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by Sam Shepard
Playhouse Theatre Company
Vancouver Playhouse Theatre
March 29-April 19

Here’s the first piece of good news: parking for the run of True West at the Playhouse won’t be so impossible now that GM Place next door is vacant for the NHL playoffs.

And there’s more.  Forget the Sedins.  Brian Markinson and Vincent Gale are dynamite as brothers Lee and Austin, the warring alter egos in this great vehicle for strong male actors.  John Malkovich and Gary Sinise did it in Chicago, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly on Broadway, and real-life brothers David and Gerry Mackay recently in Vancouver. 

Sam Shepard’s 1980 play is as funny and strange as ever in Dean Paul Gibson’s production.  Although Shepard’s mythic America references don’t have much resonance here, the play’s combination of humour, violence, theatricality and weird intellectuality makes for a very satisfying evening.

True West takes place in a suburban kitchen in Southern California where screenwriter Austin is house-sitting for his mother, vacationing in Alaska.  Strait-laced, ivy-league graduate Austin is trying to finish a screenplay, but prodigal brother Lee won’t let him.  A disheveled drifter, Lee has been living in the desert breeding pit bulls.  His main interests seem to be drinking beer, planning B&E’s and intimidating his younger bro.

But when Hollywood producer Saul (a giddy Alec Willows) comes to make a deal for Austin’s script, Lee co-opts him with his own story, a modern western.  And gradually the brothers reverse roles.  Lee becomes the writer, Austin the boozing B&E artist, proving himself by stealing a dozen toasters from local homes. 

By the end, when the boys’ dizzy mother (Donna White) returns, the stage has degenerated into chaos (kudos to designer Pam Johnson and the stage managers who have to clean up the props every night), and the brothers are stalemated in a power struggle while coyotes wail under a full moon.

Shepard’s themes—art and authenticity, the “real” America, the primitive dynamic of families—can be pretty oblique.  But he has a great comic ear.  (Austin complains that when he tried to help their drunken father, “all he did was play Al Jolson records and spit at me.”)  And he knows how to use the stage.  Smashing a typewriter with a golf club can be hugely theatrical.

Brian Markinson makes Lee feral and dangerous.  He stalks the stage like a wild animal; he bites his toenails.  He’s the relative from hell but he also makes it clear why Austin wants to be him.  Vince Gale’s Austin moves from comic exasperation to desperation as he realizes that “there’s nothing real down here anymore, least of all me.”

Forget hockey.  These guys check better than the Canucks.  And they score.

Jerry Wasserman