Emotional gamesmanship

Shepard seeks to convey "what it feels like to be two-sided."

“I can’t stop choking him. He’ll kill me if I stop.” True West’s at the Cygnet through November 2.
  • “I can’t stop choking him. He’ll kill me if I stop.” True West’s at the Cygnet through November 2.

True West

Fool for Love

Cygnet Theatre’s “ShepRep” stages two of Sam Shepard’s plays in repertory from what is now his “middle period.” True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983) are in some ways as inseparable as their characters.

“I can’t stop choking him,” Austin tells his mother in True West, as he tightens a telephone cord around his brother’s neck. “He’ll kill me if I stop choking him.”

“I don’t need you,” May shouts at her stepbrother Eddie in Fool for Love. “Don’t go!”

Each play illustrates an inviolable bond. True West uses kitchen sink realism. Water flows from the faucet, coffee percolates, toasters, all 15 of them, toast. In a stage direction, Shepard said he wants “no attempt to distort dimensions, shapes, objects, or colors.” In Fool, what first appears to be realistic distorts at every turn. Doors really slam, a kiss is practically Homeric in scope.

True West begins with extreme versions of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Austin’s a neat-freak screenwriter at work on a project at his mother’s home, “about 40 miles east of Los Angeles” — Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga? Lee’s a desert rat/thief. They come across as stereotyped opposites: urban/rural; East Coast educated/street-smart; creator/destroyer. They seem opposites, but even the coyotes yapping outside aren’t what you’d think. They’re “city coyotes,” in-between, and don’t howl like the ones in the wild.

In one of American theater’s best examples of the strategy, Shepard deconstructs the brothers. The traits of one infiltrate the other: Lee envies Austin’s stability; Austin, Lee’s life as a “free agent” in the wild. They even reverse roles: Lee becomes the writer; Austin a midnight collector of neighborhood toasters.

Shepard loves to toy with stereotypes. Lee looks so broke and weather-beaten, you can almost smell him from the back row. So guess who plays golf and sandbags a Hollywood producer with a perfectly struck pitching wedge? Lee. True West (and Fool for Love) relishes these reversals. To borrow one of Shepard’s titles, you could call the tactic A Lie of Your Mind.

“I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided,” Shepard told an interviewer. “If you could see it cinematically, you’d have one person playing both characters.” In effect, Oscar and Felix become Jekyll and Hyde. But who is which? And when? And even though each walks in the other’s shoes, they still clash, unable to escape a deeply primal antipathy.

“I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal,” says Shepard. “It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.”

And it shifts from moment to moment. One of the best features of Cygnet’s production are the ways Francis Gercke (Austin) and Manny Fernandes (Lee) flip-flop. They play emotional gamesmanship. Each tries not just to top the other but to keep the other down. It’s as if they want to repress that part of themselves, like kicking a habit, and maintain what turns out to be a fragile self-image.

Director Sean Murray rightfully stages the play as a “period” piece, in 1980. One effect: while Lee rues the loss of the real west, the kitchen’s a bygone artifact as well. There’s a telephone on the wall, and Austin’s pounding on an acoustic typewriter (bless its departed soul), which Lee will bash with a seven iron. There’s no iPad, iPhone, tweeting, fax, or Facebook. Even the TV Lee stole bulges in the back and has a comparatively dinky screen.

True West begins slowly, and has occasional lulls, due to repetition. But it spirals out of whack in ways that must be, not just seem, spontaneous. The slender Gercke and bulked-up Fernandes perform as one: action/reaction, hit and run. “Fight choreography” can be an oxymoron. George Ye’s complex moves, however, feel as ingrained as an actual sibling rivalry. And as they decimate Murray’s set, piece by detailed piece, they fracture each other’s “identity.”

Murray made a Shepard-like choice: Saul Kimmer, the producer, is usually played by a Jewish male. Murray cast Antonio TJ Johnson, an African-American, as Saul. His first entrance — in a modified Afro wig and decked out in Sansabelt, polyester galore — shatters the expected stereotype. And casting Jill Drexler as the brother’s semi-ditzy Mom was inspired. She finds a way to give dimension and humor to a vapid part.

Cygnet paired Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, and the former shed much needed light on the latter. Running True West and Fool for Love (which received its own review) in repertory creates a kind of theatrical diptych: the portraits of neurotic interlocks are also linked inextricably.

When he completed Fool, Shepard felt that playwriting trapped him as much as his characters: “I can’t seem to quit,” he told a reporter in 1983. “I’d like to be free of it once and for all. I hope I write something that’s, you know, a grand finale, and I won’t have to go on, or else change to something else, like a novel.”

He went on to write, among others, Sympatico and A Lie of the Mind.

Cygnet Theatre

4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

True West and Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard

Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Manny Fernandes, Francis Gercke, Antonio TJ Johnson, Jill

Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Manny Fernandez, Francis Gercke, Antonio TJ Johnson, Jill Drexler; scenic design, Murray, costumes, Jessica John, lighting, Connor Mulligan, sound, Matt Lescault-Wood, fight choreographer, George Ye

Playing through November 2: Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525. cygnettheatre.com

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