Center Stage lands a member of the 'Mamet Mafia'

What's more, Vincent Guastaferro is quite fluent in the art of Mamet-speak

Theater

March 28, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Vincent Guastaferro is a card-carrying member of what has been called the "Mamet Mafia."

Reaching into his briefcase, the actor removes an engraved notecard on which playwright David Mamet has written:

Yo Vincenz --

Mazel tov!

Front sight, squeeze the trigger.

Give 'em hell in B'more.

Love,

Dave.

Mamet is referring to Guastaferro's role in Center Stage's production of the playwright's Speed-the-Plow, which begins performances Friday. Over the last 2 1/2 decades, Guastaferro has appeared in a dozen Mamet plays or movies, beginning with a 1979 production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and continuing through Mamet's just-released movie, Spartan.

"I jump at the opportunity to do his work because -- let's face it, I can't be completely objective -- I love the guy and I love his writing," Guastaferro says. "I think he's one of the most vibrant voices in American drama today."

That explains why the Los Angeles-based actor has eagerly traveled across the country to portray Charlie Fox, a low-level movie producer in Mamet's 1988 play about wheeling and dealing, friendship and betrayal, sex and selling out in Hollywood.

Nor does it hurt that Mamet's notoriously challenging dialogue seems to be Guastaferro's mother tongue. It's a language -- or, more precisely, a dialect -- that has earned its own name: Mamet-speak. The chief characteristics are repetitions, pauses, unfinished sentences, staccato delivery and more than a dash of profanity.

Leaving out the profanity (at least in the course of an interview) and adding a high degree of articulateness, there's a good deal of Mamet-speak in Guastaferro's fast-paced conversation. He notes the similarity several times when he catches himself interrupting his own thought.

For instance, launching into a discussion of Mamet's language, Guastaferro breaks into his own monologue, saying: "I do find, and this is funny, let me tell you this, I, first of all, when I catch myself talking like that I'm saying, 'Oh, my God, that's a Mametism,' because I'm inserting in the middle of my own sentences, and I think that's why the fit is good, and I think that's why he likes me. I can't label it, but the guy picks me often, and it's maybe because of that."

Even so, Guastaferro admits that Mamet-speak is "extremely difficult to memorize" -- more so, in fact, than Shakespeare. "I've done [Shakespeare], but for me I almost find Shakespeare a little easier because at least he does like to complete sentences and he does have a definite iambic pentameter rhythm to it," he explains.

He also claims that his familiarity with Mamet's use of words, however, doesn't make it any easier for him to probe the meaning hidden in the text. "Just because I've done it a lot and I've done it often, doesn't mean I get it better than anybody else.

"I have never read a Mamet script that I haven't had to read two or three times first just to get it. Just to get it. Especially on the page. When you see it on stage, you go, 'Oh, that's what that means. OK. I get it.' But on the page, it's really, for lack of a better way to put it, confounding to me," he says.

"In Shakespeare, there's something called the long thought," he continues. "He's saying one thing, but he takes several stanzas to say it. With David, you have to look for that to uncover the sense of what he's revealing. ... You have to examine his text in the same way you would examine Shakespeare -- looking for the long thought, the point of what you're saying, even though it's disguised with truncated speech."

It's indicative of the Shakespearean level of difficulty, Guastaferro believes, that he is co-starring at Center Stage opposite an actor, David Chandler, who is "well versed in Shakespeare and has done so many huge classical roles." Similarly, he describes the production's director, Daniel Fish, as a man who "has directed a lot of Shakespeare, and he gets it."

Importance of friends

Guastaferro does refer to one frequently overlooked element in Mamet's language that can help actors with the text -- musicality. "Mr. Mamet is a very schooled musician. He plays piano. He sings well ... and there's a music to [his language]. The rests, the pauses in his speech, are much like the rests in music. They have to be honored, or the notes following the rests are not as important as they're supposed to be," he explains.

"He's not [writing] iambic pentameter, but there are iambs in his speech -- ba BA, ba BA, ba BA -- with the emphasis on the second syllable often. That's why you will see in his text, often, the word repeated, and the second time it's repeated, it's italicized."

As for Mamet's penchant for incomplete sentences, Guastaferro says, "He leaves thoughts unfinished because the high degree of familiarity he establishes between friends is that your friend can complete your thoughts for you."

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