The strengths of Sam Shepard's plays are in the peculiar humor he brings to them. In most of his better-known work, the playwright/actor blends comedy and tragedy, pulling laughs from unseemly places. A new staging of Shepard's True West that's produced by a local movie company called Sudden Death Pictures risks punching up the comedy of one of his flakier family dramas. The result is an uneven entertainment that's saved by a couple of strong performances.
Director Matthew Mazuroski is taking a chance in emphasizing Shepard's covert comedy, which is usually folded into the structure of his plays rather than in his dialogue or characters. In True West, Mazuroski playfully contrasts the cliched screenplay that a pair of rivalrous brothers is writing with the play itself. The movie the brothers are outlining in their mother's kitchen details the competition between a pair of Western bandits who are chasing each other through the desert. The brothers jeer at the things they make their characters do and say, while Shepard mocks the men we're watching. The brothers, who are holed up in their mother's home while she vacations in Alaska, duke it out over moral principles and paternal love. Austin, a writer, is there to finish a screenplay he may have sold to an oily film producer. Lee, his homeless older brother, has just dropped in after roaming the desert for several months. When Austin's producer visits, Lee pitches him his own idea for a movie, a commercial Western about nothing in particular. Austin is hired to write the outline and, while they work, the brothers switch roles: Lee becomes the aspiring artist and Austin a drunken, petty thief.
True West is the third in a series of plays in which Shepard uses the cultural myth of the Old West as a paradigm for the American family. This time out, he's telling his own story. He's split himself into two comically exaggerated characters in an enactment of the playwright's own personal conflict and the differences between life and art. While True West addresses some pretty serious stuff, Mazuroski manages to exhume every last laugh in the script. I've seen three different productions of this play, and don't recall the audience ever laughing at the final scene, a tense struggle between the brothers that finds Austin strangling Lee with the strap of a vinyl purse. The audience howled this time, though, while dishes and houseplants and other props shattered in the fracas. Mazuroski builds a crafty comic sequence leading up to this, but maintains the tension despite our laughter at such violent lives.
It helps that Mazuroski has cast a pair of actors who are adept at both comedy and drama. I've often thought that look-alike actors Richard Trujillo and Michael Tassoni should play brothers in something, and here they are, howling and pacing and upstaging each other at every turn. Trujillo plays Austin as an effete intellectual, an interpretation I wish I'd seen before. (Austin is usually performed as a snooty dullard, braying arrogantly about morals and being generally spineless.) His drunken scene is played a bit broadly, but his performance is otherwise confident and unique.
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I've lamented in past reviews that Tassoni has fallen into a rut, taking on silly character roles that require foreign accents he can't quite manage. But here he proves that, with some solid material and the right director, he's a gifted actor who can deliver the goods. Tassoni's Lee is a scary psycho who may erupt any minute; when he tells his brother "I don't sleep," it's as if he's confessing to murder.
The production's major flaw is its long middle section, which drags and meanders. Finding little humor in the play's dramatic, verbose midpoint, Mazuroski allows his actors to wander drunkenly, chewing scenery and affecting long pauses. But by the time Mom returns home to announce that Picasso is in town, both director and players have righted themselves and the play successfully to its rousing non-ending.
Successfully staging a Shepard play is difficult, crowded as they are with metaphorical speech and unresolved conflict. Mazuroski has made his job even tougher by emphasizing the playwright's oblique, sophisticated humor. But he's met his own challenge, proving his proficiency by extracting the comedy from this American tragedy while maintaining its moral and aiding his actors in crafting fine performances.
Sudden Death Pictures' production of True West continues through Sunday, December 1, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.