by Lynn on April 20, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Red Sandcastle Theatre 922 Queen St. East, Toronto, Ont.

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Anita La Selva
Set by Rosemary Doyle
Costumes by Jan Venus
Starring: Francoise Balthazar
Julie Brar
Rosemary Doyle
Roninne Fanfair
Laurel Paetz
Elizabeth Saunders
Marianne Sawchuck

A bold attempt to do Mamet’s masculine play with women as women that ultimately doesn’t work.

The Story. David Mamet shows us the cut-throat real estate business. Shelly Levene is a salesman down on his luck. He needs leads to stay in the game or just scratch out a living. He is begging for leads from John Williamson, the office manager who dispenses leads. John plays hardball.

David Moss and George Aaronow, two salesman at the same company, lament the unfairness of getting good leads from the office. They imagine a plan that’s dangerous if it doesn’t work.

Richard Roma is a slick, confident salesman, the tops in the company. Every person he meets is a potential customer, no matter how underhanded he has to be. His present ‘mark’ is James Lingk, who he meets in a bar.

Something happens at the company and we see how ruthless and underhanded these men can be when they are up against a wall, or determined to sell so much real estate that they win a prize of a Cadillac.

The Production. This is a much anticipated production because all the parts are played by women, while the dialogue is unchanged to reflect a world of men. Rosemary Doyle has created a spare set, in the small Red Sandcastle Theatre space, that captures the various locations; a Chinese restaurant in the first Act and the real estate office in the second. It is an effective use of the space.

Director Anita La Selva uses that small space to establish the burbling emotions of people in tight quarters as well as tight places in their lives. There is a rumbling of frustration of these desperate, ambitious characters to close a deal. The fidgety, anxious Shelly Levene is beautifully played by Elizabeth Saunders, who keeps straightening her blouse or skirt as she tries to win over John Williamson to give him a break, but always showing how insecure he is. You can see Levene thinking quickly, eyes shifting, trying to find the way out of the hole. Saunders is one of the high points in this production. As John Williamson, Julie Brar listens with thinly veiled exasperation and boredom. Levene is a loser and Williamson knows it. He can afford to be impatient. Laurel Paetz as George Aaronow and Francoise Balthazar as David Moss play two frustrated salesman; Paetz is wounded at the unfairness, Balthazar bellows indignation—perhaps too often one-noted. Rosemary Doyle, as James Lingk is the kind of nebbish that sharks like Richard Roma pray on. Lingk’s anxiety is palpable in Doyle’s performance. Unfortunately Marianne Sawchuck as Richard Roma does not come close to revealing Roma’s slick, smooth, banter. It’s tentative. The timing is off. And the killer instinctis missing. Finally Robinne Fanfair, as Detective Baylen, offers s tough cop who might be able to cut through the bluster of these loud-mouthed salesmen.

But for all the good intentions of these women to bring another layer to this play because women are playing the parts, the production doesn’t work. Trying to suggest that women are just as capable of being this ruthless, is to miss the point. Suggesting that “in casting women in these roles, we see more of what lies beneath this harsh competitive surface—the fragility, the vulnerability and the absolute heartbreak” is wishful thinking. All that emotion is clearly there already when men play the roles because the characters are men. Audiences see the heart-break. Mamet doesn’t care. He cares about the thrust, parry, stab in the back, the bully winning and closing the deal no matter what.

Comment. Of course gender-bending productions are nothing new. Until royal decree said women can act on the British stage, only young boys played all the women’s roles in Shakespeare’ day. In recent years, some productions at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London have cited ‘original practices’ and had men play all the women’s parts. A few years ago in London there was a terrific production of Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison in which the women inmates played all the parts. Recently there was an all female production of Julius Caesar at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, with good results.

This all female production of Glengarry Glen Ross is another thing entirely. The women dress as women but play the roles as written, namely as men. Director Anita La Selva wrote this as part of her program note: “The language and views expressed by the characters is brutal, cutting and unforgiving. Although we as a Company do not support many of these views, we have not altered any of Mamet’s text or changed any gender pronouns or names.”

That last statement is disingenuous. The ladies of the company had nothing to do with deciding not to alter the text. If they had Mamet would have shut them down. The company was given permission to cast women in all the parts by David Mamet himself, on the condition that not one word of his text would be changed.

Of course actors love getting their mouths around Mamet’s words. It’s a challenge and workout of timing, phrasing, nuance and working in tandem with, one hopes, equally talented people up for it. All those jump-starts, interruptions, stammers posing as dialogue, knowing how to ferret out the clues in the dialogue to react etc.—delicious to an actor. But woe betide those who don’t get the timing, or nuance, or subtleties. Then it’s a tough slog for everybody. That’s what we have here. Too often the timing is off. Too often what works when a man plays the part is missing when a woman plays it. And what takes its place is not in keeping with the play.

Glengarry Glen Ross is Mamet’s celebration of the matcho world of dog eat dog and the survival of the fittest, smartest, wiliest. When he was a student he had a summer job working in such an establishment. These guys are fodder for his plays. They scheme, manipulate, manoeuvre and screw the poor sap who is not up to the job. People like Roma know the angles and how to wear down the weak to make a sale, then lie to make the deal stick, as he does with Lingk. They know no loyalty except for winning the car.

Good intentions and some fine performances notwithstanding, this production of Glengarry Glen Ross doesn’t work.

Run: April 15-26, 2015.
Cast: 7 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

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