The Call of the West

At some point in most male actors' careers, Sam Shepard's True Westdigs its spurs into their sides. It's a play drenched in testosterone and drunk on competition, and it centers on two brothers fighting the legacy of an unseen, indigent father.

It's got dude written all over it.

It's also Shepard's funniest great play, as well as one of his most thematically dense—its rather simple look at shady Hollywood wheeling-and-dealing a thin disguise for his exploration of the decline of the myth of the American West, and all that implies about individualism and freedom.

In short: a great fucking play, and one that doesn't take a whole lot to produce, as this raucous version, courtesy of Feed the Monster productions, illustrates. Staged in the round with minimal set pieces and props, this production relies solely on its cast (and the beer you can buy from a roving server; you're urged to throw your empties on the stage during blackouts).

It all, strangely, works. Strangely because, on the surface, there is a lot wrong with the show. The four-person cast is too young by anywhere from 10 to 25 years. A weirdly obtrusive underscoring renders the white-knuckle final scene nearly unlistenable. And, for a play set in late '70s Los Angeles County, anachronisms abound, from decidedly contemporary sneakers to equally modern luggage.

But the actors' intensity, commitment and nitroglycerin-like volatility trump everything else. Christopher Goss' desert rat Lee and Stephen Kline's city slicker Austin may lack age and physical baggage, but both possess mad talent, creating genuinely likable characters out of two guys who are often played as a menacing psychopath (Lee) or a milquetoasty egghead (Austin). They realize that, regardless of their respective paths in life, they're still brothers with shared blood, DNA and personal history. It's their similarities—their ambition, need for acceptance and unresolved daddy issues—that make them and their struggle fascinating.

Focusing on the personal allows this True Westto avoid a common trap that snags productions that approach the play as an important, allegorical tome about art versus commerce, reality versus illusion and country versus city. It's all those things, but here, they're exposed not through conscious decision but through a sincere playing of the text.

And you can buy beer during the show!



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