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Review: True West at fortyfivedownstairs – Human Sacrifice Theatre

Updated: May 2, 2023

Review by Ellis Koch

True West is an intense, slow burn play. There are of course pay offs all the way through the script but the fascinating thing about it is that it builds intensity over the full duration and culminates in an explosive finish. The script does this on paper alone, such is the quality of writing from Sam Shepard. Seeing a production of True West, then, should be an even more intense experience - it should be claustrophobic, sweaty, dizzying. The sun-drenched, twitchy violence of Lee (Mark Diaco) towards his brother Austin (Justin Hosking) sets you on edge, the sound of coyotes and crickets helps to sustain that tension, the inescapable heat clings to everything and brings with it a brain-melting confusion. This is a dramatic thriller, a mind-bending examination of two brothers who covet what the other has, each one adamant the other has it better and determined to claim it for themselves. There is a threat, sometimes spoken but often just sitting in the air, between the two main characters that draws out the tension of the play until the climactic finale. When a production hits all of these marks it is an intense experience for the audience who feel the giddy heat and claustrophobia as if it were real. And while Human Sacrifice Theatre's current production of True West hits most of these marks, particularly throughout Act One, it unfortunately falls short of the ultimate payoff. I say unfortunately because they really do nail so many of the elements of this play - the sound and lighting design is incredible, the actors are fantastic ... but about two thirds of the way through the production loses its steam, it falters and the intensity ebbs away so that the final scene limps in over the finish line instead of enjoying the sweat-soaked chaotic finale it deserves and that no other play really gives license to indulge in. I don't want to spoil it - I say this often because my job is not only to critique but also to entice. I want you to see great theatre and I can't do that if I spoil the surprises for you ... but True West is one of the only plays that demands absolute annihilation and carnage in such a physical way that anybody working backstage on a production of it should almost dread the close of each night... for with each close comes the great reset. Herein lay the problem with HST's production: there is nowhere near enough annihilation. Nowhere near enough carnage. Nowhere near enough obliteration.

The initial pace, all the way up to the second scene of Act Two is on point. The lead actors, along with Kevin Summers as Saul Kimmer, give Shepard's dialogue the treatment it deserves - fast and intense with well-earned silences. The mannerisms of Diaco and Hosking as Lee and Austin are incredible - Diaco has this spring to his gait, a roll to his physique that makes him seem like a mountain lion come straight out of the stinking hot desert at night in search of prey and Hosking plays that prey deliciously, his manner is cautious and skittish... and yet there is a drop of wistfulness in him as he silently yearns for the life he imagines his brother possesses. Diaco really brings the tension, the threat of unpredictable violence that is necessary to make the character of Lee work, although there were some very far and few between moments where his delivery was a touch on the quiet side during Act One. Both actors, however, are excellent ... and it's worth noting that both actors played these roles in a 2006 production of True West with the same company. They know this play well and the characters they are portraying. Also of note is that, on alternating nights, the actors switch roles. I can't comment, unfortunately, on how each actor plays the other character as I only saw one night . . . but I do wonder if this convention contributed to the wheels falling off in the second act. But I'll get to that. For the most part the actors give a very strong performance and, along with Summers as Saul, have an excellent volley of dialogue in the second scene of Act Two that is really engaging.

It is here, however, that the production starts to falter. The tension should continue to build and should start to accelerate after that scene - the heat ramps up a notch, confusion sets in a bit and the aforementioned chaos and destruction, physical and metaphysical, play out until the end of the play. But the production never quite manages to push beyond the initial established tension and danger. The stakes don't rise any higher than they already were and as a result the audience experience of the play as it transforms remains the same - it plateaus when it should keep climbing. This has an obvious effect with the appearance of Mom, played by Fiona Stewart, whose numb acceptance of the state of affairs before her should add some deadpan comedic relief, a bit of a calm though disaffected moment in the insanity but instead the moment falls flat because the levels of chaos don't create the atmosphere needed for this moment to work. Fiona Stewart plays the role as it should be, although her positioning on stage was oddly straight on to the audience, a bit one note and lacking any dynamic, but the material falls apart because the prior scenes haven't kept the tension rising.

This could be for a number of reasons: perhaps it was opening night jitters, perhaps they ran out of time to put the polish on the last few scenes, perhaps the immense task of learning two lead roles made it difficult for the actors to focus on the build-up or perhaps there was a worry about certain production restrictions in the form of clean up and prop replacement. Scattering a few boxes and towels over the floor and half-heartedly whacking a typewriter with a golf club just doesn't create the wanton destruction called for in the script, however, and I do think that the faltering is more to do with this lack of physical chaos than it is any drop in energy or focus from the actors, although Diaco did appear to be reaching for lines at times in the second act - where he, the actor, was invisible in the first act he occasionally slipped into view in the second.

Most of this is a directorial thing, I think, and while director Lee Lee Mason has crafted a really solid seventy-five per cent the final twenty-five could. The sound design by Dmitri Golovko was excellent - the crickets and coyotes never let up and the illusion of vast emptiness along with distracting, cloying heat is achieved in conjunction with the gorgeous blues and oranges of lighting designer Kris Chainey's design. Set design by Peter Mumford works well and I particularly loved the simple 2D mountain range seen through the windows at the back of the set which, when lit up by Chainey's lighting design, created that blue haze of vast distance across a horizon. The costumes, also by Peter Mumford, were adequate for each role and Lee's costume in particular was great - the grimy, oily, well lived in garb fit the part cowboy/part drifter role well, particularly the tape around one shoe, holding the battered thing together, which was a nice touch.

True West is a great play and Human Sacrifice Theatre have crafted a fairly good production of it though it could reach for a more explosive finale.

Image Supplied


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