Is theatre art or entertainment?
Craft or business?
The industry behind the stories we see performed before us – whether on screen or stage – is a consistent theme of venerable playwright and screenwriter David Mamet.
Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his play, Glengarry, Glen Ross that pulls on the moral sinew of the business world.
And he received Oscar nominations for his script of 1997’s Wag the Dog, a De Niro-Hoffman piece on the power Hollywood can play.
Between the two works, Mamet wrote Speed the Plow.
In 1988, the moviemaking satire debuted on Broadway with Madonna on the bill – not for the score, but for the only female lead.
Her weak performance in the three-character triangle ruined the play in many peoples’ eyes and it is believed that it didn’t receive a legitimate review until it was revived in 2009 with Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and Entourage’s Jeremy Piven.
Similar to both actors’ hit television shows, Speed the Plow zooms in on making the deal that leads to a product: in this case, a movie.
But this play asks the audience to go beyond money – to consider whether producing art can leave people satisfied and intellectually fulfilled.
The Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble – Aaron Nelken, Jessica Hickman and Eric Epstein – are shouldering the acting duties.
And to do so, they must tackle Mamet-speak.
In theatre circles and schools, Mamet is a lesson in himself; a revolutionary of the language and direction that scripts can possess.
And while it may seem easier for actors to have no other way to say things but to follow the precise direction given from the script, Hickman says at times it was like interpreting code.
“You have to honour all the punctuation,” she says. “You’re not just memorizing the words you’re memorizing how he wrote them on the page. So that’s been challenging.”
Director Sarah Rodgers has helped her through this learning curve, says Hickman.
The quick, witty flow, accented by unfinished thoughts became an obsession for Rodgers while she was studying Mamet in theatre school in her 20s, she says.
And while the award-winning director has much experience, including some in the territory with Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, this is Rodgers’ first time directing a full-length Mamet piece.
“He’s such a male writer, I think it’s unusual to have a female director,” says Rodgers. “It’s a real boys’ club and there’s not even a lot of female roles in Mamet. This happens to be a play with one of the best female roles. She’s pivotal to the plot, turning these powerful men’s world upside down.”
In the play, Karen is a seemingly futile temp who brings her boss, Bobby Gould, a book, urging him to turn it into a movie.
At the same time, Gould’s good friend, Charlie Fox, promises to bring a big actor in the hope to do a movie. However, that production would be another flat, cookie-cutter film that makes loads of cash, despite its lack of substance.
For being the smallest role, it is surprisingly very complex, says Hickman of Karen, saying she and Rodgers both continue to pull back more and more of the character.
Is Karen honest? Or a manipulator? This is what Hickman has had to deal with in this role.
But for Rodgers, Karen represents integrity and passion; the good fight.
Charlie Fox isn’t the antithesis of that, said Epstein.
“This is a ‘buddy’ play,” says Epstein. “There are different moralities in the play, but the other thing that we’re looking at is a friendship. In the end, it’s kind of a love story between these two guys.”
This isn’t Epstein’s first time deciphering Mamet.
In 2002, he, and his Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble tackled American Buffalo, which is another look at the winding routes men run for money.
Unlike much of Mamet’s work, however, Speed the Plow has never been produced for mass consumption as a recording or film.
“I’ve never seen the show,” says Epstein “In a lot of ways that’s good to not have any external image for the character and just dive in and take it on and just discover it through the words Mamet’s put in his mouth.”
Neither Rodgers nor Epstein are concerned Whitehorse audiences can relate to the quick, cutthroat pace of Mamet and Speed the Plow’s invitation into the back doors of Hollywood.
“We all digest the products that come from there,” says Epstein. “Some of the great movies have been about making movies.
“This is a very funny play and it sweeps you along into another world.”
This is made even easier with help from heralded set designer Kevin McAllister, says Epstein.
The look of the play is minimalist, but meticulous.
But bringing in furniture has proven the most difficult challenge so far, says Rodgers.
The play opens just 20 days after the start of rehearsals and there is a couch that still hasn’t made it up here, says Epstein.
After two weeks of performances in Whitehorse, however, that furniture will follow the actors back south to North Vancouver where the play will run for another two weeks.
Without half of the audience made up of friends, the review of the work should be honest, says Hickman, adding the anonymity will be refreshing.
For all audiences, the actors hope it will be both art and entertainment. That it will both amuse and ask compelling questions.
“We can ask the question that Gould rhetorically asked: ‘Is there such a thing as a good movie nobody sees?’ Is there such a thing as a good play nobody sees? Well, in this case I hope people come see it,” Epstein says laughing, pointing out how hard it is not to fall into the Mamet-speak.
Speed the Plow opens at the Guild on Saturday and will run until January 29, with previews on January 13, 14 and 18. Tickets are available at Whitehorse Motors.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at