Flying Penguin Productions @ AC Arts (Main Theatre)
3:00pm, Wed 3 Mar 2010
Walking from the brilliant sunshine into the Main Theatre at AC Arts was a bit disconcerting; the set, a wonderfully constructed kitchen and half-house, looked homely at first glance but possessed a domestic menace, and the opening music – banjo and distorted guitar – provided an ominous introduction.
Sam Shepard‘s play sees petty criminal Lee return to his mother’s home (ostensibly to steal her possessions), only to find his younger brother Austin, housesitting in her absence. Lee uses his physical presence to dominate Austin, who almost whimpers in his attempts to keep his brother at ease.
Austin is a struggling screenwriter, and when Saul (the movie producer he’d been trying to collaborate with) comes to check up on him, Lee and Saul have an instant connection. They leave him to work and go off to play golf; by the time they return, Saul has agreed to produce one of Lee’s ideas – at the expense of Austin’s. This sends the spurned younger brother into a tailspin, and a subsequent drinking frenzy; when Lee tries to get his brother’s help to write his screenplay, the tables turn: Austin is now the dominant one, lording his intellectual superiority and work ethic over his older sibling. Characters become frayed and obsessive, and their Mother’s return does little to ease the tension; eventually, Austin tries to strangle Lee with a telephone cord, fails, and the lights drop as the brothers face each other, aggression thick in the air.
Now, let’s get one thing perfectly straight: True West‘s use of sound is possibly the best of any production so far this year. Everything, from the occasional musical texture, to the typewriter clatter and noises of domestic clutter, to the space afforded to the actor’s lines, is magnificently placed. When Lee virtually spits the last consonant in “I don’t slee…P”, there’s a pregnant pause that amplifies the impact after-the-fact. Those pauses are used everywhere, creating a wonderful tension between the characters; and when conflicts arise in the latter parts of the play, the shouting is wonderfully directed.
As for the characters themselves… well, Nicholas Garsden is fantastic as Lee, managing both the physical menace and intellectual limitations. I was less keen on Renato Musolino’s Austin initially, but his mean-spirited and aggressive second act was fantastic. The lighting, too, was lush, and the script’s inexplicable fascination with toast (and toaster theft) almost provided farcical comic relief.
The only problem with True West is that it feels like it drags on too long… but, having already given a thumbs-up to the pregnant pauses, it almost feels contradictory to mention it. Still, it’s never a good sign when I start shifting in my seat, wondering when (and how) the performance was going to end; but a cliff-hanging denouement left me satisfied, without feeling the need to rave about it. Solid theatre.