Thursday, 18 June 2015

All-women Glengarry Glen Ross excels & excites

Thematic drift :  In 1967 US novelist Norman Mailer published a 224-page potboiler about a Texan and his son hunting grizzly bears, from a helicopter, in Alaska. The name of his book was Why Are We In Vietnam ?

David Mamet's script Glengarry Glen Ross could easily be Mailer's thematic sequel. Knowing that in 2001 it was 15 terrorists from Saudi Arabia plus a few others from Lebanon and Egypt who hijack'ed some passenger aircraft and suicide-bombed New York City's Twin Towers, Why Are We In Iraq ? is the obvious follow-up title that comes to mind.

One need but peel back the onion-skin of metaphor : when you get right down to it, Glengarry Glen Ross is one of America's more brilliant representations of men and their self-pleasuring, self-loathing egomania. The insufferable hubris & cowardice that form the core of much of Western politics and Western capitalism and Western military adventurism are as omnivorous as they are omnipresent. The American feminist icon named bell hooks (sic) captures all of that in one word : patriarchy.

Fast forward. When as theatre troupe Classic Chic you have the nerve and character and insight and guts to stage GGR with an all-female cast, the chance for theatrical magic to occur simply explodes with its inherent intrigue and clever possibility. 

As the show's Director Rachel Peake puts it : "Glengarry Glen Ross examines the way men relate to one another, score points, buoy each other up, and sacrifice each other to get ahead. By casting women in these male roles we seek to study the nature of men's relationships and to fit them into a broader dialogue on masculinity and femininity as divorced from male and female. Glengarry Glen Ross is a period piece, planted firmly in the eighties, but our vision of the piece provokes an examination still relevant today : how do men mask their true intentions and emotions?"

Plot backdrop : The plot is pretty straightforward. The story of four hucksters shilling swampland in Florida at outrageous prices to gullible, fast-frozen northern Midwesterners from Illinois. All for a crack at the 10% commissions they hope will tot up. And because cold-calling names randomly from a phone book is futile, these slick-talking rip-off hustlers rely on the coveted leads provided for them by their employers. That would be two dubious off-stage characters named Mitch and Murray. They vouchsafe the leads to office manager John Williamson to tease out like papal dispensations.

Mitch and Murray have recently devised a "sales motivation" scheme : top salesman of the month will win a Cadillac. Worst two performers of the four will be fired. A chalk board tallies up the sales. Top-seller Roma is cocksure he'll be strutting in the Seville come next month. The other three -- Levene, Aaronow and Moss -- are also-rans to Roma and understandably twitchy. Levene is particularly desperate as he has a seriously ill daughter at home and needs extra cash for her medical bills.

Act 1 takes place in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago and focuses on Levene who bullyrags and bribes Williamson into giving him more leads so for once in a blue moon he can actually close out a deal rather than just add another tired verse to his career song : "The older I get, the better I was." Act 2 has blips of climax, but its power comes mainly from being an extended denouement following the office burglary foreshadowed in the first act. A detective has been assigned to ferret out the culprit from what looks and smells like an inside job. 

How might bell hooks look at all this ?  Feminist hooks is not an off-the-shelf misandrist (man-hater). She challenges women to discern that men do not simply victimize women either for spite or gratuitous amusement. When it occurs, their victimizing -- physically, emotionally, spiritually -- comes from their being emotional eunuchs. As such, hooks says, they deserve women's empathy if not outright pity.

Hooks writes in The Will To Change : Men, Masculinity and Love :
"There is only one emotion that patriarchy values when expressed by men; that emotion is anger. Real men get mad. Their mad-ness, no matter how violent or violating, is deemed natural -- a positive expression of patriarchal masculinity. Anger is the best hiding place for anybody seeking to conceal pain or anguish of spirit... Their value is always determined by what they do. In an antipatriarchal culture, males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved."

Clearly Glengarry Glen Ross was written as a kind of Eunuch Pride parade. In that delightful expression "where the truth lies", it is anger that lies most in GGR. Lots of it, peppered incessantly with the eff-word. So what nuances or insights or creative juices do the Classic Chic company of women bring to Mr. Mamet's famous male chauvinist script?

What they bring, collectively, (1) is proof positive that women adopting men's worst traits are as disquieting and disgusting as any XY chromosome jerk uttering the same dialogue, (2) that David Mamet's capture of American English rhythm and cadence and repetitions and eruptions is not gender-specific, and (3) for all the vaunted genius of the cult 1992 film version starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, Classic Chic's Vancouver cast in 2015 on the intimate 5th Avenue Beaumont stage is equal word-for-word and gesture-for-gesture to what Hollywood's men threw up on the screen some two decades back. 

Acting highlights are many : While all seven of the cast perform well indeed, particular kudos are due to Colleen Winton, especially, as the groveling has-been Shelley Levene. Her spitfire interruptions of office manager John Williamson (Marci T. House) over lunch to open the show betray a rich and remarkable capture of Levene's poor pathetic soul. Even more nuanced brush-strokes from Winton in Act 2. Not to be outdone is Corina Akeson as burglary conspirator Dave Moss. Her facial subtleties when urging poor George Aaronow (Suzanne Ristic) to commit the crime were superb. As Richard Roma, Michelle Martin turned in a bemusingly low-key soliloquy in Act 1 trying to seduce James Lingh (Chic's artistic director Christina Wells Campbell) to have a look at his brochures and maps. But she absolutely stunned this reviewer with every word and line in Act 2 with Roma's implosion / explosion first at Lingh for bowing to his wife's pressure to kill the deal, and then at Williamson for queering the sale altogether by lying about the down payment cheque.

Director Peake deserves a verbal standing-o for the tight-tight-tight blocking and rapid-fire dialogue she demanded of her cast -- just 37 minutes for Act 1, 47 minutes for Act 2 -- with not a smidgeon or iota of Mamet's powerful playwriting sacrificed along the way. The north-south tier seating aside the centre Beaumont stage leant an intimacy to the action only small-stage rooms can achieve. Good simple period piece design and furniture by Sarah Mabberly, while Sherry Randall's costumes captured perfectly the vestments of the day I remember wearing.

Who gonna like : Followers of this blog know my affinity for the work of David Mamet. Classic Chic's production wrings every second of sizzle and smoke from these abusive and sorry Chicago hustlers. It simply is not possible to snag character and meaning from largely unearned and undeserved wealth at the expense of the dignity (and the wallets) of their victims. The cautionary words of bell hooks about men behaving badly are taken to dizzying heights by this cast of women. They exhibit no vertigo whatever in launching such a breathtaking glimpse into the souls of Mamet's most famous schmucks

Particulars : Written by David Mamet. A Classic Chic production performed at the Beaumont Studios, 326 West 5th Avenue. Through June 27th, 7:30 curtain, 84 minutes run-time plus intermission. Festival seating. Cheap, plentiful refreshments available. Website : http://www.classicchic.ca  Hashtag #classicglengarry. Tickets $25.

Production crew : Artistic Director Christina Wells Campbell.  Director Rachel Peake.  Set Designer and Props Mistress Sarah Mabberley.  Costume Designer Sherry Randall.  Lighting Designer Jaylene Pratt.  Sound Designer Joelysa Pankanea.  Technical Director Taylor Janzen.  Production Manager Corina Akeson.  Marketing & Communications Producer Michelle Martin.  Assistant Director Jessica Ross-Howkins.  Stage Manager Jasmin Sandhu.  Assistant Stage Manager Victoria Snashall.  Associate Producers : Keara Barnes. Laura Drummond. Bronwen Smith. 

Performers :  Corina Akeson.  Christina Wells Campbell.  Catherine Lough Haggquist.  Marci T. House.  Michelle Martin.  Suzanne Ristic.  Colleen Winton.  

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