Brisbane Powerhouse & Troop Productions
Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre
October 25 – 29 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Find your mark, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth.
Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment. Those players moved the audience not such they were admitted to a graduate school, or received a complimentary review, but such that the audience feared for their soul. Now that seems to me something to aim for.
David Mamet, True and False
It’s not often we see a Mamet and it’s not often we see a Mamet done well. Despite a couple of rookie errors, Troop Productions’ American Buffalo delivers much of what we would expect from this bold American drama and brings an ambitious new company to the arena.
Director, Kieran Brice, brings together Ron Kelly, Derek Draper and Jackson McGovern in the roles of Donny, Teach and Bobby, three desperate men in a 1970s Chicago junk shop, in cahoots to secure a rare buffalo nickel from a coin collector whom Donny believes conned him of the coin’s real value. We don’t see their shenanigans outside of the shop but we’re privy to the planning of the crime and in fact – spoiler alert – it never happens. Instead, ambitions are questioned, loyalties challenged and friendships tested. Brice shapes and builds tension nicely, and avoids letting the pace lag, unlike another wordy contemporary classic across town. Still thinking on that one…
George Greenhill’s jumbled-by-design, down-and-out junk shop looks as if the play has already happened and the Stage Manager (Shane Kumer) is due to appear next. We see all sorts of grimy, dusty trashy treasure beneath the dim yellow light (Tim Gawne) and it’s a shame we don’t hear a soundscape that includes the street noise each time the shopfront door opens with the jangle of its bell. Kumar adds only the noise (and headlights) of a vehicle pulling up out front. And is it rain hitting the roof during the second act? Difficult to tell so we won’t mention its inclusion… While Greenhill’s attention to detail across the set and costume design (and, it must be said, the use of the space by Kelly and McGovern), go a long way in creating the “world” of the play, a considered, comprehensive soundscape would add an additional immersive dimension to the production.
That is not the character onstage. That is you onstage. Everything you are. Nothing can be hidden.
David Mamet, True and False
Ron Kelly is at the top of his game; this is his show, his most compelling performance to date. He resists complicating anything; we don’t see him “acting”, he simply heeds Mamet’s advice to “Give yourself a simple goal onstage, and go on to accomplish it bravely”. Jackson McGovern also exercises restraint and knows how to really listen. There’s something of Ed Norton in his look, and his timing and phrasing, his cleverly contained frenetic energy beautifully complementing Kelly’s calm and considered performance and at times, when these two hit their stride, we hear the rhythm of the Mamet-speak. At first McGovern’s physical peculiarities make us wary of a put-upon performance, however; it’s a long time since I’ve had anyone in my circles so devastatingly affected by addiction and in his characterisation, McGovern is committed and consistent, completely believable once he settles. His agonised writhing towards the end of the play is testament to McGovern’s ability to make bold contextual choices and perfectly underplay the big emotions, as we do, captivating us even as a whole lot of action is happening behind him. Kelly and McGovern demonstrate in American Buffalo everything Mamet purports is necessary to bring the story, made interesting by the playwright, alive onstage by the actors.
In stark contrast, Derek Draper seems to feel the need to prove himself as a performer, which does little in terms of presenting a relatable person onstage. (Don’t tell me you can’t relate on some level to his small-time hustle). Is he miscast or misdirected? And where was he for his opening night curtain call? I can only put his absence down to an injury, or else an extreme reading of get into a scene late and leave it early! It feels as if Draper is the odd one out, although not in the way the text demands and certainly not because he lacks the talent. Quite simply, his choices are questionable, his choices baffle me. He lays on the physical characteristics from the outset, including snapping his fingers too loudly and too often, and insisting on sitting and standing on an overly anxious shaking leg that doesn’t ring true and must be exhausting to sustain. He wipes his greasy hand not on his shirt but across the lapel of his leather jacket! And I don’t believe he’s a smoker. His entrance, during which he crosses the stage diagonally a number of times to find the empty space (whilst leaping with gusto into his best Anxious and Sleepless and Stressed and About to be Really Angry Acting), as if he were milling and seething during a Drama workshop warmup, should be fair warning. He makes it incredibly difficult for us to watch him and I hope he absorbs, perhaps through osmosis during the season, the value of stillness and simple truth. The space is too intimate, we are too close to him, and we know the play too well to be taken in by his unnecessary effort.
Nobody cares how hard you worked. Nor should they.
David Mamet, True and False
Ultimately, what we’re seeing is the insecurity of the actor (and, I believe, his director, with regard to the management of this role), impossible to conceal onstage, and only of value when the text is spoken through it, in spite of it, because of it. As Draper develops greater (actual) self-confidence and can relax a little about the job he’s doing, which is, according to Mamet, simply “Doing the play for the audience”, I think we’ll see a much more interesting performer emerge from beneath this very carefully contrived and choreographed walking-time-bomb character. And perhaps I’ve missed seeing Draper’s best work elsewhere, but here we don’t really see what he can do until Donny repeatedly tries to make a phone call and Teach insists he hangs up. The looking and listening and reacting at this point, driven more by impulse than compulsion, is precisely what we want to see throughout. In this case it’s a lovely, light, comical moment during which the two appear to genuinely connect; it’s one of the highlights of the evening.
Another highlight is meeting producer and photographer, Ruby Newport; she’s sharp and humble and hard-working. Anyone with (somebody else’s) money and a couple of connections can be a producer, but there’s a sparkle and a savviness about Newport that’s going to continue to attract attention. Also, importantly, she got invites to the Matilda Committee judges in time to confirm our RSVPs not only for opening night but throughout the season. This means the points I’ve made about Draper’s performance, for example, may be moot,
shouted down respectfully debated by the time everyone has experienced this production.
Mamet is a tough gig, and American Buffalo among the toughest. This carefully, traditionally pieced together production bodes well for the future standing of the company, and guarantees a good night out.