True West - Hub Theatre Company

True West - Hub Theatre Company

 Pictured: Bob Mussett and Victor Shopov. Photo Credit: Alex Aroyan.

Pictured: Bob Mussett and Victor Shopov. Photo Credit: Alex Aroyan.

True West – Hub Theatre Company

Review by James Wilkinson

True West is presented by Hub Theatre Company. Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Daniel Bourque. Set Design by Ben Lieberson. Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro. Costume Design by Nancy Ishihara. Sound Design by Jay Mobley. Props Design by Cesara Walters and Valerie Tracy. Firght Director: Samantha Richert. 

I’m gonna miss Sam Shepard like hell. I never met the man, but I’ve been reading and rereading his plays since discovering them in college. Before his death in 2017 he had written over fifty plays in a career that spans just as many years. In that time he managed to leave his own distinct mark on American theater, providing a theatrical vision inspired by the myths of the American west. In much of his best work he examines and deconstructs what should be comforting and stable environments to expose an undercurrent of violence waiting to explode. And he does this while also occasionally taking the time to be howlingly funny. To the best of my recollection, it’s been a while since Boston theater has seen a production of a Shepard play, (I offer my profound apologies if there’s a production that I have overlooked/forgotten). Thankfully, Hub Theatre Company has taken up the cause with their fantastic new production of Shepard’s True West, now playing at First Church in Boston. For Shepard fans, the production is a gift. For those unfamiliar with his work, now’s the time to get on board. 

A pair of diametrically opposed brothers sit at the heart of True West. Austin (Bob Musssett), is an upstanding citizen and screenwriter, currently at work on his next project. Lee (Victor Shopov) is a low life petty criminal who has just returned from living in the desert for three months. The two are staying in their mother’s southern California home while she visits Alaska. The heat is oppressive. The crickets, relentless. The setting would act as an uncomfortable pressure cooker for two siblings who love each other. For Austin and Lee, two who can barely tolerate each other, the cramped quarters are an explosion waiting to happen. The fuse is lit when Lee inserts himself into Austin’s screenwriting deal by pitching his own story to movie producer Saul Kimmer (Robert Orzalli). Suddenly Austin is out, Lee is in, and the brothers’ separate paths become entwined. Old familial tensions jealousies bubble to surface as Lee and Austin square off in manner that would put Cain and Abel to shame. 

Director Daniel Bourque keeps a tight rein on the escalating madness as we enter Shepard country, and it’s a good thing too. There’s a down-the-rabbit-hole quality to the script as each succeeding scene brings the brothers’ grievances to a story of practically biblical proportions. By the end of the play the set is covered in garbage, dead plants, busted typewriters and toast (so much toast!), but we never have to ask how it is that we got here. Together with his actors, Bourque finds just the right calibration of menace and humor that invites the audience on the journey. The final scene comes across as though fated from the start.

It helps that there’s a great acting company assembled here. Most of the play is a two-hander between the brothers and Bob Mussett and Victor Shopov shine in the roles. Much of the mood of the piece is created in the rhythms of Shepard’s text which can bounce from rapid fire dialogue to more lyrical William Blake-like monologues. The two actors find a way to handle the text that feels loose and spontaneous, like jazz. They’re feeding off of each other’s energy in a very balanced way. As one character is pushed to a new level of frustration, the other rises up and matches him. And although their characters don’t have much stage time, as producer Sal Kimmer and the brothers’ Mom, Robert Orzalli and Maureen Adduci not only find moments to shine, but genuinely feel a part of the world that’s being created on stage. 

Hub’s design team for the piece make a number of interesting choices that I think help serve the blending of naturalism and absurdity going on here. The play was originally staged in the late 70’s/early 80’s and because typewriters become significant to the plot, most stagings of the work (at least that ones I’ve seen) tend to keep the action in that specific time period. Here though, elements from different periods appear to mix together making the exact date difficult to pin down. The kitchen set seemed to me to have been assembled in the late 80’s/early 90’s. The costume design includes a mix of present day sensibilities with the occasional 80’s outfit popping up. While watching the show, I had just about set in my mind that I was watching a period piece when a character walked across the stage with a flat screen television. Rather than creating a sense of time period schizophrenia, I think the gentle mixing of influences gives us the impression that we’re watching something outside of space and time. That there is something mythical happening before our eyes. 

If you were inclined and wanted to take the time, you could probably spend hours finding metaphorical interpretations to the story of Austin and Lee (and I’m sure that countless academics have). But why get bogged down in all that? What Hub Theatre Company’s production proves with their production is that first and foremost, this story works as a gripping and hilarious stage piece. It’s a hell of a ride to go on with one of the masters of 20th century American theater. So sit back, relax and enjoy your trip out to the desert. Don’t be surprised if you find that you want to stay out there in the desert.

True West is presented by Hub Theatre Company at First Church in Boston April 13-28, 2018.

For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.hubtheatreboston.org

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