Theater of Cruelty

True West brutalizes its actors; Impossible Marriage lightly lashes its audience

Richard Jackson looks like a goddamn mess. It is not just that he dresses in a grimy T-shirt with the pocket above the breast torn away, or that his pants are ripped along the crotch, exposing the Phoenix Playhouse audience to his underpants and--I dared not look--perhaps worse. It is not just that he is the owner of a distended gut that presses out from under his T-shirt, making enough alarming cameo appearances that it should have been given its own credits in the program. Or that Jackson has a scarred face that expresses, alternately, cruelty and asininity.

The beastly thing about his appearance in Sam Shepard's True West is that Jackson's forearms are covered with gashes and bruises. This is appalling, like seeing an image from The Knife and Gun Club, Eugene Richards's collection of photographs from the trauma center at the Denver General Hospital. One cannot help but wonder: What happened to this guy? And as the play progresses the answer becomes obvious: Gremlin Theatre's production of True West happened to Jackson.

I had seen Jackson in only one previous performance, as the therapist in Synapse Theatre's production of Steven Dietz's Private Eyes, and his performance did not merit mention. Perhaps the fault lay in Dietz's script, which was unfocused and vague on characterization, whereas Shepard's script for True West is quite the opposite. Here Shepard gives us nine short scenes in which two brothers hole up in their mother's cabin, competing to discover who can go berserk the fastest. Initially Jackson seems to have the upper hand: His character is a vicious runt who has stormed back into his brother's life uninvited after having existed at the furthest margins of society, hustling and stealing to make ends meet and occasionally just wandering off into the desert like some feral dog. His younger brother, here played by Peter Hansen, is by comparison a nebulous slip of a man--given to suffering in silence as his attempts to complete a writing project are endlessly interrupted by Jackson. Hansen seems to try to escape into the very framework of his mother's cabin, as spiders do when they are surprised, every time Jackson wanders onto the set carrying a stolen television.

Marriage: impossible. Ed Jirak and Heidi Fellner play a frustrated couple in Beth Hanley's social comedy
Marriage: impossible. Ed Jirak and Heidi Fellner play a frustrated couple in Beth Hanley's social comedy

When things go mad, however, the uptight younger brother has much further to go, and he covers this ground swiftly. After his older brother ruins his life with a single, ridiculous hustle, Hansen flings himself onto the ground like a child in the midst of one of those alarming tantrums that you see once in a while in the candy aisle of a supermarket. The remainder of the play could be mounted like a Lucha Libre match, with masked wrestlers storming the stage--after all, Jackson didn't give himself all those bruises. And the onstage violence becomes such that one imagines audiences will begin showing up for performances bearing signs reading "Kill the ref!" and "We want blud," as wrestling fans used to in old issues of Mad magazine.

Jackson, and his forearms, bear the brunt of it: Were this a Jackie Chan movie, at its end we would see outtakes of Jackson being wheeled off the stage with a wet towel on his face. Late in the play, with a toaster cord wrapped around his throat, Jackson wheezes, gasps for air, and then turns bright purple--a ridiculous, almost comical shade of purple--and how many actors can do that on cue? Perhaps there is something in Jackson's nature that makes him better at this sort of performance than at playing a wisecracking therapist--perhaps Jackson has a secret Web page filled with images of himself displaying obvious whip marks on his back (www.jacksonhasbeennaughty.com?). But it is a brilliant moment of masochism, especially since Jackson has played Lee as a sadist throughout the evening, casually bullying and threatening his bookish younger brother.

Well, you know what they complain about most in the BDSM scene--that when push comes to shove, those ferocious-looking men in leather and chains always turn out to be big old bottoms, and at the end of the day everybody wants to get spanked but nobody does the spanking. If there is a point to this production of True West, and I believe there is one, it is that the smart bottom should press his whip into the hand of a meek, exhausted-looking writer and close his eyes in preparation for the orgy of violence to follow.

 

Actor Jennifer Lewis, playing the character Floral in the Theatre in the Round Players' regional debut of Beth Henley's Impossible Marriage, has little Band-Aids all over her hands. What ghastly reason could it be this time? Secret cutting?

No, her character simply has warts, but that is not to say that this play is completely free of cruelty. In fact, as light comedies go, it has a distinctly wicked sense of humor. For example, at one point a bearded young intellectual threatens to kill himself with a hatchet, and not just any hatchet--an unsharpened hatchet. The play's groom--an old, vaguely European man played by Ed Jirak--prattles on about how a fire earlier in the day burned up his cat. Other suicides are threatened, and a gun is fired into somebody's body, and all because nobody in the play's prim Southern family can endure the thought of the young belle (a luminous Heidi Fellner) in their clan marrying an elderly artist. It's the sort of play Oscar Wilde would have written had somebody struck him on the head with a large hammer, dulling the part of his brain that made him really witty and sharp, but leaving a modicum of his charm and cattiness. In the end, Impossible Marriage is more like being beaten with a feather than a birch switch--but I hear most people prefer feathers to switches anyway.

 

 
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