Thursday, July 17, 2008

The wild, wild west

Sam Shephard is the playwright. True West is the play. The Banyan Theater Company recently staged it, but let's get back to that.

As to the playwright ...

Sam Shephard is a madman.True West violates every basic understanding I have regarding structure, character, dialog and premise. The damn thing shouldn't work. But it works. No, Albert. Gravity can't bend light, you silly man. Take the rest of the day off. The patent office can live without you. But there it is.

Starlight curves around the sun. True West works.

To summarize the damn thing?

There's these two brothers, see. Austin is a bigtime Hollywood screenwriter. Lee is a burglar and a bum. Austin has just nailed down a major script deal when Lee shows up and impresses Austin's producer with his Wild West authenticity. The shady brother plays golf with Austin's producer, and comes back from the country club with a deal of his own for a movie based on a bullshit story about two dudes racing horses across the Texas panhandle on account of they's in love with the same woman. Austin's former producer sidelines Austin's project and gives Lee a bigass advance for this glorious tale. Well, sir. Lee discovers that writing a script is freaking hard. Austin gloats. Lee begs for help. Austin refuses to adapt his illiterate brother's story. After stealing a buncha toasters to prove his manhood, Austin changes his mind. Austin'll write the script, if'n Lee will teach him to live like a bum in the desert so's he can escape the Hollywood bullshit. Lee agrees, but has second thoughts. At the end of the play, Austin tries to strangle his brother with a telephone cord. But Lee survives. They square off for a shoot-out or some such.

The plot is preposterous. It shouldn't work, damn it.

The play doesn't start off that crazy. Shephard opens with a bizarre but realistic premise: Two brothers pitch their movie ideas. One's a bum, the other's a screenwriter. The bum wins. Hey, it could happen.

Shephard procedes to paint himself into a corner. Then he blows up the corner. Then he sets the house on fire. The Three Stooges has more logic. But it works.

Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

I don't know how Shephard does it, folks. Mr. Knowitall is beyond his paygrade.

It's a dream of freedom, nailed to the cross of everyday bullshit.

It's an elegy for the brothers' missing, absent, toothless father.

It's a turd on Hollywood Boulevard.

Something like that. True West shouldn't work, but it does and I really don't know why. Seriously. I don't know this particular magic trick, the card up Shephard's sleeve. But I want to.

Magic aside, you're probably wondering about the Banyan production itself. Yeah, well. Since you ask: It's one of the best plays I've seen in the last ten years. Hey, I'm as shocked as you are. R. Ward Duffy (Lee) and Eric Hissom (Austin) hit it out of the park as the borderline psychotic Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Props also to J. Bloomrosen (the brothers' clueless producer) and Nina Hughes (their poor mom) and director Chris Dolman for poking Shepard's needles in my brain.

True West
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 3
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

1 comment:

Ward Duffy said...

Marty, Thank You for the kind words and mostly for the Great review-it's insightful, perceptive and entertaining as hell-Thank You Man. I pasted a note below I sent to one of your colleagues about TW. And as for your desire to know how he does it, my best guess is the same as it is for any good piece of theater-give us some truth. Show, explore, question, take a beer shower in some human truth and we'll recognize it no matter how funky the form you put it in. Thanks again man and keep doin' it-

Ward Duffy (Lee, 'Id Boy', Coyote of the Moment)

I started writing you a response to your review of True West the other evening after one of the shows (and too many cocktails) and ended up that night blurting out this rant of an overview of all the press for TW. In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never responded to any review. I don’t say that to raise the stakes of why I wrote this but, after reading what I wrote in the light of day, I wanted to let you know it is not my habit nor was it my intent to write a hatchet job of someone else’s work. My intent was to offer constructive criticism of the reviews and clear up what seemed to be some of the chronic mysteries about this play for many of you. And to let you know what one actor, at least, would like to expect from a reviewer. I can only think it has been the 20 years of not responding to all the reviews that I felt misunderstood the source material that drove me to write this because overall, the press was very positive for this show. And I’ve certainly done shows where I’ve felt that the disconnect between what was happening on stage and what was happening in the papers was much more egregious. And certainly none of the critics I’ve read could be accused of having done a hatchet job on the play (at least not to the extent that I returned the favor here in ‘unkind’.) And I can now say I understand a little bit more the pathology of the phenomena. Let’s face it. It can be fun and very easy to get carried away. So I thank you all for the restraint you exercised and apologize for my lack thereof. I just hope (if you choose to read any further) you can hear the message through the mean.



To: John Bancroft, Special Contributer on Food, Wine and the Arts

First off, please don't misconstrue this missive as a knee-jerk reaction to the criticism of my work. I (and this will be painfully clear) like most actors who have done this long enough, have the arrogance, earned or not, required to exist in this field (ask anyone who has worked with me). My personal criticisms of my own work are much more searing (and seer-ing for that matter) than any outsiders. And, they are legion. And as you will see, I have reserved some of my most choice criticism for some of your colleagues who were kindest to me. So, this really isn’t tit for tat.

But your review, like most every review I have read save two or three, betrays a fairly shocking ignorance and misunderstanding of the source material (or at best, a failing to impart an understanding of the source material to your readers if you do grasp the play). Because, you see, I do assume that any critic should have a knowledge of that which he reviews that goes beyond the average readers, so that they can enhance their reader’s appreciation and understanding of the subject. And if you don’t have a grasp of the source material, you offer your readers nothing more than an account their neighbor the accountant could sum up.
Whether in the end the subject (or my interpretation of it) is you or your reader’s cup of tea is neither here nor there to me. In other words if the play is an apple I expect you to impart that information to your readers and give your opinion on our representation of an apple. The problem is this play is an orange. So when you explicitly or tacitly describe it as an apple you do your readers a disservice (especially those who may be allergic to oranges) and you do the production a disservice by describing what a poor representation of an apple we offered when what we we’re representing was the orange the author wrote.

So…you being a Food, Wine and the ARTS writer I automatically assume you should have an inkling to the amount of black pepper that should be found in the finish of a particular zinfandel and the amount of grapefruit that should be present in that New Zealand sauvignon blanc; and how much cucumber should be detected in a any particular west coast oyster and, if you do not, you should clam up (I'm an actor, not a writer, I can put a preposition any damn place I want to). I assume you should know that True West is not meat and potatoes (as your review incorrectly infers) but a much more rare bird-an exotic meal from the endangered species list.

And if you can’t identify what’s on the plate in front of you, you should own up to that and admit it may be “above your pay grade” (as one blogging reviewer put it and through his humorous self-deprecation and the questions he asked, shed more insight into the ‘true’ nature of the material and his understanding of it than most of the other reviews.) You say "On the surface it is not a difficult play" which betrays your misunderstanding of it since you then choose not to go any deeper. I assume you would never review a bouillabaisse by simply looking at what’s breaking the surface, describing that, and not actually eating of it. And I also assume you should have a pretty darn good idea of what’s supposed to be in there and you would pass that knowledge on to your readers. So they could then appreciate and enjoy the dish. And you could then give them your informed opinion of how this preparation stacks up to the ideal. You achieved none of this with your review of True West.

Don’t be fooled by the hype of this being one of Mr. Shepard’s most accessible plays. You don’t generally rack-up Obie’s because you write a lot of straightforward narrative-kitchen-sink-dramas. He didn’t totally distance himself from his crazy experimental roots in writing this play. Make that mistake and you’re already under the gun, pards. True West is sneakily one of the most stylistically complex plays in the English language (maybe Angels in America comes close but its shifts in style are broader and much less subtle, often scene to scene.) Shepard makes facile shifts in the middle of a scene, sometimes in the middle of a speech, in jazz-like riffs. Another reviewer picked up on this, specifically referring to the " Realism and Absurdity " in the play. That review revealed the critics’ understanding of the material, which she then passed on to her readers.
The play starts off with a scene that is Mythic Surrealism with a veil of Naturalism. It travels through Realism, Light Comedy, High Drama, pure Farce at times, Absurdist, and ends it all back where it started with Mythic Surrealism. Shepard uses this broad palate of styles to explore a number of major themes (and many minors) in this stylistic-thematic bouillabaisse of a play. To try and perceive this play as a single themed, single styled, straightforward narrative is, to quote Austin, “ IDIOTIC! ”

I'm not saying don't be critical. I'm saying be critical for the right reasons. Get a clue as to your source material. Pass it on to your readers. And many of them may very well just pass on this play, having been informed of the “True” nature of it, while still others may be excited by the challenge of the darkly funny, nerve-shredding, two-fisted, existential, thrill-ride of a play Shepard offers.

Similarly, any attempt to deconstruct the play by reducing it, and focusing on only one of its themes to the exclusion of the others will lead to chaos, frustration and misunderstanding, as evidenced by Mr. Alternative who valiantly and commendably delves into ONE of the major themes of the play but, sadly and erroneously, arrives at his conclusions (and exclusions of the other themes.)
By myopically focusing on a single theme of the play, the artist’s struggle, this reviewer not only diminishes the scope of the play as written, he misinterprets a piece of my co-stars’ performance ( who by the way, from this actor’s point of view, mops the stage with my sorry-ass almost every night ). And come to think of it-his review didn’t even get that one theme right.

In this track of the play Austin and Lee are two halves of a single artist-they are Shepard as Alternative rightly says-and any writers Id and Ego struggling to create. They are therefore I N S E P E R A B L E. It’s not a question of one side ever being able to do it by itself “ since Austin doesn’t need Lee ” Of course he does! And Shepard states this plainly in Austin’s desperate pleas to Saul in language masterfully pulled from and riffing on westerns “ I’ve got everything riding on this, Saul. You know that. This is my only shot. If this falls through-” He is not succeeding and has not succeeded yet. All the characters (save one-who is not, despite the erroneous assertions of multiple critics, “ just a plot device “-was there a fire sale on the term “ plot device” ? It’s like PDA’s-everybody has one but no one seems to know how to use it correctly) are reaching for the brass ring, searching for their place in this world and not finding it. So Shepard doesn’t “ drop the ball “, as Alternative says in his blithe hubris, by not giving us an answer as to who is the winner. “ At best he wants us to think about the enterprise. “ Alternative says in a tone that suggests that’s a criticism. …….(Long pause. Jaw agape. Gathering my bearings)…..YES! YES! YES! GOOD GOD ON A RITZ CRACKER, YES, OF COURSE HE DOES!!!!! - Jesus! - Televangelists give us answers! Psychics and Politicians give us answers! Multiple Obie and Pulitzer prize winning artists, like all great artists, give us questions! They explore and hold the mirror up to life to show us what is, and sometimes they switch mirrors mid-scene and it’s an Absurdist funhouse mirror to give us a different perspective and a laugh along the way, but, always to the end of making us ‘reflect’, of making us ask the questions of ourselves. So we can have a lovely little doggie-bag of questions to take home and gnash our teeth on and a play that will stay with us longer than Chop Suey.

Which brings us to the over-arching theme of the play. Greater, yes, greater than the artists struggle track. Greater than the man’s struggle to control the beast within and evolve track. Greater the Cain/Able track with Lee and Austin fighting for their fathers love. And certainly stronger than (but wonderfully paralleling and tying together the tapestry of the life and art explorations of the play) the Hollywood as artistic wasteland track- aptly and amusingly referred to (hey that’s something to strive for) as a ” turd on Hollywood Boulevard “ by Mr. Blog.

The over arching theme of the play which many of the critics shockingly ignored is that of Man trying to find a way to exist in this wasteland of a society we have created. (If you blow this whole theme, there ‘aint no way on this scorched earth yer’ gonna explain Mom, Alternative.) “ Built up? Wiped out is more like it. I don’t even hardly recognize it.“ as Lee says. We have lost the land and we have lost ourselves. Shepard creates a beautiful symmetry in this family’s struggle to find their place in this world. Dad couldn’t make it here. He went off to the desert to try and find his place in the world. Lee screams at his brother “ I’m livin’ out there ‘cuz I can’t make it here!” And just as surely as Lee’s fate is that of his fathers- a toothless ‘Id’ howling in the heat of the desert- Austin’s fate will be that of his Mom’s; the cool ‘Ego’ searching the frigid wasteland of Alaska; with the appearance and trappings of being at one with this society, but thoroughly detached from reality; living in a sanctuary of the mind with the memories of bygone days; where for Mom, the boys are still children, and the brutal strangulation of one son by the other is mistaken for roughhousing that should just be “ taken outside. “

And in her final moments on stage Mom is speaking, but she speaks for the whole family. In a moment that is heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time, in a true Absurdist tradition, she looks at the wasteland of her home (representing the wasteland of the society we have wrought ) and says;

“ I don’t recognize it at all. “

Her words echoing Austin’s desperate confession to Lee in the most soul-baring scene of the play:

“There’s nothing down here for me. When we were kids here it was different. There was a life here then. But now, I keep coming down here thinking it’s the fifties or somethin’. I keep finding myself getting off the freeway at familiar landmarks that turn out to be unfamiliar. Wandering down streets I thought I recognized that turn out to be replicas of streets I remember. Streets I misremember. Streets I can’t tell if I lived on or I saw in a postcard.”

Austin already is having trouble telling life (the street he lived on) from Art (the postcard).

And in one of Shepard’s most brilliant pieces of writing, he has Mom pick up the baton of mistaking Life (Picasso the man) for Art (Picasso’s work). In a play that has been exploring the nature of both Art (and the creative process) and Life (and the destructive process of building our society). And he chooses a cubist! to throw in to the Absurdist moment of the play! with all the wonderful, grotesque distortions from the ”true” life original that entails.

So Mr. Alternative, when you say Mom’s entrance is worth a few laughs but “ adds nothing to our understanding of the play “ to you I say, in the words of that great sage Daffy Duck, “ PRONOUN TROUBLE! “ Don’t include anyone else in your ignorance. It may not help your understanding of the play. You’re too exclusive in your themes and too inclusive with your pronouns. Leave the rest of us out of it. And since we’re on the topic….As you have opined over the years on the “problems” in Mr. Shepard’s script, and you have seen numerous productions of the play and it still never works for you…. U… you. And yet Mr. Shepard does have all those Obies and a Pulitzer… and many, many great minds over the last quarter century have poured over this script… Has it ever struck you…just a fleeting thought…a racing phantasm in the peripheral vision…Maybe it’s me? Maybe I just don’t get it? Maybe I just don’t understand this play? Maybe the world is right and I’m wrong?

And speaking of Buddhism and plot devices (there’s a Shepard transition for ya’ )-that’s right, Saul “ Buddha “ Kimmer-he’s the only self-actualized and centered character in the world of the play. He’s right where he should be in this world. There’s nothing in this world that could make him happier than doing what he does and being Saul Kimmer. If Lee wants to muscle him downstream, he’s not going to fight it, he’s just going to go with the flow- and make a killing on it. It’s the last poop Shepard plops on Hollywood Boulevard. “In an insane world the sane man….” Well, meet the King Ladies and Gents. Like the cockroach-that which will not only survive but thrive in the post-apocalyptic (cultural) wasteland of our society: The Hollywood Agent.

Now please don’t think for a second that I believe any audience member with clean eyes is going to comprehend the totality of all that. They may not be aware of 5% of it in a single viewing. But just as with Shakespeare, where a line or phrase or action may have ten ingenious reasons for being the perfect choice by the writer, just because we are only aware of one or two doesn’t negate the genius ( Alternative!). And as I don’t expect the average audience member to be aware of all that, I do expect it of a critic!

Thanks to the brave and creative labors of Jerry Finn, Carole Kleinberg, director Chris Dolman and everyone who works and has worked at the Banyan, the Banyan audience is not the average audience. They come precisely for the challenge of great works with rich texts presented with an unapologetic devotion to the material. It’s not ‘dumbed down’ to make it more understandable or palatable. They serve up the whole stack of toast, not slicing away a raw theme here or an unsavory moment there to make it easier to digest. You have to open wide and chomp into the whole loaf.

To serve your readers appetite for the theater, and give them greater appreciation and enjoyment of it, you need to be familiar with what’s on the menu. Only then can you offer your informed opinion on the seven course meal that is Sam Shepard’s “True West”, and the Banyan’s preparation of it.

Or you can just throw in “plot device” and go get a snack.

R. Ward Duffy