Windfall elects to open season with Mamet’s “November”
Director Maureen Kilmurry and lead actor Robert W.C. Kennedy discuss the extra-timely presidential satire.
Torn on which way to vote this presidential season? Consider this third-party candidate: Charles Smith, president-at-large in David Mamet’s political satire November, making its Milwaukee premiere Friday, Oct. 12, at Windfall Theatre.
Bear in mind, you’re choosing an underdog. November’s protagonist may be the incumbent in his world, but by the time the play opens, a week before the general election, he’s effectively thrown in the towel. While we never hear exactly how Smith ruined his political career – November avoids identifying any political ideologies – Robert W.C. Kennedy, who plays Smith, describes the situation best: “People are using four-letter words to describe what he’s done to the country.”
Left without options, Smith is simply trying to break even and get out of the White House with some money left. Ironically, it’s this self-centered drive that leads him back to the old idealism that got him in the Oval Office to begin with, spurring him to resurrect his dead campaign.
Kennedy and director Maureen Kilmurry hesitate to reveal too much of the play’s plot. But say the play’s structure is designed not to give any resolution on whether Smith can or does win re-election. Instead, the focus is on tearing open the system itself.
“It’s surprising that it was written in 2007, because it’s almost more timely now,” Kennedy said. “There are phrases used that are almost prescient [of 2012 issues].”
Kilmurry said she made no effort to play up those moments, though, calling the play well-crafted and funny in its own right. Much of that, she said, comes from Smith’s almost-unbelievably out-there strategy. Despite its near-silliness (it starts with the ceremonial pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey and gets bigger from there), her cast plays it straight, suggesting that it’s maybe not the craziest thing that’s happened behind closed doors in Washington.
This fly-on-the-wall mentality is reflected in Kilmurry’s staging, first visualized while she was reading November for the first time, executed by set designer Carl Eiche. The Oval Office is set in the middle of the theater, with a desk and fireplace as opposite focal points surrounding couches and chairs. The audience sita on either side. The result: an in-your-face set-up that requires the actors to keep shifting positions onstage, lest they remain in a blind spot for too long.
It’s a challenging task – Kennedy deadpanned that “this staging was not the actors’ idea” – but one that Kilmurry believes serves the play’s themes well. “You can’t relax because someone’s seeing you and watching,” she said.
The brunt of that focus falls on Kennedy and Kevin Hogan, who plays his unofficial adviser, Archer. As subtle and quiet as Smith is crass and bombastic, Archer is as integral in driving the play’s action. Smith’s speechwriter (Beth Monhollen) rounds out his team and draws his frequent ire for the “audacity” to try to have a personal life outside of politics.
But it’s Smith who needs to resonate with the audience for November to work, and Kilmurry said Mamet has done an excellent job of making him a likeable everyman, despite the flaws that got him into trouble in the first place. “He wouldn’t make it more than a few pages into the script if he weren’t charming,” Kilmurry said.
All that’s left is to sell the play to the people of Milwaukee – presumably an easier task than the one November’s president faces.
Windfall Theatre’s production of November, opening its 20th season, premieres Friday, Oct. 12 at Village Church, 130 E. Juneau. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved at (414) 332-3963.