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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Messy Production of
Sam Shepard's True West

Also see Richard's reviews of Debbie Does Dallas and Brooklyn the Musical

The Panhandler's Theater Company is a relatively new theatre group in San Francisco who are performing at the Artaud Gallery Theatre, 450 Florida Street.  The philosophy of the company is based on the Latin phrase mirabile visu which means "wonderful to behold." Unfortunately, this production was not wonderful to behold.

Sam Shepard wrote this corrosive two-act piece in 1980 and since that time many companies have presented this sibling rivalry play to audiences here and in the U.K.  I have seen several productions, including the 2000 revival at Circle in the Square which starred the electrifying Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly.  There was also a splendid television version of the playwright's watershed play on American Playhouse in 1984 starring John Malkovitch and Gary Sinise.

True West is an acidic piece that needs two top grade actors to keep the audience interested in a caustic word battle between brothers Austin and Lee, who have identity problems.  I give young actors Rick Scarpello and Ronen Sberlo credit for trying to portray the brothers in this sometimes tedious production.

The actors' chief enemy is the theatre itself, which is a barn with a ceiling two stories high.  At the beginning of the play, which includes the hook of the comedy-drama, the two actors do not project to the audience.  They speak in low monotone voices and the first two scenes are completely lost on the audience. As Lee, Scarpello looks the part of the beer drinking older brother and sports a Sam Shepard accent. Sberlo, who plays the straight arrow younger brother, does not get into the character until the end of the first act.

Both actors come to grips with these two brothers at the start of the second act, which is a grotesque physical and mental battle between the characters. The act almost becomes a cartoon of violence, with Lee throwing everything in sight, making for a very messy stage at the end of the show.  Lee likes to beat the hell out of Austin's typewriter with a golf club. Austin gets drunk and does most of his acting sitting or lying on the floor of the stage.  He goes through a long story about their father's dental problems on a trip to Mexico, but the uses no projection and it is lost to the audience. It should be noted that this young actor does a nice bit of comic acting when he keeps talking about making toast in the toaster. In fact, he makes a lot of toast in a brief length of time (on opening night the company served toast and champagne to the patrons after the performance).

Both of the actors act like primal beings in the second act and we know this is a first class dysfunctional family when the mother comes in on the last scene.  One really can't make much of the mother as played by inexperienced Mandy Canales (she does mostly behind the stage work and has had little training for stage acting) - her voice could not be heard past the third row. Theatre student Brian Vanderpol is very effective as Saul the film producer.  He brings life into the play in his two brief scenes.

Stanford Meisner, the famous teacher of theatre, said that an actor should not tackle a major classic play until he has had sufficient training.  These two are undoubtedly good actors, but they have not had the training to undertake roles of such magnitude. The playwright's words of rhetorical fancy and elusive symbolism are lost.

The company has another major problem in this barn of a theatre. The floor is in line with the set and as a result, if you are sitting farther back than the third row, you will have a difficult time seeing much of the second act.  

Another major problem involves the scene changes, which are done by blackouts.  They last too long and break the flow of the comedy-drama. Also, you can see the actors moving furniture around to get to the next scene.  Director Gabrielle Gomez needs to tighten these scenes so it all flows more smoothly.

True West played the Artaud Gallery Theater at 450 Florida Street, San Francisco through August 26th.  For tickets please call 415-626-1021 or visit www.panhandlerstheatre.com.    


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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