Inside Theatre7, a new production of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross is being rehearsed. Actors and crew are mired in the messy yet essential business of blocking their movements and positions. It’s tricky, since the venue is, to put it politely, intimate. Audience members must exit stage left (there’s no stage right), along with the busily performing cast, to access the restroom. The intense proximity heightens the rough-and-rumble, testosterone-fueled atmosphere of cutthroat real estate agents in Chicago.
Which is interesting, as there’s not a single dude involved in the production.
The show’s director, Ruth Pe Palileo, who cut her dramatic teeth in the Chicago theater scene, dreamed of casting an all-female play. It began last December, when she held auditions for her well-reviewed Las Vegas Little Theatre production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Ten women showed up for a single role. Every actress was strong, making Palileo’s decision painful. But it got her thinking: Why isn’t there a kick-ass ensemble drama for women like Glengarry Glen Ross?
She pondered this dilemma enough times to next wonder: Why not just stage an all-female production of Mamet’s play? Many adapted, female-cast versions of Glengarry Glen Ross had been staged, including one done by UNLV students in ’95. As recently as ’09, a regendered Glengarry in Orange County, Calif., was mostly praised for “proving that the Darwinian survival ethos depicted by Mamet applies equally to both genders.” Given the recent real estate collapse in Vegas, and the proliferation of female real estate agents, such an exploration of sales(wo)manship would suit the zeitgeist.
Palileo, 41, adapted the script to the new gender—changing Dave to Dawn, John to Joan, for instance—and the hyper-masculine dialogue—“balls feel like concrete” became “clit feels like concrete.” Then she invited many of the actors who had tried out for Cell Phone to audition. Things were progressing.
But Palileo received a message from Samuel French, the New York City-based playwright representation agency, stating that Mamet didn’t care about casting these days but still insists that not a word of his script be changed. As a result, Palileo dropped the modified version three months ago.
“I was scared to tell the cast,” Palileo says. “They had to learn the script twice. It was like a line of dialogue from the play: ‘I have to go back and re-close all my leads!’”
It ended up for the best. The cast had struggled with the tortured language of gender reversal. Turns out the play, as performed by these women (during dress rehearsal anyway), works well enough with the original script intact. Palileo’s playful visual enhancements balance the effect. For example, the actors wield purses and are all, well, womanly.
“We’re not women playing men,” she says. “This is not drag. We’re women saying Mamet’s words. Every decision we make onstage and in terms of direction comes from a female perspective.”
Palileo’s analogy of a cover song helps: As a woman singer, you don’t need to change the gender in a male-identified song for it to work. Very often, you just need to sing it like a woman. But solving the gender issue wasn’t the only challenge.
The rain that flooded much of Las Vegas last month took its toll on Palileo’s first-choice venue. Alios downtown suffered water damage—and so did the Glengarry props and set dressings, which had been set up in the space. As a result the cast and crew are busy re-building the set in time for a delayed opening night (the new date is Nov. 3). Now, however, things are well in hand.
I sit in darkened seats as Palileo corrects cues and adjusts blocks. Now and then, the actors do something spontaneous that the director asks them to include. Sure, tonight’s rehearsal isn’t dressed up at all, and the set is comprised of two desks and two chairs. But the Spartan surroundings suit the play’s theme of people selling empty dreams at the full expense of their souls.
Glengarry Glen Ross, first produced in 1984, is a grotesque period piece. It’s a brutal snapshot of the Reagan-era corporate-sales sphere, prior to wide acceptance of political correctness. It symbolizes the last time white men could talk outrageously, in a racially charged or gay-bashing manner, without fear of reprisal. Indeed, little of what transpires in Mamet’s play could occur today without resultant lawsuits. Nonetheless, the women seem to inhabit their roles.
The actors—including Marlena Shapiro, Gail K. Romero, Valerie Carpenter Bernstein, Anne Davis Mulford, Bonnie Belle and Natalie Senecal—come from diverse backgrounds such as improv comedy, coffee barista-ing and, fittingly, real estate. There were moments during rehearsal when they make gender visible and invisible. Senecal’s role, for instance, as a customer trying to call off a purchase, allows her to exhibit unusual vulnerability. She comes across almost like a battered housewife, beaten and dazed by a serpent-in-the-garden sales pitch.
“The power relationships are there,” Palileo says. “The men are beating on each other, bullying their way to the top. But we’re working really hard to not caricature men. That’s not what this is about.”
Gender has always been Mamet’s Achilles heel. Many critics and scholars trace his conservative sexism to 1992’s Oleanna, about a shrill feminist student ruining a professor’s career. (The play was written in the wake of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearing.) Palileo doesn’t have a political ax to grind. She says the play “reflects the demographics of Las Vegas, where more than half of the real estate agents are women.” Besides, she’s a complete thespian. In 2002, she moved from Chicago to Ireland, where she finished a doctorate in theater and performance studies from Trinity College at the University of Dublin. There, she studied a lot of Mamet. Her theater company, Current Theatrics, also staged two of Neil Gaiman’s plays in Chicago for the World Science Fiction Convention. When her sister moved to Vegas, Palileo joined in local shows. In addition to her turn at Las Vegas Little Theatre, she has also directed large productions involving more than 80 actors for the Filipino-American community.
In early 2013, Glengarry Glen Ross will be revived on Broadway. Our local, all-female-cast version reminds us why this play matters and why it’s worth bringing back to Broadway.
“Glengarry is about everyone trying to get the last word,” Palileo says. “In Mamet’s essay ‘True Stories of Bitches,’ he argues that’s exactly what women often do best—have the final say.”