Tag Archives: Francis Gercke

An Act of ‘Defiance’: Francis Gercke directs John Patrick Shanley

Defiance Widget“I feel doubt is an important and valuable exercise, a hallmark of wisdom,” says playwright John Patrick Shanley. “Defiance is a necessary step in the life of an individual and in the life of a nation.”

Next week, Intrepid Shakespeare’s 12-month Staged Reading Series will feature Shanley’s 2006 play, Defiance, the second part of a three-play trilogy, beginning with the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt in 2004, and concluding with 2012’s Storefront Church. While Doubt explores themes of power and faith within the confines of a Catholic Church, Defiance tackles another hierarchical organization – the United Stated military.

fran gercke

Francis Gercke directs Shanley’s ‘Defiance’ July 28

“I like that Shanley’s writing presents life as complicated, complex, multi-faceted, never one thing only,” explains Francis Gercke, who will be directing the reading on July 28. “There are rules and regulations, there are codes and social norms of behavior, there are consequences to violating those codes and norms, and there may be legitimate reasons why it might be necessary to risk challenging those rules and regulations. But there’s always a cost.”

As with Doubt, Defiance places its characters in a situation of moral and ethical crisis, this time framed by racial tensions charged by wartime. Set on a North Carolina United States Marine Corps base in 1971, the play finds Lt. Col. Morgan Littlefield (who will be read by Matt Scott) and his reluctant protégé, Capt. Lee King, a young African-American officer (who will be read by Vimel Sephus), investigating racial crimes on the base in an attempt to diffuse these tensions. But the electricity of the play comes from the interactions between these two men and their very different ideas of military leadership and accountability.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

John Patrick Shanley with ‘Doubt,’ the precursor for ‘Defiance’
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

According to Manhattan Theatre Club production notes, the characters are “on a collision course over race, women, and the high cost of doing the right thing. The play is about power, love, and responsibility — who has it, who wants it, and who deserves it.”

Not surprisingly, it all comes to a head in an act of defiance.

“While the play is set in 1971, it’s not a history lesson or a re-examination of the Viet Nam era,” explains Fran. “It uses that context to debate social, civic, and spiritual challenges of today. I think what remains with me each time I read it is a question about ideals — are they merely ‘idealistic’ (impractical and naive) or are they truly the standards by which we should live our lives no matter the cost?”

These explorations of doubt and defiance take place through Shanley’s intricately woven dialogue – the kind of dialogue that inspires both actor and audience, and has made Shanley extraordinarily notable as a playwright who creates gritty, passionate and fascinatingly complex characters.

“An evening with Shanley’s characters could prove brutal but definitely entertaining,” says Fran. “They are witty, stubborn, well-intentioned and undeniably screwed up in some way. In other words, they’re very human.”

Joining Matt and Vimel on Monday to complete this cast of characters will be Amanda Sitton, Cris O’Bryon and Jake Rosko.

Defiance by John Patrick Shanley, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, July 28. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. $15. Rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase a reading series subscription.

Encinitas Library

Mastering Mamet

Francis Gercke and Rachael VanWormer
Photo credit: Daren Scott

To see Francis Gercke and Rachael VanWormer laugh together, you would have no idea that they are just days away from opening one of the most challenging plays they have ever worked on – one that is set intimately in the round, written for only two actors who never leave the stage, and featuring the words of a playwright known for his almost infuriating poetic specificity.

Welcome to the world of Intrepid’s Oleanna, written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet and directed by Intrepid Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael.

Thankfully, these seasoned actors are not intimidated by the task, although they do admit that rehearsals have been equally both daunting and enlightening.

“With Mamet, there is very little room for interpretation,” says Rachael. “Not that he is a dictatorial playwright, but his language is so specific that until you figure out exactly what each word, if not sentence or phrase, means, the rest doesn’t make sense.”

“You have to crack the code,” says Fran. “He seems to be a really thoughtful person, which is crippling to an actor.”

According to TheatreDatabase.com, “the most easily recognizable aspect of Mamet’s style is his sparse, clipped dialogue” reminiscent of Harold Pinter and Samuel Becket. This style is so recognizable, in fact, that it has come to be known as “Mametspeak,” the Orwellian reference invoked, no doubt, to illustrate the pervasiveness of this playwright’s impact.

Wondering what the Mametspeak looks like exactly? Here’s a sampling from page one:

CAROL: You don’t do that.
JOHN: …I…?
CAROL: You don’t do…
JOHN: …I don’t, what…?
CAROL: …for…
JOHN: …I don’t for…
CAROL: …no…
JOHN: …forget things?  Everybody does that.
CAROL: No, they don’t.
JOHN: They don’t…
CAROL: No.
JOHN: (Pause) No.  Everybody does that.

If you are not quite sure what is happening in this scene, you are not alone. On page, there seems to be much room for speculation. However, according to the actors, the more time spent with the text, the more the playwright’s intention behind each disjointed phrase begins to click into place.

“There a lot of fragmented thoughts, but that doesn’t mean that thought itself is complete. It’s just not expressed in a conventional full sentence,” Rachael explains. “It’s about finding the specificity of what those complete thoughts are and how these three words are different from the next three words. That’s been very frustrating but when you finally break through, it’s very rewarding, and so much of the play falls into place.”

“He’s so specific that the story truly turns, literally turns, on one phrase,” says Fran. “There are certain playwrights that have a reputation for being great playwrights. Mamet is just a really good, smart playwright. There’s not a wasted phrase.”

And ultimately, the intentions behind these phrases are what builds into a story. On the surface, the story of this play revolves around a professor and a student who meet to discuss her struggles in his class. However, it is soon clear that much more is going on beyond this seemingly straightforward setup.

“Mamet’s a great storyteller,” says Fran. “You’re compelled to watch. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know what’s going to happen, you can do nothing to stop it and you end up caring for the people who are in the car headed for the major accident.”

Even in the midst of this train wreck, Mamet is very careful not to take sides, especially when the characters become heated in their discussions. While the play might be known for its controversial themes, the actors are clear that it is truly up to the audience members to form their own interpretation of the action – and that their job is to stay out of the way.

“One of the things that we are discovering in rehearsal that is does not serve us as actors to consider the themes,” says Rachael. “Instead, it’s about finding out what’s personally at stake for the individuals at any given time. It might touch on harassment, power, feminism, but that’s never the intention. When these things come up, it’s out of the circumstance.”

“He writes two really smart, really self-assured, and really uncertain people trying to navigate their way through a real crisis that…just happened,” says Fran. “Mamet writes two strongly opposing points of views and then sets the characters in motion.”

So, as the actors consciously avoid influencing the audience’s conclusions about the action of the play, they find they are left with only the essential theatrical tools at their disposal: the words and each other.

“Fran and I have developed an effective means of keeping each other honest,” says Rachael. “You’re forced to hold each other accountable.  There’s not a compromise in that, but on the other hand, there’s so much gratitude that there’s someone up there with you.”

She pauses, and then adds, “It boils down theatre to its purest form.”  – T.T.

Oleanna opens Saturday April 6 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy – 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas..  This special engagement must close April 14.  You may purchase tickets here.