O, Brothers Where Art Thou?

Sibling rivalry lacks direction in True West

'I wanted to write a play about double nature," says Sam Shepard in Don Shewey's biography, talking about True West. "It's a real thing, double nature. I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It's not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It's something we've got to live with." Living with double nature is very much the subtext of True West, the Shepard play currently showing in a merely adequate production at Ybor City's Italian Club. Although the play is ostensibly about two brothers, Lee and Austin, it doesn't take much thinking to figure out that the real subject is Shepard himself, the celebrated playwright with the renegade spirit of an Old Western outlaw and the analytical mind of an East Coast intellectual.

In True West the intellectual is a screenwriter named Austin, educated in the Ivy League and dedicated to the very civilized task of making a bundle in Hollywood. But then he's faced with his brother Lee, a dangerous wolf of a man who usually lives in the desert and passes his sojourn in the suburbs, stealing televisions and drinking beer. The problem is — and here that double nature comes into play — it's uncivilized Lee who comes up with a winning idea for a screenplay and brainy Austin whom he has to depend on to write it (Lee can't even spell). What do you do when the two sides of your nature are at war with each other, but they need each other in order to survive? What do you do when each half of you despises and depends on the other half?

You write True West, for one thing. And you give a name to each side of you and you set them (by play's end) at each other's throats. And then you depend on some actors to bring the metaphor to life — which is where the current Yo Soy Irini production gets into trouble. I've seen several versions of True West over the years, and each of them succeeded by making Lee and Austin strikingly different from one another.

Yo Soy Irini, on the other hand, gives us Nathan Sheffield as Austin and Jeffrey A. McDaniel as Lee. They're nearly the same size, and they're both dark haired and slender, and though one is certainly more ill-tempered than the other, the essential contrast is, simply, missing. We don't get the sense that Lee has just come from the desert; he hasn't got the "two days' growth of beard" that Shepard prescribes in his stage directions, and he doesn't exude physicality next to Austin's intellect.

When Shepard talks about dual nature being "devastating," he can hardly intend that the two sides resemble each other. But the otherwise capable Sheffield and McDaniel do, and so the script's premise is weakened. These two brothers are clearly not meant to be mirror-images.

In the other important role, though, the casting is just fine. Mark Anthony Mainardi is delightful as producer Saul Kimmer, the man who, when the play begins, has been working with Austin for some months on a prospective screenplay. Shepard hasn't given a lot of attention to this character, but Mainardi finds the possibilities and runs with them successfully.

The main mystery in the play is why Kimmer transfers his professional approval from Austin to Lee: Does he do so freely or has Lee intimidated him in some way? The answer shouldn't be obvious — and thanks to Mainardi's clever acting, we're always searching for the one more clue that will divulge everything.

A less convincing portrayal is Victoria Tan's as Austin and Lee's mother. Although she's only on stage for a very few minutes, she seems too young and too unfazed by the chaos that her home has become.

Director Jill Killian moves her actors around the stage skillfully, but I have to imagine that she's responsible for the lack of real tension in the Austin-Lee relationship. Fortunately, there's nothing at all wrong with the downscale eat-in kitchen that's the play's only set. I'm told it was the creation of the entire cast and crew, which should prove that it really is possible to make art by committee.

There is one further defect, though, that I must point out — the terrible acoustics of the upstairs theater in Ybor City's Italian Club. I noted this after a previous visit, but for some reason it seemed a lot more egregious on this go-round. Basically, the theater swallows some sound and distorts the rest; even sitting in the third row, I had trouble understanding all I heard. I'm cheered that this space is being used again for professional productions, but it wouldn't hurt for an expert — working pro bono of course — to do Yo Soy Irini a favor and address this recurring problem. Otherwise, every show here is going to start at a disadvantage.

True West is far from Shepard's best play. It doesn't have the inventiveness of Angel City, the allegorical range of Buried Child or even the wild insight of a short piece like Cowboy Mouth. Still, it's a useful look into the psyche of one of our most important playwrights, and a nice workout for the spectator even in an imperfect version.

Now if Yo Soy Irini rejects the Steel Magnolias of last season, and continues to program intrepidly — and a post-play announcement by executive producer Peter D'Alessio suggested that it would — we might look at this True West as the first appearance, in Ybor City, of an important, progressive new theater company.

Asolo: The Plot Thickens Florida State University wants to take over the Asolo Theatre Company.

That, according to Asolo board president Ron Greenbaum, was the gist of the March 12 meeting of Asolo representatives with FSU President T.K. Wetherell and Provost Larry Abele. The well-publicized reason for the meeting was to discuss how the FSU/Asolo Conservatory might stay in Sarasota. But, Greenbaum says, it wasn't just the conservatory that FSU wanted to discuss.

"It was a setup," says Greenbaum. "It was a done deal. ... We thought that the conservatory would stay in Sarasota, that we would continue to pay the scholarships, that we would go back to square one, where FSU was paying the salaries of the six employees [of the Asolo whom FSU recently terminated]. But that was not what they had in mind. They had a different agenda. ... Their agenda was a DSO."

A DSO is a Direct Support Organization, such as oversees the university-run Ringling Museum. According to Greenbaum, Wetherell proposed dismissing the current 40-member Asolo board and replacing it with a 10-member DSO, appointed by him — thus ending the Asolo Theatre's existence as a private company. Wetherell would also appoint a new artistic director to succeed Howard Millman. "FSU wants control. That's the bottom line," says Greenbaum.

Is the Asolo board willing to let Wetherell have his way? "No," Greenbaum says. But he hopes there's room for compromise and negotiations are set to continue all the way up to an April 9 deadline.

Greenbaum added that he would encourage Howard Millman to retire next year if that would allow the FSU/Asolo Conservatory to stay in Sarasota. Then a search committee, made up half of FSU and half of Asolo representatives, could find a new artistic director.

In any case, Greenbaum makes it clear that the board has no reason to let go of the Asolo. "The Asolo Theatre is more successful than it has ever been. Last year was the most successful year in our 42-year-old history. We had a surplus of over $200,000. This year, with the economy the way it is, we will still have a surplus. Our productions are selling out, our supporters are sticking with us, many are upping the ante because of the situation."

"There's nothing broken here. They're trying to fix something that isn't broken."

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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