Blog Review: TRUE WEST at Arizona Theatre Company

Review: TRUE WEST at Arizona Theatre Company

By Zach Wetzel. Originally published by Broadway World.

True West explodes onstage at Arizona Theatre Company. This is the single greatest piece of live theater I have ever seen. True West is the story of two estranged siblings forced to interact while one of them house-sits for their mother. Written by Sam Shepard and directed by Jenn Thompson, True West is a triumph of acting and storytelling.

True West was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and for three Tony Awards in 2000. Director Jenn Thompson has been nominated for a Drama Desk Award and has directed plays both on and off-Broadway, and throughout the country. She injects a fierce energy into the staging of True West that leaves the audience gasping for breath from the horrifying and hilarious spectacle.

This play is a dark comedy, through and through. It succeeds because of the onstage charisma of its actors. Amelia White and Geoffrey Wade give excellent supporting performances. Zach Fine’s unhinged Lee and Rhett Guter’s Austin set the stage ablaze with their verbal and physical confrontations. Their chemistry onstage is undeniable. Fine in particular gives a standout performance. Lee is a petty criminal with a short temper and Austin is a mild-mannered screenwriter. When put together, Lee and Austin are like fire and gasoline.

The fight choreography by Brent Gibbs deserves recognition. At times it is almost balletic in nature. Each physical altercation is grounded in serious emotional conflict, which heightens the stakes. Because both characters are brothers, True West is a chilling reminder that conflict can come from anywhere, even from family. Gibbs creates fight choreography that succeeds in making the audience laugh and gasp, sometimes in the same breath.

Technically, True West is a masterpiece. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting design invites the audience into an ambience of changing hues that richly convey the passage of time from day into night and back again. Ken Travis has created a sound design that transports you into this world without becoming distracting. The scenic design by Alexander Dodge is gorgeous, and I particularly enjoyed the original musical intervals by Angela Steiner during scene transitions.

One of the best descriptions of the playwright’s work comes from Kasser Family Artistic Director Matt August. “He was Tarantino, before Tarantino,” states August. Indeed, at times I felt I was watching a great Tarantino movie. That said, True West is an original and stunning work that pulls the audience in from the beginning and does not let go.

True West runs approximately two hours, with one intermission. The play clips along at a brisk pace. There were only a couple moments where a scene seemed to go on a little too long, but this was quickly fixed by one startling confrontation after another. True West is not meant to simply shock its audience. While darkly hilarious, the play has a beating heart that it wears proudly on its sleeve.

The Opening Night audience responded to True West with a standing ovation, which was very well-deserved. Not nearly enough can be said to effectively convey the visceral and brutal clash between Austin and Lee. Zach Fine, who has performed on and off-Broadway, captivated the crowd. His performance was easily the highlight of the play. It is impressive to appeal so much to an audience while playing a character who is essentially a powder keg. But Lee is so much more than a petty criminal and his character was by far the most interesting part of the play.

As Austin, Rhett Guter reminded me of Felix Unger from The Odd Couple. Rhett played Austin with a gentle elegance that spirals into inevitable madness, and the performance was likewise a home run. The New York Times has praised Guter as an actor “oozing with charm.” The role of Austin is an excellent showcase of his dramatic and comedic prowess.

True West at Arizona Theatre Company is not to be missed.