by DICK KEREKES
Theatre Jacksonville inaugurated something new last weekend with its first ever Guerilla Show series that TJ calls “theatre with a bite.” TJ had on its stage for four performances, September 15 to l8, David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Theatre aficionados would definitely consider this cutting edge theatre.
Since TJ does not have a black box theatre or any kind of second stage, they will have to sandwich future Guerilla theatre efforts between their regular season offerings. I attended the Saturday evening performance and would guess there were 60 or so people in the audience, which was very good considering all the other theatre going in the area and all three major Florida university football teams in state playing national opponents on TV.
TJ’s technical director, Jeff Wagoner, designed the set with the assistance of the play’s director Thomas Trauger. They kept the action as close to the front edge of the stage as possible and used an overhead ceiling to make it very intimate. In addition, TJ restricted seating to the front third of the theatre to further give us a small-theatre feeling.
A brief plot summary of this l977 American drama classic is in order. Junk shop owner Donny plans to steal back a rare Buffalo head nickel that he feels he has been swindled out of. He plans to use the help of his teenage protégé, Bobby, and Teach, one of Donny’s card playing buddies and an arrogant opportunist. The plan never comes to fruition, but getting there is quite a trip for the audience.
Thomas Trauger was an excellent choice as director, and if you have a black-as-pitch tale that has been made into a play and want it produced, Mr. Trauger is the man to call. Trauger himself has played a number of “heavy” roles on the local stages, and there is no one around that can do them like this talented actor and director. This play was excellently cast and directed.
T.R. Hainline was very believable as Donny, the junkshop owner with mostly, but not entirely, larceny in his heart. He is concerned about the welfare of young Bobby, played by l9-year-old Derrick Router. Bobby was a drug addict and is a very terse and intense person, seemingly aimless even with the imperfect guidance of Donny.
Mr. Hainline’s past credits are few, but impressive, in an acting career he reignited in his middle age. He started with a small role as Officer Barrell in Urinetown and went on to garner rave reviews as Marc in the Player’s by the Sea production Art. Then, he again scored high acting marks with his portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
Michael Bartlo was terrific as the unpredictable con man, desperate to win approval and prove his worth. This was his theatre debut in Jacksonville and first time on stage in some twelve years. Somewhat of a mystery man, he obviously knows his way around a stage and appeared somewhere in productions of Don’t Drink the Water, The Taming of the Shrew and Lonestar. We hope to see more from him in the future.
I had seen Derrick Routier previously in two Junior Mainstage productions at Theatre Jacksonville. This role was a monumental leap up the acting ladder and he handled it well.
I was impressed by the very elaborate set for a show with only four performances. The junk shop really looked genuine with dozens of items that Trauger and Wagoner dug up from every storage space in the theatre. They reportedly only spent $10.00 on the set, but obviously had a lot more invested in sweat equity.
Tracy Olin coordinated the costumes. They were appropriate for the setting, although I felt that Teach was a bit too sharp looking in his custom-fitted slacks considering he was such a low life. Bobby was dressed in a white T-shirt, red hooded jacket and white tennis shoes. He was too clean, with a perfectly white T-shirt that was not even wrinkled and spotless shoes; yes, way too clean for the messed up teen that he was.
The supporting staff included stage manager Steven Foster, backstage crew Stephanie Frus and lighting technician David Paul.
American Buffalo was an exceptionally cast and acted play with the usual four-letter expletives that we have come to expect from playwright David Mamet. The tale of the three small-time hustlers was definitely theatre with a bite, and Jacksonville audiences can’t wait for the next course.
by DICK KEREKES