I like controversy! So, Saturday night, I coerced Dean into joining me for a rogue performance of Sam Shepard’s True West. You may have heard about this production (in The New York Times, Playbill, or Backstage): it has turned the scripted brothers Lee and Austin into sisters, a change strongly protested by Samuels Shepard and French. I was hoping to see Samuel French-hired security teams storm the theatre or something, but instead it was a normal black box production.
And unfortunately, it wasn’t that great. There was no problem with the approach; at no point did Lee and Austin seem awkward as women. (Lee’s posturing was socially awkward, but it didn’t come across as “macho” like I thought it might.) But, the actresses just were too shrill and too monotonous to make the play enjoyable. If you’ve seen any Christopher Durang play, you may know what I’m talking about. His plays are mostly just screaming, and I’ve seen my share of productions where there is no modulation in those screams. After a point, True West is also nothing but screaming—angry screaming, drunken screaming, tired screaming—and these women made it all sound the same. Their performances were limited.
But it must be admited: their sororal approach to the play remained strong throughout. I think making Lee and Austin daughters also highlighted their relationship to their father. We’re used to Shepard’s tough men in tough family relationships, but here, when Lee describes everything she’s done for her father, her attempts to be a good daughter, and how futile she ultimately thinks it to be, it seems more effective than if Austin was a man. This might only be a lazy Electra complex interpretation on my part, but I thought it made Dad a stronger figure.
Something that wasn’t played as I expected it to be was the relationship between Lee and Saul. Usually, Lee buddy-buddys Saul into a golf game and an eventual movie contract, and I expected this production to turn it into something more flirtatious. But Saul’s sleaziness never really turned lecherous, and Lee consistently spoke golfer-to-golfer, not woman-to-man. It worked, but I still wonder if this was a missed opportunity.
Let me repeat something: this production worked. It wasn’t terrific, but it did not overreach the material. Thinking about the production yesterday brought to mind the wit and wisdom of Dale Simon, of local Shakespeare ’70 fame. For some workshop, he mentioned that if you want to rewrite Shakespeare, go ahead—but only if you can write it better.
But here’s a production of True West: it’s slightly revised, but not at all better than a traditional production. And I still thought the change was worth it. It made me think that the first part of Dale’s advice is the strongest. Go ahead and rewrite. Better may not be necessary. Interesting could be enough.