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Friday, 03 June 2011 16:00

Encore Michigan Review of "Glengarry Glen Ross" 2011 Featured

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Gutsy choice serves as opening of Epicenter Theatre Group

 

By   Donald V. Calamia

 

A week ago I had never heard of the Epicenter Theatre Group. Yet there I was last night at the opening performance of its first-ever production. Although new additions to Metro Detroit's ever-exploding professional theater scene are popping up on a regular basis these days, what surprised me most about this particular group was the gutsy choice the founders made for its debut offering, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Written by powerful wordsmith David Mamet, the 1982 script is a testosterone-fueled, character-driven drama that many longtime, established producers would never add to their schedules – thanks not only to the difficulty of the material (or its strength, depending on your point of view), but also the countless f-bombs planted therein. But there's no denying Mamet is a master when it comes to writing sharp, insightful dialogue; Glengarry Glen Ross is among his most significant work, earning him the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

 

Welcome to the rough-and-tumble world of shady real estate salesmen – where lying and cheating are nothing more than typical tools of the trade. These are not your friendly neighborhood Century 21 agents, but rather a hard-charging company of unscrupulous predators who will say anything and do anything to turn a lead into a sale – and who will gladly get in your face to register their displeasure. There are no boundaries they won't cross to strike a deal and earn their commission; that's what they live and die for.

 

The first act is set inside a Chinese restaurant frequented by the salesmen. Three separate scenes introduce us to the main characters. In the first, one-time top dog Shelley Levene (Michael Gillespie) tries to convince office manager John Williamson (Matthew Forbes) to pass along the hottest leads so he can get his groove back on. Levene, it seems, is not producing, and an office contest dictates the loser will be fired. Next, hothead Dave Moss (Marius Iliescu) and nervous Nellie George Aaronow (Stefan Mantyk) don't like the pressure they're working under, so Dave announces he has a plan: If George will break into the office later that night and steal the batch of premuim leads, Dave will sell them to a competitor – and they'll split a $5,000 fee he has arranged. George doesn't like the plan, but blackmail often works wonders. Finally, smarmy Ricky Roma (Marco Zaccagnini), the reigning office champ, works his charm on an unsuspecting dupe, James Lingk (Paul Jagoda).

 

Act II opens the following day. The office has been ransacked, Detective Baylen (Tonino Zaccagnini) is interrogating the suspects, and the day pretty much goes to hell from that point on!

What makes Glengarry Glen Ross such an attractive project is the beauty of Mamet's rhythmic dialogue. It moves at the pace of a speeding freight train, abruptly stops, changes tracks and direction, and then picks up speed once again. That's also its greatest danger, however. Directors and actors who tackle the script must carefully parse the playwright's words, determine their obvious and not-so-obvious meanings and then deliver them in a way that sounds natural to the listeners' ears. What might appear easy is anything but.

 

And although I was riveted to my seat throughout Steven O'Brien's production, that certainly became obvious as the night progressed.

 

What struck me at various times throughout the performance was how unnatural the dialogue sounded. In a few cases, the actors worked too hard to enunciate clearly and hit certain consonants too hard, or the lines hadn't been assimilated enough to become conversations rather than rote line delivery. And one actor's affectation – unnaturally elongating certain words, especially those that ended a sentence – drove me nuts.

Also, I was surprised by certain character choices made by O'Brien and his actors – especially Forbes' Williamson. This character is the ringmaster of the circus, the overlord who controls the lives of his employees. Although he's hated by his salesmen, they should also begrudgingly respect him. But instead, the low-key, often-weak portrayal gives them little reason to. In the hyper-masculine, ultra-competitive, ego-driven days of corporate America circa 1984 when the story takes place, Williamson's team would have chewed him up and spit him out without working up a sweat – and then celebrated their victory with a few beers. I doubt that's what Mamet intended for this character.

 

But when the actors clicked, they heated up the stage. Iliescu and Mantyk's first act scene sizzled, and their excellent work carried through to the second. (I did wonder, though, how the dynamics would change if Iliescu and Marco Zaccagnini exchanged roles.) And as the intensity ratcheted up as Act II progressed, pretty much every actor had a moment or two in which to shine.

 

Surprisingly, where Epicenter excels is with the production's technical elements. Unlike most new theaters that spend a dollar and a quarter on their initial sets, props and costumes – and beg or borrow a handful of lighting instruments – Paul Jagoda designed an amazing facsimile of a Chinese restaurant for Act I (with real Chinese food) and a thoroughly trashed office for Act II. (I'm glad I don't have to clean up afterward.) It's generally well lit by Stefan Mantyk (although either the design or the execution needs to be fixed at the end of both acts to let the audience know "That's all, folks!") And props by Traci Jo Rizzo and costumes by Marius Iliescu serve the show quite well. (Have you gotten the impression this is a small troupe of hard workers?)

 

So what's the bottom line, you might be wondering? It's this: I'm impressed by Epicenter Theatre Group's inaugural effort and the people running it, and I look forward to watching this eager, young troupe grow and mature as the months and years pass by. Sure, I question some of the artistic decisions that went into the staging of Glengarry Glen Ross. However, aren't young companies, by their very nature, experimenting with every baby step they take? Not every choice they make will be successful, and they surely won't please everyone who sits in their audience. But I suspect THIS company will learn from every challenge they face. And I'm eager to find out what's next on their schedule!

 

SHOW DETAILS: Epicenter Theatre Group's Glengarry Glen Ross continues at The Varner Hall Studio Theatre, Oakland University, Rochester, Friday-Sunday through June 12. Tickets: $20. for information: www.epicentertheatregroup.org.

 

Performance Information

Show times

Friday, June 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm
Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm
Friday, June 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm
Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm
Read 5784 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 April 2016 08:24
Donald V. Calamia

Donald V. Calamia is the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. He is also the theater editor of Between The Lines, for which he created The Wilde Awards, a “must attend” annual event at Detroit’s Gem Theatre that honors the work produced by the state’s professional theaters. Calamia is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Theatre Critics Association.

www.encoremichigan.com

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