Theatre Rhino's 'Anarchist’ a gripping look at justice 

click to enlarge From left, Tamar Cohn and Velina Brown appear in Theatre Rhinoceros’ riveting production of David Mamet’s “The Anarchist.” - COURTESY DAVID WILSON
  • From left, Tamar Cohn and Velina Brown appear in Theatre Rhinoceros’ riveting production of David Mamet’s “The Anarchist.”
David Mamet’s two-hander “The Anarchist,” which premiered on Broadway two years ago, begins in media res, and is initially confusing: Two women, in an office, are exchanging fairly rapid-fire and convoluted-sounding dialogue.

Mamet is, of course, known for his brisk, tight banter.

But this play is different from much of Mamet’s earlier work. The exchanges may be speedy, but they’re hardly banter. In fact, you won’t find any of Mamet’s familiar wit and vernacular speech here. He’s going for something different.

And Theatre Rhinoceros director John Fisher knows what that something is: an intellectually challenging drama that almost in spite of itself — in spite of the theatrical artificiality of the language – becomes emotionally involving.

Cathy (Tamar Cohn), a former political activist (think Weather Underground) who’s been incarcerated for the past 35 years for killing two police officers, has requested this interview with Ann (Velina Brown), the official who’s responsible for recommending her to the parole board – or not.

Mamet has crafted the intricacies of this fierce debate between the two women — one desperate to go free, the other with more subtle but equally powerful needs of her own — so carefully that from moment to moment your opinion might change about whether Cathy is finally entitled (and “entitlement” is one of the themes in the play) to be released.

In fact, my play-going companion and I, normally like-minded on issues of social justice, each came to a different conclusion about whether Ann, in the end, made the right decision.

As the fraught 85-minute argument evolves, various factors emerge: Cathy, a Jew, has converted to Christianity in prison (but, “I don’t believe you!” thunders Ann). She has also written a revealing memoir of her youthful and deadly escapades, which she may or may not publish, and — or so thinks Ann — knows (but refuses to divulge) the whereabouts of her former female lover and partner in crime.

In addition, Cathy wants to see her dying father. She relegates her past crimes to the folly of youth (“The young are easily corrupted,” she avows), and believes she, now an “old lady,” has something to offer society.

The intensity of the interaction between Cohn and Brown is simply riveting, with both actresses digging into layers of rage and frustration. Under Fisher’s fine-tuned and well-paced direction, there’s never a false, or lax, moment — just a lot of inevitable, and thought-provoking, moral ambiguity.


The Anarchist

Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros

Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, closes Jan. 17

Tickets: $15 to $30

Contact: (800) 838-3006,

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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