True West On South Howell

Pink Banana’s Visceral Staging of Sam Shepard’s Classic

Dec. 31, 1969
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The space feels something like a corner bar that had been converted into an apartment and then into a theatre space. It ends up feeling a bit like all three. Walk through the front door and there’s a place to sign-in for advance tickets at the front. There’s coffee for sale. Evidently Anodyne Coffee Roasters has made a special blend of coffee specifically fro the production. One might think a Sam Shepard True West blend of coffee would be a bit harsh, a bit sweet and very, very acidic. Actually, it’s quite subtle. There’s a very calm texture to it. Nothing too flashy. It’s coffee. It gets the job done. And it helps set the stage for Pink Banana's latest show.

A group of chairs have been clustered around a couch, a table with an old-fashioned typewriter, a refrigerator and a sink. There’s a bathroom in the far corner. The show begins as show’s director James Boland shows-up, coming in through a side door. There’s a space somewhere else in the building being used for the backstage area, so the entire space is used by actors and audience. The show’s director also stars as Austin—the younger of two brothers staying at his mother’s place to water the plants while she’s away in Alaska. He’s tall, thin and clean cut. He puts some music on the phonograph player and it plays through a pair of old stereo speakers not far from the writing desk. He douses the lights and lights some candles. Just as he’s getting down to the business of writing, his brother Lee shows-up.

Lee is an unemployed drifter who makes a living stealing things from people’s houses. Lee is played with a suitable level of menace by Karl David Conoff. The rapport between Conoff and Boland is palpable. They’re on the edge of aggression throughout the play and Conoff and Boland make that tension work extremely well. There are only a few instances where the two seem somehow outside the dynamic . . . trying to get into another tense moment between Lee and Austin.

The physical aggression between the two of them is strikingly well choreographed, but in a space this size, it kind of has to be. The physicality of the aggression between Lee and Austin comes across as a very sloppy, very aggressive brawl in places. And while the final brawl between the two of them may not come across as realistic as it possibly could, the tension between Boland and Conoff for the rest of the play—the little slaps and shoves and things, come across with a vivid realism that makes much of the production very, very believable on a physical level.

At some point, Austin has to meet with Saul—a big Hollywood producer he’s working with on a screenplay. The part of Saul is played by Matt Kemple, who hasn’t been onstage acting in a serious drama in a long time. The founder of the Milwaukee Comedy Festival takes to the drama very, very well. A man who is familiar with the business end of the local entertainment business does a really interesting job of bringing a late 1970’s Hollywood producer to the stage. Kemple, who never fails to come across like a pretty nice guy offstage, is actually remarkably suited to a character who has been able to make a living as a producer in Hollywood without making it super-big. There’s enough subtle hint of a Bob Evans-like Hollywood big shot in there, but Saul's got that nice guy persona that he has to get by in order to be successful. And that’s something he’s dealing with directly in the play. Kemple does a good job of portraying that.

Eventually things fall apart in a really big way. Boland’s a lot of fun when they do. He’s believable throughout, but Boland’s a lot more interesting when Austin loses hi grip on things towards the end of the play. The big toaster scene at the end of the play is vividly realized here. It appears as though the production goes through roughly one loaf of bread for toast every performance. The smell of toast fills the air as things continue to fall apart. Boland’s real success here, aside from realistically portraying a very subtle kind of intimidating aggression, is the ability to make a huge, precise mess onset without making it look like he knows where everything’s going to land. The place looks like a complete mess as the two brother’s mother comes home.

Christine Horgen puts in a really classy performance as Mom. She carries herself with precisely the kind of dignity the role requires without seeming too overly stable herself. She seems really, really fragile coming into the house and  we get a really, really vivid imprssion of what things might have been like with her husband.

There are a number of clever little touches added to the production—the single best one being clearly visible to people in the front row farthest from the exits. There’s a picture on the mantle of a younger-looking Horgen with two young boys. Throughout the production, we’re seeing a loving mother with two happy boys on the mantle as the vicious dynamic between the two of them plays out in adulthood. And they looked so happy. It’s a really compelling little touch. The phonograph player is also really interesting. All the music coming-in for the production is a natural part of the performance. It doesn’t seem at all out of place when somebody puts a record on.

Towards the end of the play, Boland puts on what sounds like the score from a Sergio Leone film. The Ennio Moricone-sounding Italian Western music plays out amid crushed cans and discarded toast as Lee and Austin attempt to work things out. The score wasn't written for this moment, but it feels right. It may not be perfect, but there’s enough moments like this to make this production of True West well worth seeing. 

Pink Banana Theatre’s production of  True West runs through October 30th on 2375 South Howell. Reservations can be made by calling 414-698-8991.


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