by Georgina Young-Ellis
Last summer I made the wondrous discovery of Curious Frog Theater Company when I stumbled upon their production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in Astoria Park. As summer 2009 approaches and I eagerly await this season’s outdoor Romeo and Juliet, I made a point to catch their current offering, True West. Staged in an East Village apartment, the audience is as immersed in the play as the actors. The theater-goers are seated within the set of this Sam Shepard classic, some less than two feet from the rambunctious unfolding of the plot. It is not a complicated one: Two brothers confront each other in their mother’s California suburban home. Austin, played by Alvin Chan, appears to be the level-headed screenwriter. Lee, portrayed by Edward Chin-Lyn, is his twisted, petty-criminal brother. Austin is trying to finish a script for which he has almost secured a deal. Lee barges into his solitude, demanding to borrow Austin’s car so he can go thieving around their mother’s neighborhood while she’s out-of-town. He’s come from spending months in the desert and the first thing on his mind is getting his brother’s car keys while disrupting his peace and concentration in the process. Lee meets Austin’s producer, Saul Kimmer, played by John Gardner, and convinces the man to fund Lee’s own half-baked idea for a Western movie rather than invest in Austin’s project. This infuriates Austin, who considers his brother an idiot, and his frustration drives him to drink. Slowly the tables turn as Austin feels the urge to flee civilization and run away to the desert himself, while Lee, who’s barely literate, much less able to operate a typewriter, struggles to bring his idea to fruition. The situation has devolved into a bread-flinging, typewriter destroying, knock-down, drag-out fight nearly to the death, when Mom walks in, a fragile flower steeped in denial, played by Mami Kimura. She resigns herself to the destruction of her home and leaves her sons to settle their issues. We are left not knowing how it will turn out, only that the two brothers have somehow started to inhabit each other’s insanity.
I had forgotten how funny Sam Shepard could be – this play is possibly one of his most humorous - made even more-so by the brilliance of Chan and Chin-Lyn and their remarkable fraternal chemistry. Though we are laughing, we are terrified by Chin-Lyn’s Lee from the moment he walks in (the entrances were made from the front door of the apartment). His quirky vocal cadence and his continual physical tics fascinate like a train wreck. Chan’s Austin draws us in at the outset with his calm ability to listen and respond to the barbs and ravings from his brother with cool detachment. We admire his patience as he attempts to stay focused on his work – the big brother putting up with the younger, the one that has fallen far short of ever becoming a productive member of society. Yet this younger brother is a physical menace, and our nerves are set on edge as we wonder when he’ll snap. Therefore, it’s even more surprising when it is Austin who snaps first, Chan having so thoroughly established his character as the stable one.
The acting throughout is what we always hope for when we venture out to see theater in New York. We want the best and that’s what we get here. John Gardener’s portrayal of Saul Kimmer is delightfully smarmy. Kimura’s “Mom” floats surreally above the chaos. Because of her bizarrely detached perception of what has happened, we’re almost able to understand why her sons have turned out as they did.
The wonderfully detailed set was designed by David Ogle, with props by Chelsea Chorpenning. Nothing is present on the stage that wouldn’t have existed before 1981 when the action takes place, and the actors make use of it all. The subtle and cleverly placed lighting, designed by Ross Graham, is mostly what would already be inherent in the average home. Sometimes, it’s only candlelight. Every aspect of the production lends itself to the intense realism that is, in essence, Sam Shepard.
The decision of Artistic Director Reneé Rodriguez and Director Isaac Byrne to cast the main characters as Asian was an interesting one, reflecting a racial reality as basically American as the iconic playwright himself. The choice was in keeping with Curious Frog’s mission: “… to present new, modern and classical works with the goal of showing a new, multicultural perspective through non-traditional casting…” In this case, it added another fascinating layer to the timeless script and the actors’ craft.
True West can be seen at 181 Avenue B until May 31st. Tickets are $25.00, Thursday, through Sunday. Wednesdays’ admission is $10.00 cash and a regular-sized loaf of bread. You can make reservations at www.curiousfrog.org. Though its headquarters are in Astoria, with strong ties to the community, Curious Frog seems prepared to go anywhere to bring an excellent caliber of uniquely-envisioned theater to New York City. I urge you to go and have the experience.