Having recently read American Buffalo, David Mamet’s ‘modern Greek tragedy,’ and having watched the under appreciated film version, starring Dustin Hoffman, I had high expectations for Upper Canada College’s production. Not only did it star three of UCC’s finest senior actors – Akash Pasricha, Will Lace and Saunder Waterman – it was also produced by Dr. Churchward and directed by Mr. Justis Danto-Clancy, who attended UCC during our ‘golden age’ of theatre.
It is evident that Mr. Danto-Clancy has a very clear understanding of the visceral emotionality of the play. He keeps the show moving at a brisk pace without glossing over any details. The cast conquers Mamet’s notorious stichomythia with ease, and the actors boldly talk over each other without ever losing a line. Mr. Danto-Clancy delivers an unforgettable climactic final scene, with help from Fight Director Simon Fon, in which Teach’s (Pasricha) vicious beating of Bob (Waterman) and destruction of the junk shop is portrayed with all the vivid horror of hopelessness.
I have either worked with or seen all three actors and know them to always deliver memorable performances. They are strong actors and can master any text even one as complex and aggressive as Mamet’s. Junk shop owner Don (Lace) has the complex task of listening to Teach’s rants while interjecting quick words of approval, and he times the “yeah” and “uh-huh” expertly. Lace lets these lines flow naturally, delivering them with an absent minded tone without allowing unnecessary space to creep into the rapid fire dialogue.
Pasricha, in perhaps one of the most menacing performances I have seen him give, presents us with a Teach stripped of any redeeming quality. Yet he manages to gain our sympathy, by the end, as we see that his aggressiveness was mostly a façade, employed to always give a sense of control. In the end, he’s tired of losing authority and shattered as he watches his control over Don slip away. Pasricha’s transformation from bitter alpha male, to manipulating villain, to tragic anti-hero and, finally, to an almost childlike anxiety is riveting. One of his final lines, “Are you mad at me?”, which follows after his trashing of Don’s junk shop, is delivered with such puppy-eyed expectancy you’d think Teach had aged backwards like Benjamin Button. Perhaps Pasricha’s greatest asset is his facial expressions. During the scene in which Bob informs Don that he saw “the guy,” Teach says nothing, yet I was compelled to keep an eye on him. Through his suspicious glances over at Don and Bob, the audience understood his desire to be included in the heist.
The most unconventional performance of the three is delivered by Waterman. Bob is usually relegated to a clueless bystander. Waterman gives us a ‘smart ass’ youth who is not simply looking for Don’s approval but also wants to prove to both Don and Teach that he can do business as well as they can. This allows the audience to both root for and suffer with Bob as he struggles to find his way in this cutthroat world. It was also an effective decision to play up the animosity between Bob and Teach, an underlying, but often overlooked, theme in Mamet’s script.
American Buffalo was rounded out with a complex set that concretely set the play in Chicago. It boasted not only quality – I have never seen as many props used in a UCC show – but an effective attention to detail, such as the Blackhawks jersey hanging on one of the shop’s display racks, a nod to the play’s setting. The lighting was used to create a different atmosphere when the play shifts from day to night and the soundtrack was perfectly matched to the grimy, rock-n-roll feel of the show. I thoroughly enjoyed American Buffalo, and I’m inclined to believe that along with the return of Mr. Danto-Clancy, this bold and unflinching production may herald in another ‘golden age’ for UCC theatre.
by Elliot McMurchy