Wednesday, June 3, 2015

David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre”

Photo: Mark Peterson (left) and Frank Thompson (right) in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre. Photo by Christina Hughes
 Theater-goers accustomed to the intense drama of David Mamet plays such as Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross might be surprised at his A Life in the Theatre, a small play in which the less is said the more is implied, a bittersweet comic drama that runs about  an hour and a half without an intermission

Presented by Working Class Theatre NW, this little gem of a show opened at the Midnight Sun in Olympia and moves to Tacoma tonight through June 7. I caught a preview performance in Olympia.

A Life in the Theatre is a two-person show that is a demanding challenge to director and actors alike, and equally challenging to audiences. It is directed by Luke Amundson and features Mark Peterson and Frank Thompson.

The show is a series of barely related vignettes, almost too numerous to keep track of, that subtly coalesce into a touching and in places biting story of two actors who perform together in many plays over a period of time (never explicated stated, but at least one full season if not many more).
 John (Peterson) is a young actor at the beginning of his career. Robert (Thompson) is an older actor whose career is winding down and whose skills are deteriorating. We observe them as they talk to each other backstage while dressing and putting on makeup and preparing to go on stage, and we see them in a variety of performances on the stage, many of which are parodies of well-known plays. We see, for instance, a bastardized version of the storming of the barricades in Les Misérables, and we hear songs from popular shows such as Annie Get Your Gun. Some of these parodies carry over to the backstage scenes such as when Robert tries to explain to John the importance of a well-organized makeup table. He says, "On the boards, or in society at large, there must be law, there must be a reason, there must be tradition." When he says the word “Tradition” he sings it out like in the song from Fiddler on the Roof.
The challenge for the actors, which both Peterson and Thompson rise to emphatically and impressively, is not only that they have to portray many different characters (both well and badly) in the scenes on stage, but must convey much more than is actually said in the scenes backstage. The complex love-hate relationship between John and Robert is conveyed as much by what is not said as by what is. John, for example, eyes Robert askance. You see in his eyes that he thinks the old man is over the hill, yet we also see him look at Robert with begrudging admiration.

And he is right that Robert is over the hill. As the plays go on he begins to get confused, to drop lines. In one scene in which they are playing doctors performing surgery, he starts to repeat a scene they have already performed, frustrating John so much that he storms off stage when he cannot save the scene. In another scene he keeps talking to John while John is standing in the wings listening for his cue. John panics. He doesn’t know if he has missed his cue or not, and Robert tells him to go on stage, so he rushes out and says his lines. He doesn’t know whether his timing is right or not, neither does the audience.

Mamet’s script makes very little clear to the audience. We are left to imagine what is going on between John and friends outside of the theater that he alludes to and talks to on the phone. When Robert cuts his wrist, we do not know if it was an accident or a suicide attempt although it is clear that Robert is depressed. There are a number of other intentional ambiguities. One thing that is made clear is that they both love the world of theater, and even that is hinted at more than stated. For instance, there is a scene where John wads up a pieces of paper and throws it at a trash can and misses. Robert picks it up and puts it in a different trash can, the message being that the theater must be respected; there is a place for everything.

It is a challenging play for the audience for precisely this reason: that nothing is spelled out. Mamet expects us to find our own answers. Audience members may get or miss all the insider theater references. It is well written with dialogue not quite in the typical “Mamet speak” manner but typical of the way people speak in real life (here contrasted nicely with the more structured dialogue of stage characters). It is well staged, beautifully directed, and Peterson and Thompson are both outstanding.

 A Life in the Theatre, 8 p.m., May 28-31 and June 5-7, 733 Commerce, Tacoma, $10-$12, or at the door

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