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Deaf West Adds an Intriguing Layer to Shepard's 'True West'

Theater Beat

May 17, 2002

Structurally, Sam Shepard's "True West" is a deceptively simple play, essentially a long and often bitterly funny conversation between two estranged brothers, one an Ivy League educated screenwriter, the other a volatile petty criminal. But scratch the desiccated surface and unexpected depths seep up, as brackish as the puddles at Badwater.

Director Deborah LaVine takes an enjoyable if somewhat pedestrian saunter through Shepard's familiar terrain in her staging of the play at Deaf West Theatre. Typical of Shepard country, "True West" brings untamed nature into savage conflict with the dubious "civilization" of urban-sprawl suburbia. Yael Pardess' set perfectly re-creates a ticky-tacky middle-class home near the San Gabriel foothills. Lighting designer Michael Gilliam evokes the glittering sunrises of the nearby desert, while sound designer Scott Alan Smith's howling coyotes disturbingly affirm the feral forces lurking nearby.

LaVine, who also directed the acclaimed production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Deaf West, uses a variety of ingenious techniques to bridge the divide between her hearing and deaf performers. Offstage actors "dub" the dialogue for the signing actors on stage. Captions, projected above the stage, are also employed at intervals.

Although thoughtful and workmanlike, LaVine's staging is a somewhat standard reissue of a play that has been produced so frequently, it is now the butt of deconstructive parodies, such as the antic and imaginative "Go True West," recently seen at the Lillian. The most novel and distinguishing conceit here is that Austin (Bill O'Brien), the "good" brother, is hearing, and that Lee (Troy Kotsur), his wastrel sibling, is deaf. It's a brilliant innovation, one that dovetails perfectly with Shepard's themes of familial alienation. After all, it is the brothers' inability to communicate on equal terms that sets the stage for catastrophe.

The hearing O'Brien simultaneously speaks and signs throughout the play--a daunting task, heroically accomplished. However, the real point of seeing this production is Kotsur, one of the finest stage actors, hearing or deaf, to emerge in recent years. As Lee, the wild and yearning opportunist who taunts his "tame" brother past endurance, Kotsur is so electrifying, you can smell the ozone crackling in the air.

F. Kathleen Foley

"True West," Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends June 9. $15-$20. (818) 762-2773. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Traversing Los Angeles

in Search of 'Street Stories'

The diverse contradictions of Angeleno coexistence permeate the world premiere of Paula Cizmar's "Street Stories," which opens Playwrights' Arena's 10th anniversary season.

From the outset, Cizmar's polyglot scenario benefits from Jon Lawrence Rivera's expert staging and smart casting. As Bob Blackburn's over-amplified soundscape crashes around her, isolated protagonist Monica (the fearless Melody Butiu) lies in her bed tilted high atop John H. Binkley's excellent, if nervous-making, set.

Below, bathed in Robert Fromer's moody lighting, a staring Motionless Man (the impressive D.G. Bannon) bestrides a wooden stool, clutching a garden hose. Other participants begin randomly crossing the concrete walkways, and a free-form narrative unfolds.

Monica and neighborhood transvestite Bayla (Garret Swann, deftly underplaying) express concern about the abandoned catatonic. Constantly jogging Elise (the indefatigable Alicia Wollerton) offers a stream-of-consciousness view of the landscape, as deceptively street-jingoistic Eddie (Justin Huen) pursues her in vain.

Concurrently, Buddhist cabby Admir (Kevin Vavasseur) drives visiting Don (Joshua Wolf Coleman) to various locations in search of a missing "sister."

By curtain, these archetypes have intersected with both city and one another in metaphorically orchestrated ways.

Cizmar's poetic script is frequently incisive, but the compressed trajectory works against her intentions. The relationship twists feel overly disjointed and arbitrary, and the enigmatic denouement is hastily achieved. This scarcely prohibits "Street Stories" from sustaining interest, but a roomier canvas seems advisable for future development.

David C. Nichols

"Street Stories," Playwrights' Arena at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends June 9. $15. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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