Actor Ken Bolton has found a role that fits his talents perfectly in A Life in the Theatre, currently on stage at The Guild.
Though writer David Mamet’s 1977 script defies conventions as it explores the edges of postmodernism, Bolton’s brooding portrayal of Robert, one of two characters in the work, prevents A Life in the Theatre’s stylish contortions from coming off as art for art’s sake.
Bolton brings out the drama within Mamet’s experimentation.
The action takes place on and around a playhouse stage, where the fourth wall is sometimes a mirror, sometimes a hallway, where the actors play actors, turn their backs to the audience and act out hilarious vignettes to an imaginary audience — seen by the real audience members as their own reflections in a mirror.
A man in a black suit sits on the set in full view at stage right, playing the piano during interludes.
One can only imagine how many glasses of wine Mamet needed to ply his friends with before they grasped all the levels of meaning in A Life in the Theatre.
Watching the whole project play out on stage, it’s amazing that Bolton and co-star Anthony Trombetta can pull it all off … and on.
Each scene lasts little more than a minute; then, the lights dim to transport the narrative forward in time, the darkness lasting just long enough for the two to walk to a clothing rack, throw off one costume and thrust their arms through another.
With the inner workings of theatre so painfully stressed, it takes one a bit of time to adjust to A Life in the Theatre.
At moments, the postmodern style detracts from the actual narrative.
But after a few hiccups in early scenes, A Life in the Theatre sheds its artiness and becomes a powerful play.
Robert is an aging hack who has given his life to acting in the theatre and has no life outside of it.
His relationship with John, a young apprentice actor played by Trombetta, provides the narrative’s tension.
As the play opens, Robert and John trip over one another with flattery after finishing a play, though a hint of Robert’s old-man derisiveness starts poking through.
“I thought your scene tonight was … a bit brittle,” Robert offers to John as they stand in the theatre’s dressing room.
The two laugh the criticism away by blaming the scene’s failure on an unseen female actor.
But the interplay reveals Robert as the experienced actor, and John as his budding student, full of reverence for his teacher.
As John’s acting career outside the theatre they share begins to blossom, however, Robert slowly becomes jealous of his young apprentice.
Robert cracks under the pressure and starts betraying his age — missing lines in plays, showing up to the theatre tired and incoherent, bleeding after accidentally cutting himself with a razor, and even arriving drunk.
Bolton handles the range of emotions with subtlety, displaying an insecurity masked by bravado that renders Robert strikingly real.
As the play breaks for intermission, the audience’s hatred for Robert — for holding down John’s potential — is almost palpable.
In the second act, Bolton’s depth brings out conflicting emotions of disdain and compassion.
Mamet’s script is heart wrenching, but also quite funny.
Trombetta, a veteran of Whitehorse’s comedy scene, has perfect timing during the lighter scenes; his pauses, stone-faced looks, and silly accents lead to plenty of laughs.
But as a dramatic lead, Trombetta can’t juggle the fractious emotions Mamet’s script dishes out with the same ease as Bolton.
He often plays John in one too few dimensions.
To his credit, as the play winds towards the climax, Trombetta softens in tandem with the storyline, which sees a maturing John take the torch from Robert’s shaking hands.
Amiel Gladstone, the Vancouver-based director and playwright who directed A Life in the Theatre, came to Whitehorse hoping to direct Caryl Churchill’s outrageous satire, Cloud 9.
But a small response to the Cloud 9 casting call meant some heavy thinking at The Guild, says artistic director Eric Epstein.
“Looking at the overall availabilities, he (Gladstone) just didn’t feel he could cast the show,” says Epstein. “It’s an ensemble piece that requires seven strong performers. This time we couldn’t get that faction out.”
The two considered local actors who were available, and scripts they wanted to explore, says Epstein.
They finally decided on Bolton and A Life in the Theatre, as the pairing seemed natural, says Epstein.
“Certainly, when we found out Ken was available, we were looking for a play that would suit him,” he says.
And A Life in the Theatre most certainly does.
Gladstone returned to Vancouver after opening night last Thursday, but A Life in the Theatre continues, playing on Wednesdays through Saturdays, until December 2.
Wednesdays are pay-what-you-can nights.