maybe you had to be there, maybe fear of being thought homophobic or classist strangles all criticism. I don't know. Fry details a cycle of domestic violence intensified by the narrator's experience of homophobia. Every hard luck detail is there: the violent father, the homophobic brother, the dead mother, the bullying at school, the abusive relationship that ends in tragedy. The endless cycle of violence, he warns us, will affect us all!

The monologue reminded me of nothing so much as those prolix Victorian poems that end with Little Johnny remorsefully facing the hangman after his Rake's Progress through life's ordeals: it's certainly as trite in its moralising, although the Victorian versions were better scanned. As a performer, Fry has two speeds: teary-eyed silence (real tears!), and a manic grin as he recalls happy moments in his tragic life. After half an hour Bully becomes unbearable; the unconscious misogyny is almost worse than the relentless sentimentality or the head-thunking rhymes. It's certainly delivered with sincerity, but there's barely an ounce of insight that might make the hour well-spent. Very high on the arrrgh-metre for this little crrritic.

True West by Sam Shepard, directed by David Mealor. Design by Kathryn Sproul, lighting by Mark Pennington, sound design by Chris Petridis, composition by Cameron Goodall and Tristan Goodall. With Renato Musolino, Nick Garsden, Geoff Revell and Chrissie Page. Flying Penguin Productions @ Adelaide Centre for the Arts until March 14.


Bully, written and performed by Richard Fry. The Centre for International Theatre @ Higher Ground Art Base until March 14.

14 comments:

J-Lo said...

Hi Alison - MTC did a good job, I thought, with True West back in '02 (Davids Tredinnick and Wenham).

Alison Croggon said...

Hi J-Lo - I wish I had seen that one. Sadly I wasn't seeing much theatre in 2002...

George Hunka said...

Of these four Shepard plays of the 1980s which are probably his best -- The Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West and A Lie of the Mind -- True West always to me seemed to be the least of them. Maybe it's that Osborne-kitchen-sink-realism-meets-Ionesco-absurdity (a stageful of toasters in Act Two! Ha ha! I guess); maybe it's the stereotypes of the Hollywood agent and the slightly addled mother wandering in on the mess they've made of the house for the final curtain.

It's always struck me how ... well, traditional A Lie of the Mind turned out to be, quite the forerunner of plays like August: Osage County, though far superior to the Letts play. (Not much of that rock-and-roll, trash culture there, or in any of these mid-period plays, really: that always seemed more a part of the earlier Shepard, like Cowboy Mouth or The Tooth of Crime).

Really, for me, The Curse of the Starving Class is probably the rawest and the best of Shepard's family tetralogy. It ran over three hours in Robert Woodruff's Public Theater premiere in the late 1970's premiere -- more wild than the other three plays, and much funnier. It's also very much about the American attachment to the land, which was followed up in Buried Child but sort of went awry in the other two plays. And any play which gives us the line "Your brother's pissing all over your charts" can't be all bad.

George Hunka said...

By the way -- my True West experience at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1983 or so featured (if I remember right) Randy Quaid as Austin and (shudder) Jim Belushi as Lee. They replaced John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in the roles.

Beware long runs.

Tom said...

From the ages of about 15 to 21 I was obsessed with Sam Shepard. Reading all his plays over and over taught me so much about theatre and playwriting. I completely agree with you Alison, anyone interested in being a playwright should go through a Shepard phase. All the early short plays I wrote were basically just me trying to be Sam Shepard. He was sooo cool. But he kind of broke my heart with his plays from the mid-80's on. During the 90's his plays got more and more repetitive in terms of themes and style and now I feel like he's a shadow of his former self. It really brakes my heart...
I saw the MTC True West and really loved it. David Wenham was amazing. I got to sit in on a day of rehearsals for that show and in one scene, when grabbing a beer from the door of the fridge mid-scene Wenham literally ripped the can in half, leaving half of it sitting in the door and beer showered everywhere. It was amazing.

noplain said...

Interesting that you comment on the "theatricality and artifice" emphasised in the set sitting within a larger space of True West: when the production premiered last year it was in a small blackbox theatre which maybe gave an half a meter on each side of the set and the walls for entrances and exits, and I was struck by how detailed and realistic the contained set was. It still works well in the larger space, but the feeling that it gives in front of the cyc, with ample room for coming and going and more of a remove from the first row of the audience was a very different one. As to it being rarely performed: there premiere last year was also the first time the play has been produced in this state.

The play did loose something for me on the second viewing: I don't know if it was that I knew where the script was going, or if things were lost in the larger space, or if I just saw a particularly good performance last year (I went on closing night) vs this year (opening night). I still loved it though, and thought it was a brilliant production of a brilliant play.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - absolutely, The Curse of the Starving Class is marvellous. Though I do think True West and those other plays are very fine. (Shame you didn't see Malkovich and Sinise - that would have been something! and I would have been curious to hear what it was like). I always liked what Shepard did with those "traditional" play forms, but then, I like that kind of subversion... I think you're right that Osage County is a decadent descendent of Lie of the Mind, which is kind of depressing.

Alison Croggon said...

Missed Noplain and Tom there - we must have been typing away at the same time. Thanks for your comments. Who directed the MTC production, Tom? It sounds fab. If Shepard's later plays are not so good, we can still admire the fire in the belly of the earlier work. Given the multitude of art around, I think it's something even to write one amazing thing!

I didn't realise that this was a remount, Noplain; no wonder the performances are so polished! It would have been quite different in a smaller space - maybe it would have focused that intensity and intimacy? I liked seeing the borders of the set (a little like that the set in Volker Schlondorff's film of Death of a Salesman). Yes, a wonderful production.

Troubador said...

John Malkovich and Gary Sinise did a TV version of True West. I saw it on SBS a long time ago. I thought it was pretty good despite the fact I had appalling TV reception. I don't think it's come out on DVD. (Amazon are selling a VHS version.)

Tom said...

You very right Alison. And he created many, many brilliant plays. Some of his really early ones I love. He has a 45 minute play called Suicide in B Flat which is amazing. Some of the coolest speeches I've ever read. And Angel City. Another very cool play. I guess I just wanted him to continue to be a writing God.

noplain said...

And here I was thinking you chose to see True West because of all of the great reviews it got here last year - I guess Adelaide is further away from Melbourne than we'd like to think! Can I ask then how then you chose what shows to see?

I realised after I commented you've been to the theatre it was in, it played in the theatre at Holden Street Heroin(e) (completely agree with your review on that!) is currently in, so the set wasn't as deep as the space, but it was placed very close to the audience. So yes, the intensity and intimacy were very heightened in such close proximity.

Jane

naive theatre goer said...

I didn't see the MTC production of 'True West' but I saw a production by Human Sacrifice Theatre at Chapel Off Chapel 4 or 5 years ago that I thought was very good.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jane - I worked out my week's program by asking the Fringe people what they recommended and then combing through the program and seeing what looked interesting (so far as I could tell). The rest was about what I could fit in.

naive theatre goer said...

Just in case anyone is interested, I found some info about the Human Sacrifice Theatre production, along with an Age review by Cameron Woodhead in July 2006

http://humansacrificetheatre.com.au/TrueWest/review.htm