Op-Ed: David Mamet Play to premiere at Theater Rhino, San Francisco Special

Posted Dec 22, 2014 by Jonathan Farrell
There is something about a David Mamet play that pulls at people's heart-strings and challenges the thoughts of many minds not only in the audience but also for the actors.
The San Francisco premiere of David Mamet s  The Anarchist   stars Tamar Cohn as  Cathy  and Velina ...
The San Francisco premiere of David Mamet's "The Anarchist," stars Tamar Cohn as 'Cathy' and Velina Brown as 'Ann' the prison administrator who must decide her fate.
Courtesy of Theater Rhinoceros, San Francisco
"The language in this play is really difficult," said Tamar Cohn. She portrays "Cathy," a woman on trial for crimes committed in the past. Mamet's 'The Anarchist' speaks of a circumstance that since the 1960s and '70s has been repeated and brought to the national spotlight over the years.
Loosely based upon the "Days of Rage" demonstrations in Chicago back in 1969, Mamet's play perhaps inadvertently, reaches out to more than one such incident of that era. And, even a bit beyond, especially in this current day and age, where extreme beliefs and ideologies collide with everyday life, resulting in tragic consequences.
This reporter had an unexpected and rare opportunity to speak with Cohn as she was reading the play and reviewing her lines. When I mentioned incidents like the kidnapping of heiress Pattie Hearst in the 1970's, Cohn noted that some of the story line hints at those types of complex situations.
Back in the early 1970's, heiress to the San Francisco Examiner-Hearst media empire, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment. She was attending U.C. Berkeley at the time. The kidnapping was front-page news for months as she had been taken by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and later recruited and "brain-washed" to participate in a bank robbery at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco's Sunset District on Noriega Street. She was convicted and served time. But she was later pardoned.
Unlike the Pattie Hearst case, Cohn's character of 'Cathy' was a willing participant and swept up in the fervor. Theater critic Chris Jones for The Chicago Tribune described the character of Cathy as someone who "was, long ago, involved in political action that caused the death of a police officer: regrettable collateral damage, in her mind, in service of bigger goals and against an opposition that had no problem killing innocents in war."
"She has a religious conversion while in prison and she is trying to salvage her life," Cohn said to me in our conversation.
"When I said the language is difficult in this play, said Cohn, what I mean is the way the characters are speaking. It has nothing to do with profanity, like in Mamet's 'Glengarry Glen Ross,' where every other word is the 'F'-word." "This is something much different."
When 'The Anarchist' made its way onto the New York stage back in 2012, The Los Angeles Times described it as, "a dense, loquacious conversation that could prove challenging for most audiences."
Ben Brantley, in his comments of the play for the NY Times Review back in 2012 said that "Mamet has always been preoccupied with words both as power tools and as camouflage." Brantley considered the dialog of 'The Anarchist' to "have a certain verbal-self-consciousness."
Preparing for opening night on January 2  Tamar Cohn reads David Mamet s  The Anarchist  very carefu...
Preparing for opening night on January 2, Tamar Cohn reads David Mamet's "The Anarchist" very carefully, making notes in the margins, she pays close attention to the playwright's powerful use of subtle meaning and as some have called it "camouflaged" words.
Cohn admitted it is a challenge. And, she mentioned that the play was not a hit like Glengarry Glen Ross was. "The play is simply a two-woman dialog covering a very complex train of thought as 'Cathy' the part I play, tries to explain who she was to 'Ann' the prison administrator who will ultimately decide her fate."
The part of 'Ann' portrayed by Velina Brown is as described by Cohn as a prison administrator who is not convinced of 'Cathy's' sincere contrition and rehabilitation.
Both Cohn and Brown are accomplished actors and Theater Rhinoceros is not timid when it comes to approaching thought-provoking and controversial plays. The acting resume of Cohn and Brown is extensive. Both are alums of Theater Rhino and San Francisco Bay Area theater productions.
While this will be essentially, a debut of 'The Anarchist,' other Mamet plays have been featured in San Francisco with established local companies, such as the Jean Shelton Theater. From 1993 to 2012, The Shelton Theater featured six of Mamet's plays.
As an alumni of the legendary Actors Studio in New York, Jean, as she is known to her students (this reporter among them), founded the Jean Shelton Actors Lab and Theater to bring 'method' acting to the San Francisco Bay Area.
She used to say that there are many plays out there that are very wordy in structure. Jean referred to these as 'language' plays. Most notable would be ones written by playwrights such as Chekov or Tennessee Williams. And, it is this complexity of language which Cohn refers to that would certainly make this Mamet play a 'language play.'
Jean Shelton's son Matt directed the Mamet plays and took a moment to express his experience with Mamet. Some in various theater circles, consider Mamet a superstar. Matt noted he is not acquainted with 'The Anarchist,' as it was not among the ones he directed at The Shelton Theater during that span of almost two decades. Yet he did say, "Mamet's earlier work showcased a brilliance for subtext, especially in American Buffalo. His mentor being (British playwright) Harold Pinter (Mr. Subtext)," noted Matt.
"Mamet's earlier work was more concerned with situation and not philosophy. Philosophy in the theater, according to Matt, is death." "Theater needs conflict and action," said Matt. "Talking is the result of some event that compels one to speak and Mamet seems to have lost his touch in that regard." "We haven't cared about any of his characters since Ricky Roma in Glengarry, although Oleanna boils our blood, he added. it is mainly is due to the topic at hand and not the specific character whom we wish to identify with and realize his paradoxical nature."
Matt wished the cast and crew of Theater Rhino well as he knows from experience how difficult and complex a Mamet play can be. Cohn noted that while she recognizes the complexity, in the character of 'Cathy' in 'The Anarchist,' she is eager to take on the challenge.
For details about performances and to obtain tickets, visit the Theater Rhinoceros web site.