Men who do bad things are a big deal these days. From movies like There Will Be Blood and Semi-Pro to recent Broadway hits Cry Baby and The Seafarer, examinations of naughty, scheming guys are all the rage. It's even true in the North Bay, where two shows about guys who commit questionable acts are on the boards, both featuring strong performances by pairs of local actors.
"I've wanted to do this play for years, and I've wanted to do it with Ed since the first time I saw him act," says actor Eric Burke. Burke is discussing both Sam Shepard's classic topsy-turvy masterpiece True West and actor Edward McCloud, with whom Burke is now co-producing and performing in a strong, satisfying new production at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center.
Directed by David Lear, who was handpicked by Burke and McCloud to guide them through Shepard's most intimate play, this production is notable because, after years of collaborations with various North Bay theater companies, the threesome are doing it on their own, working entirely outside the protections and confines of any established theater company.
"When a project moves you and motivates you and inspires you as strongly as this project has inspired Ed and me," Burke says, "you can't wait for the opportunity to be handed to you on a plate. You have to go make it happen for yourself. That's what we've done with True West."
True West, which premiered in San Francisco 28 years ago this July, tells the manic-depressive, scary-funny story of two brothers whose lifelong sibling rivalry gives way to a rip-roaring dysfunctional showdown when the pair decide to collaborate on a Western screenplay. As the brothers' actions begin to mirror the ebbs and flows of a typical western movie, the entire play becomes an examination of American masculinity and the downside of the great myth of the West. Toasters, fistfights and a truly nasty mother add to the action.
"It's been a lot of work, making this happen," adds McCloud, "not only acting this incredibly demanding material, but also producing it, financing it, thinking about how to promote it—all the stuff actors usually don't have to think about because someone else [is running the show]. But I have to say, this has been an incredibly satisfying artistic experience, from every angle. True West, I mean—it's Sam Shepard! How great that we get to do this work, and do it on our own terms."
Such commitment to a project might seem madness to some, but as Burke and McCloud see it, that commitment is exactly the kind of thing that Shepard's work tends to inspire.
"It's been a long time since Shepard was performed in this area," Burke says. "It just such good material. It's dark, but it's funny. Most of the other productions I've seen have ignored the fact that this is a comedy. [Director David Lear] gets that. So this will be dark, but there are gonna be big funny moments too. That's what Shepard is so good at—shocking you to your core at the same time he's making you laugh."
Another play with two males as the lead characters accomplishes the exact opposite of the whole funny-drama thing. Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies, opening this weekend at the Sixth Street Playhouse, is a cross-dressing comedy with undertones of serious drama. This one leads with the laughs and then surprises with the substance.
"I'm 6-foot-5 in my bare feet, but in this show I'll be even taller—because I'll be wearing high heels," says Shad Willingham, sitting beside Dan Saski, his co-star in transvestitism. "We were in full costume last night, so I've already experienced the high heels, and, yes, they take some getting used to."
"I've been wearing heels in rehearsals for a week now, just to get comfortable with them," Saski boasts. "People are getting suspicious, because I've become very at-home in heels."
"That and because he brought his own high heels," Willingham jokes. (For the record, Saski was issued his heels by costumer Pamela Johnson.)
In the show, Saski (best known for his work with the Sonoma County Rep) and Willingham (cofounder of the Rep before departing for several successful years onstage with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) play two barely working Shakespearean actors who concoct a plan to inherit a fortune from a dying woman by impersonating her long-lost nephews. Because it's reflecting Shakespeare, Steve and Max turn out to be short for Stephanie and Maxine, and the plot calls for the boys to switch plans and appear in drag.
"From day one of rehearsals, we've had great chemistry," says Shad, for whom this role is a short stop on the way to a teaching job in New Orleans. "That chemistry is important because this play, at a certain level, is about the incredible bond between these two guys."
"A bond that is threatened," Saski adds, "when they start dressing like women and falling in love with people."
Asked about the differences between OSF, with it's annual operating budget of $24 million, and Sixth Street, where the beautiful sets are routinely constructed out of recycled hand-me-downs, Willingham insists that there is little difference in the one area where it really counts.
"The play's the thing," he says. "We're doing what we do with less than I might be used to, but that's what happens all over the country every single day in small theaters all the time. We're taking a good story and we're telling the hell out of it."
"The high heels," Saski laughs, "just make it more interesting."
'True West' runs Thursday&–Sunday through June 29. Thursday&–Sunday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. Bettie Condiotti Experimental Theater, Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. $17&–$20. June 15, bring Dad, Grandpa or your grad for one free admission; June 19 and 26, pay what you can. 707.588.3400.'Leading Ladies' runs Thursday&–Sunday through July 6. Thursday&–Saturday at 8pm; Saturday&–Sunday at 2pm. Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $14&–$26. 707.523.4185.
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