Turning Hollywood Upside Down

It’s 6:05 on a Sunday morning, and she has a play opening in only six days.

So why is Sarah Rodgers sitting in the airport waiting for a flight to Vancouver?

Well, so she can spend her day off with Poppy, her 13-month-old adopted daughter from Vietnam.

“I feel like a jet-setter,” she quips.

Rodgers is here to direct David Mamet’s 1988 play, Speed the Plow for Eric Epstein’s new-old company, the Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble.

She and Epstein met in 2000, when she was here as one of two female actors in the iconic Vancouver production The Number 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

After 15 years as a professional actor, she returned to school to pick up a Master’s degree in directing. She has since gone on two win two national Jessie Richardson awards for directing, including one for her remake of Billy Bishop Goes to War, which is still on the Canadian theatre circuit.

“I tried for about four or five years to get her up to direct at the Guild, but it never happened,” Epstein says. Until last year, when she directed him as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“We had a great connection, and I said, ‘Let’s do something’,” he explains. “We looked at a number of scripts and came up with Speed the Plow as a show. I wanted to act in it, and she agreed to direct.”

This is the second Mamet outing for Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble. Nine years ago they presented his 1977 play, American Buffalo. For those unfamiliar with the company, it’s something Epstein started informally a decade ago to stage the Sam Shepard play True West.

But it lay dormant for years while Epstein wore two artistic director hats – one at the Yukon Arts Centre, the other at the Guild Theatre.

“I really didn’t have time to do shows outside of the Guild, because three to four shows a year was quite a lot,” he says. “When I decided to leave the Guild, it was basically to have more time to do professional theatre.”

As a result, Whitehorse Theatre Ensemble is now incorporated as a society, with a board of directors, a Canada Council touring grant and even a partnership with the 158-seat Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver.

“We’re in their brochure and everything,” Epstein says “A month after we close here, we’re going to open in North Vancouver and run for two and a half weeks there.”

As she awaits her flight, Rodgers provides a thumbnail sketch of Speed the Plow.

“It’s all about Hollywood, and the thirst and search for wealth and fame. I think it’s also about capitalism versus idealism” she says.

“A young woman comes in who knows nothing about the business and has no stake in it, who is an idealist filled with hope about the world, and manages to turn everything upside down and almost pull the rug from under these two very, powerful men.”

The two powerful men in question are newly-promoted movie producer Bobby Gould (played by Aaron Nelken) and his pal Charlie Fox (Epstein), who tries to pitch him a mediocre script with the lure of a big-name star.

Jessica Hickman plays Karen, the young woman Bobby hires as an office temp, a role originally played on Broadway (badly, by all accounts) by megastar Madonna.

As a playwright, Mamet is not known for creating strong female characters, but Rodgers believes he did an “amazing job” with Karen.

“He doesn’t give us a lot of background on this woman, on purpose, and that’s intriguing,” she says. “She could either be extremely Machiavellian and incredibly manipulative, or straight off the farm.”

Asked for a word or two about the cast, Rodgers positively gushes: “I love my cast. My cast is amazing.”

She also doesn’t hold back when describing the set designed by fellow Vancouverite Kevin McAllister, who also won a Jessie award for his work with her on Billy Bishop.

“He’s an incredibly imaginative designer,” she says. “I love economical sets, and I love concept designs, and that’s Kevin. So I’m excited for Whitehorse to see this design.”

Speed the Plow opened January 15 at the Guild Hall and runs Tuesday to Sunday until January 29, with matinee performances Saturdays at 4 pm and Sundays at 2 pm.

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