Magic Circle and November bring back the past powerfully.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Founder and artistic director Elsa Con’s Magic Circle Theatre is back – at its former 60-seat home in Carmel Valley Village tucked just off Carmel Valley Road – and it’s ready for action. And drama. And comedy. It packs all that in with their first volley, the Central Coast premiere of David Mamet’s 2008 political farce November.
The theater looks too idyllic for the profane Chicago playwright, the manicured Mission-style courtyard flowering and appointed with a gong from Nepenthe, which is used to signal the start of the show. A reception area is decorated with framed posters of past glories: Wit, Agnes of God, Laramie Project.
Re-built from scratch, the theater boasts lighting rigs that are precisely aimed, sound acoustics, plush riser seats and electrical upgrades. The sweet amenities extend to the stage, which, for Mamet’s satirical imagining of presidential politics near election day, replicates the Oval Office.
The re-election prospects of President Charles Smith (Will Shephard) look bleak. He’s presided over one of the worst presidential terms ever, his approval ratings have stepped off a cliff, his party is deserting him, and his own Chief of Staff Archer Brown (Bob Colter) is encouraging him to take the rest of the unspent campaign money and go home. But Smith doesn’t want to. “Why are they turning against me?” Smith asks his right-hand man.
“Because you f***ed up everything you touched,” Brown tells him.
“What is it about me people don’t like?” (Man, is this guy thick.)
“You’re still here.” No offense. That’s just the way they talk.
Mamet told New York magazine that Charles H.P. Smith is not George W. Bush. But you can’t believe everything you hear. Smith casually triggers escalation of war with Iran; he cusses with the abandon of a Texas sheriff; he’s prone to misinformation and malapropism (“Theodore Roosevelt’s policy was, ‘How about that?’”); he tries to rewrite history; refers to President Clinton; and is ruthlessly opportunistic as he triangulates favors for campaign money.
Smith and Archer Brown share a battle-tested rapport, bouncing bracing political zingers off each other like they’ve been at it for years. Smith scrambles wildly for solutions to his mounting dilemmas; Brown methodically tests them against reality. The two men embody Mamet’s punchy guy-talk, so when liberal lesbian speechwriter Clarice Bernstein, who’s sick after a trip back from China to pick up an adopted baby girl, enters the fray, the dynamics change. She’s compassionate, patient, and actor Sandy Shephard (who’s married to Will) gives her a suffering, sniffling, slower diction. Sandy buffers the heated ricocheting dialogue amongst the men, offering a breather.
The play is less politically incorrect than it is politically unleashed and sic’ed on sacred cows. Smith calls a Native American (played by a stoic Bruce Wagner) a “Tonto” who speaks in a “blah blah language,” he describes his speechwriter’s liberal mind as “full of trash” and her lesbian lifestyle as “abominable.” Mamet’s tapping into something primal and just recently buried. Sure, we laugh and tsk, but we still elect people like Smith.
But he’s no cut-out. He says to Bernstein, after the “abominable” remark, “you’ve been a good friend to me.” He even, briefly, assesses himself honestly: “Any problems I encounter I leave behind me.”
Will’s performance is the nucleus of the show – and it is a show. He’s manic but funny, stupid but self-aware, egotistical but attuned to others’ needs. His face even turns scarlet red. Will carries the bulk of the line load, and the supporting actors reliably revolve in the orbit of his tour-de-force.
Charles Smith is shamelessly, blatantly, a politician. When a representative from the turkey industry (a geeky, funny and flustered Garland Thompson) arrives to conduct the ritual presidential pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey, Smith prompts him for a bribe in an amount “so high even dogs can’t hear it.” And when the rep refuses, Smith warns (with savory perversion) that saying no to one’s commander-in-chief during wartime is treason. That’s a kidney punch of bittersweet satire. That’s Mamet. And that’s Will Shephard, playing the character as a caricature while showing you the greedy appetites and roiling emotions inside the man. He’s charming, even, because he’s so honest about his corruption. There’s no conceit or deceit.
Besides, we already know this guy; we lived with Bush for eight years. November reminds us how, because the spectacle of his presidency was so absurd, so brazen, we forgot ourselves and laughed at it like some sitcom. But in the morning we woke up ashamed. Fortunately, after this production by the resurrected Magic Circle Theatre, we can wake up with a smile.