Torontonians can watch Sam Shepard’s play True West in two places right now: at Soulpepper Theatre Company in the Distillery District, and split up into 10 clips on YouTube.
Soulpepper, more than any other theatre company in Toronto, comes into regular competition with the Internet. Its bread and butter – though perhaps toast is the more appropriate metaphor in this case, for reasons that will be revealed – has become straightforward productions of well-known 20th-century plays that, in many cases, exist in multiple film and filmed-on-stage versions. (It calls itself a “classical theatre company.”)
So, one can fork out somewhere between $32 and $68 for a good seat to see Stuart Hughes and Mike Ross play Lee and Austin in director Nancy Palk’s production of Shepard’s 1980 comedy about two warring brothers.
Or, one can go to Google and find John Malkovich and Gary Sinise playing the same parts in a pretty high-quality recording made for PBS of their performances in a famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of the early 1980s.
Why see a play that remains tightly sealed up behind a fourth wall live, rather than on a screen from the comfort of your living room? One reason might be to see a different light on the play. Palk doesn’t. Or, rather, she does – but only literally. The first scene is supposed to take place in a kitchen by candlelight, but inexplicably does not.
As the lights come up to almost full brightness, Ross, as the polo-shirted, married and settled screenwriter Austin, appears at the table next to a typewriter fumbling around trying to light a Turkish candle.
Hughes, as his drifter brother Lee, also seems to be fumbling at the start, stuck beneath sideburns that are on the cusp of mutton chops. He sticks his thumbs under his belt and strikes cowboy poses with a look on his face more goofy than creepy or threatening. The two characters then have a conversation about why Austin is working by candlelight – in the aforementioned fully lit set.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression – but Palk’s production does soon finds its groove.
Austin is temporarily away from his family, holed up in his mother’s house in a suburb of Los Angeles, taking meetings and finishing off a script.
Lee, coincidentally, is visiting at the same time, having wandered in from the desert where he’s been hanging out with a fighting dog to steal a few televisions and replenish his funds. With their mother off on holiday in Alaska, the brothers encounter each other for the first time in five years – and immediately things threaten to head in a Cain and Abel direction.
On the surface, True West is Shepard’s most realistic play, a kitchen-sink drama where the kitchen sink is actually a topic of discussion. As much as Austin and Lee are brothers, however, it is also implied that they are two halves, the id and the ego, of the same person.
The lead characters believe they are different, however. And so, when Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (Ari Cohen, who played a similar role in Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at Soulpepper last season) signs Lee up to write an “authentic” modern western, Austin is baffled and is thrown into an identity crisis. “He thinks we’re the same person,” he yells at his brother. “He’s lost his mind.”
Palk – following Shepard’s instructions – avoids tapping into the surrealism of the play, keeping things resolutely realistic. Though “realism” here resembles a slightly salty three-camera sitcom – The Id Couple? – thanks to Ken MacDonald’s pretty single-room set, industrially lit by Graeme Thomson.
The performances pick up the show. Once the booze and old grievances comes out, Hughes slowly reveals the insecurity – and even love – that lies underneath his character’s cowboy demeanour, while Ross lets out more and more envy and despair (not always convincingly). Lee tries to bash out his western script and Austin, hilariously, heads out to steal toasters from all the neighbours.
Now there’s something you absolutely can’t get on YouTube: The smell of toast wafting through the theatre. The other thing you can’t get at home watching Sinise and Malkovitch is carried away on the crest of an audience’s laughter. The recording on YouTube feels slightly dead and overly dour; the Soulpepper show is a rollicking good time.