Glenngarry Glenn Ross:
Sell at any cost, or lose it all
The very first time I heard about Glenngarry Glenn Ross was on an
episode of the X-Files. It was the episode titled Never Again on which
Dana Scully says, “The last time I went on a date was to see Glenngarry
Glenn Ross, and the actors had a better time than I did.” That episode
was aired well over a decade ago, but for some reason that line stuck
From what I could deduce I reckoned that it was surely a movie that
Scully was referring to and my impression was that it was obviously a
boring one. Probably it had an insipid plot and unremarkable acting. But
then, Scully was not referring to the theatre production of Glenngarry
Glenn Ross directed by Gehan Blok which had its opening night on July
17, at the Punchi Theatre in Borella.
The show marked the directorial debut of actor of stage and screen
Gehan Blok who as part of the Identities Inc. theatre group presented
theatregoers a commendable piece of theatre.
A play by American playwright David Mamet, what is at the core of
this story is the cries and whimpers of the under performer, the under
achiever, and the victimisation that befalls them in the target driven
system of competitive marketing and sales, and the sardonic travesty
that belies the ‘American dream’ built on the ‘glories of consumerism’
as the virtue which defines the ethos o ‘Americanism’.
Theatre in Sri Lanka principally performs the function of
entertainment for people who enjoy a break in the form of engaging their
time in an artistic creation delivered through performance.
Theatre as a catalyst for social change has very little or no
relevance in our contemporary mainstream Sri Lankan society,
unfortunately. How relevant is a play such as Glenngarry Glenn Ross for
today’s urban Sri Lankan?
Providing that the corporate marketing jocks of today would care to
delve into the text of the play for its messages to the viewers, and
providing that they dwell on what they find as possibly meaningful to
understand the ‘humane factor’ that gets stripped off the ‘human
capital’ that forms the crux of any profiteering venture when the sole
motive is ‘money at any cost’, this story has much to offer as food for
thought to present day urban Sri Lanka.
The critique that can be deciphered as per the playwright’s story
written for the stage which has been also adapted to screen in the US,
is directed at corporate culture in the US and what it does to people.
If the capacity to create money, to ‘earn’ is the sole yardstick for
assessing ‘human worth’, the criticism the play levels at American
capitalism is that it is a ‘machinery of mercenaries’ where the general
belief of the ‘political animalism’ in man is led through a modern world
transpiration –‘corporate animalism’.
Ethics and morality are made mythical or even downright defunct is
what the real estate salesmen in the story tell you. It is a story of
how desperation leads those who are desperate to survive to make
desperate bids at earning a right to ‘try and make earnings’ for
themselves by serving the company they have indentured themselves to in
a new form of serfdom.
Aspects of stagecraft
Going into the aspects of the production that came alive on the
boards that evening on July 17 as I sat in the gentle darkness of the
Punchi Theatre’s balcony, much can be said when reviewing the
‘performance as a text’. Theatre is an art composed of audio and visual
communication. The eye and the ear of the audience must be addressed to
render the full effect of the intention of the director.
Unless of course the play is a wordless play in the form of something
as ‘mime acting’ in which case it is only the ‘visual dimension’ that
must be addressed. I bring up these points of breaking down the fabric
of the performance to better address with the aim of a dissection of the
different elements of the performance for what it may be worth as an
analysis of the components of acting and stagecraft.
On the visual front one may focus on the aspects of stagecraft as
regarding the ‘set’ and the acting of the players within the restriction
of its visual element which means of course the facial expressions and
physical gestures which can I suppose be labelled as demeanour sans the
verbal output – the orally delivered auditory elements that can be in
the form of the spoken word or intelligible speech or oral (non verbal)
signs as sounds that signal exclamation, boredom, indignation and so on.
And quite apart from what the two other pivotal elements that are
part of the audio and visual dimensions are ‘music and/or sounds’ and
‘lighting’. These elements can be generally perceived as forming the
fabric of the production as it unfolds on stage as a performance and may
be read as a text for its different significations that may reveal
ideas, messages within the subtext of the play as well as the skill and
competence of the players from the point of what they add to the text as
a whole through their individual performances.
I’d first like to comment on the aspect of the ‘drama set’
segmentation which was devised with what seemed the need for efficiency
with regard to the physical parameters of the theatre, which is of
course a fundamental that every drama director must know to deal with to
achieve the best possible outcome to serve his purpose.
The set of the Chinese restaurant where Moss, played by Shanaka
Amerasinghe puts out his feeler for an accomplice to burgle the office
to his colleague George Aaronow played by Andrea Perera, was a
minimalist set which was achieved using the frontage of the stage with a
bright red curtain behind the two sets of tables with chairs, closing
off from sight the elaborate realistic office set.
With minimum chattels on stage, which included what can be identified
commonly as Chinese soup bowls on each table, the director achieved what
was clearly conveyed through visual means the premise of a Chinese
restaurant that was complemented by soft music that was distinctly of
the traditional Chinese type. The choice of colour for the curtain that
formed the backdrop –a bright red was significant and effective in this
regard as a visual signification connected with dining establishments
that serve Chinese cuisine.
The devised method thereby achieved the needful with good effect one
may say. The ‘office set’ which was very much the typically elaborate
realistic theatre set that recreates in detail a space of actual human
habitation was very well done and evinced that no expense had been
spared to that end.
On the acting front I would firstly like to start by focusing on the
aspect of elocution as diction than diction as dialogue. (The element of
dialogue was what made the play an ‘Adults only’ show.)
When I watched Jerome de Silva’s production of A Streetcar named
Desire on July 19, 2013, I asked myself, how much service or disservice
comes of American accents being attempted in a Sri Lankan production of
an American play? While some actors can pull off a rather convincing
foreign accent, which need not necessarily be an American accent but
other styles of English speech for example the Afrikaner accent I
witnessed Vishwajith Gunasekera deliver very commendably in Asinamaali
directed by Pujitha de Mel staged on December 24, 2013 not every player
proves to be on the same ‘wavelength’ to so say when it comes to that
‘audio’ aspect of a play.
I believe that there is in that directorial decision whether or not
go with accentuation to recreate the ‘foreignness’ of the story in
respect of performance, quite a hefty gamble to not only the production
as a whole but also the individual actor whose competence to produce a
foreign accent could compromise his potential to otherwise perform
optimally. This was to me evident mostly in the performance of Shanaka
Amerasinghe in portraying Moss.
There was to my eye and ear a somewhat discernible labouring in
Amerasinghe to keep his speech accentuated while having to deliver the
right doses of outbursts to characterise his role. If one were to focus
on the physical aspect of his performance on stage his presence was
remarkable. The velocity of his voice was undeniable. The sense of
agitation and menace he brought to the stage in certain points of the
narrative was impactful.
But that burden of having to consciously balance his performance in
terms of its physical component which includes not only his own
initiated actions but to deliver the right reaction on cue, with the
right dose of speech that captures some shade of ‘an American’ from the
angle of ‘speech identity’, did not in my opinion do him service.
Had Amerasinghe simply spoken in the Standard English accent Sri
Lankans speak perhaps that subtle snag in his performance would not have
occurred and his performance would have been much smoother and optimally
On this same matter Dino Corera who played John Williamson better
handled the task of negotiating between producing an English accent akin
to Americans and which was a lesser achieved accent in terms of its
American merits but had a better ‘balancing of interests’ and elements
in terms of individual performances if compared to Amerasinghe’s.
Andrea Perera as George Aaronow, Rajiv Ponweera as Richard Roma, and
Dominic Keller as Shelley Levene handled their jobs of delivering
performances that dealt with the accent aspect in a manner deftly that
‘spoke’ of their skill to marshal enunciation to suit their needs.
On the other hand Hans Bilimoria who arrives on the scene as the
bombastic and sadistically insolent ‘motivator’ delivered a very
theatrically devised enunciation of an American accent which to me was
not plastic but wooden when taking his performance as a whole.
Bilimoria was too theatricalised. And his manner of diction too
reflected that current of the ‘over pronounced dramatic’. However, the
character of the arsy anger inciter who crassly flaunts his signs of
material affluence such as the wristwatch he wears and the car he drives
as testimony to his salesmanship skills, delivered a ‘punchy start’ to
keep the audience’s attention unbrokenly fixed to the stage. There is no
denying that Bilimoria has the potency to create the power of presence
An actor when he brings his character to life with speech and actions
on stage must live his role not just in respect of what his own
production of speech and expressions and gestures must be, but also in
respect of reactions to the characters he engages with to bring the
scene to life.
In life we find those ‘awkward moments’ of being rendered ‘paused’ or
put on hold in the course of a confab between more than two people when
the line of question and reply may render us to be furniture until
recalled to relevance due to being either addressed by one of the
dialoguing parties or by restarting our role of an interlocutor by
putting in a line to the talk and rendering ourselves in ‘play mode’
When an actor delivers his lines on stage he lives in the eye of the
viewer at that very moment. But when the moment of speech shifts to
another and he is made to be ‘furniture’, a part of the landscape when
other players are in the course of delivering their lines, how should he
handle this situation of inertia? In my theorisation, their lies the
test between actors who act according to their lines and cues and those
who ‘live out’ their characters on stage.
It was noticeable to me how when Keller and Corera were performing
their ‘duet’ of negotiating means for Levene to break his no sales
impasse by getting some support from Williamson by bending the rules,
how Keller outdid Corera by creating a character whose sense of acting
and reacting to his interlocutor was remarkably more acute and attuned
to the time gaps between lines than what Corera presented.
In all fairness to Corera, perhaps the director required him to be
somewhat more ‘stiff’ in his demeanour on the basis of the nature of the
function the character plays as the office manager? But through the
whole of his performance even to the point when Williamson catches on to
the misdeed of Levene, Corera when juxtaposed with the characterisation
delivered by Keller and Ponweera seemed somewhat cued in his scheme of
reacting, falling silent and recommencing his dialogues and expression.
This is, however, by no means a dismissal of Corera about his skill
to act on stage. I saw his performance as ‘the Greek’ in Men without
shadows directed by Sashane Perera, on the February 7 this year, and it
goes without saying that he is clearly an actor talent.
The commentary I have made here must be noted is in the context of
comparisons within the fabric of the performance of this particular
Miranga Ariyaratne who played the role of the police investigator
presented a persona that was relying more on his physical demeanour and
non-verbal body language which to an extent made me wonder if in fact he
underplayed his role since his verbal output to the ‘auditory scheme’
seemed more routine and functionary rather than impactful.
While it must be admitted that it was not a lead role and the space
in respect of ‘onstage time’ Ariyaratne got was much less compared to
the actors playing salesmen, I for one feel his marshalling of his
verbal element, the presence of his spoken dimension as per his persona,
could have been better worked into the fabric of the performance.
There is no doubt he ‘looked’ every inch the copper who won’t cut any
corners when it comes to his job as an interrogator, which must be noted
to his credit
To be continued