Dave Sikula continues his discussion of Directors Gone Wild…
So, you may recall that I was reminded of this whole thing by a question from the “Farnsworth” audience about whether we could have just written a prologue or an epilogue contextualizing Sorkin’s play. And while I suppose we could have, it would have been pushing the boundaries of our contractual obligation.
Not that that sort of thing stops other directors – and we’ll open that particular can of worms once I give this context. (I’m apparently all about “context” right now.)
Earlier on the Sunday on which the question above was asked, I’d read a story online about the Alchemist theatre in the Milwaukee are getting a cease-and-desist order that shut down their production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.”
“Oleanna” is a play that had a relevance for about five minutes in the late 90s. The plot concerns a male college professor who’s accused of sexually harassing – if not downright abusing – a female student. I acted in the play back in the late 90s, so I know it pretty well. My experience with the play was not a happy one; the director was the kind of guy who would give notes like “I didn’t want you to stand there; I wanted you to stand here,” while pointing at a spot about a quarter-inch away. Plus, his daughter was playing the woman. (She was good, but still …). My understanding of the play – and I hate to ascribe motives, but Mamet is famously closed-mouthed about the meaning of his work (to the point where he even refuses to reveal what the play’s title means) – is that he thinks he’s written a Shavian dialogue that examines power relationships, with both sides getting fair treatment. In reality, the professor is pedantic and clueless (my long-suffering wife was of the opinion that it was a role that was tailor-made for me. I offer no comment on that opinion …) and the woman is written as something of a simpleton who’s acting at the behest of her “group” (a sinister cabal of feminists).
The Alchemist Theatre decided to cast to cast two men in the play, not only muddying the issues and the gender politics, but incurring the wrath of Mamet. In Mamet’s early days, he wrote some brilliant plays, but in recent years, he’s become something of a crank. Politics aside, he hasn’t written a very good play for a couple of decades. (Let me say here that I don’t mind his turn to conservatism. I’ve often said that I wish conservatives had more of a presence in the theatre, if only to force me to defend my own positions.)
He’s stated his conviction that there are no characters in plays; there are only words on a page, and it behooves actors in his plays to merely recent the words; not to give meaning to them. Anyone who’s suffered through the films he’s directed will know exactly how that comes across. The “performances” given by (in particular) his wives have been wooden enough to restore the Brazilian rainforest to their full splendor. Regardless, he’s notorious for watching over who does his plays and in demanding that his plays be done only in the way he intended. (I recall about a decade ago, someone I was working with wanted to do something of his, and they were turned down flat, for no apparent reason.) In short, if you screw around with Mamet’s plays, you’re just asking for trouble.
The good people at Alchemist must have known this, in that (according to reports) they kept the all-male casting a secret until the show began previews. From the local reports, it sounds like they knew they were going to get into trouble, but decided it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.
In a statement issued Friday evening, Erica Case and Aaron Kopec, owners of Alchemist Theatre, said: “We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.”
This strikes me as disingenuous at best. As a director, if I know I’m casting a play that is written for one man and one woman, I’m not going to go into auditions seeking to do gender-blind casting – and I can’t believe that, in the greater Milwaukee area, there weren’t actresses who were capable of performing the role.
“We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result, of both Ben and David Sapiro’s talent, and Erin Eggers’ direction.”
Again, I’m calling “bullshit” on this. The dynamics and relationships between a man and a woman – which is what the show is about, one way or another – are vastly different from those between two men or two women, and altering that relationship alters the writer’s intentions.
Dramatists Play Service, which represents Mamet and which gave Alchemist the rights to produce the play, didn’t see it that way. The firm sent the cease-and-desist letter Friday, the day that reviews of the show appeared online and revealed the company’s casting decision – a decision that the company went to unusual lengths to keep hidden before opening curtain.
And that, for me, is the final nail in the coffin. They knew they were doing something they felt they needed to hide from the licensors, the writer – and the public. I know if I were involved with a production that had the potential to radically alter the audience’s perceptions of a play they thought they knew, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.
I’d go on, but once again have reached what I assume are the limits of your patience, so another theatre’s attempt to make the late Arthur Miller turn over in his grave will have to wait until our next thrilling chapter.