No Refund Theatre Presents: ‘American Buffalo’
No Refund Theatre returns with the fifth production of its spring catalog. This week, the organization presents, “American Buffalo.”
Written by David Mamet and directed by senior (and Onward State’s very own) Sam Fremin, “American Buffalo” tells the story of man’s struggle to make an honest cent amidst the cruelties of the urban jungle. Set in Chicago in the 1970s, “American Buffalo” follows older shopkeeper Don “Donny” Dubrow, his erratic friend Walter “Teach” Cole, and young employee Bobby as they attempt to recover a rare coin bought from Donny at an unfair price.
As the three generations of men scheme to commit burglary against the former patron in possession of the valuable buffalo nickel, they clash amongst themselves as friends and business partners. Fighting for fairness within the humble establishment in Don’s Resale Shop, the plan quite literally comes crashing down around them and a clear theme emerges: While no one is free from the influence of others, it is the overconfidence of man that does him in every time.
Bringing the production to No Refund Theatre as his last endeavor with the club, Fremin found inspiration close to home to encapsulate the richness of the original script.
“It makes me think a lot about my previous director in high school, which has sort of been my motivation,” Fremin said. “This is very much the type of show I would have worked with ‘H’… They’ve always sort of been a trilogy of shows toward my past director.
An NRT veteran since freshman year, Fremin’s previous directing credits include “Stand Up Guy,” (2021) and “Red” (2022). The director has found meaning in every moment after “H” took their own life and continues their legacy through the theatrical pursuit of authenticity onstage.
“I would have been doing theatre regardless, but maybe my approach to it has vastly changed as a result of it,” Fremin said. “Obviously ‘H’ is always with me in different ways…but the way that I direct is very informed by ‘H.’”
Passing forward the lessons learned from his mentor, Fremin brings a practice of discovery to the club’s often unseen dramatic side and allows cast members to craft their own elements and character choices. Blocking usually comes naturally, and the adaptive process results in the completion of a different show each run.
Playing the role of Don, the oldest, hardened shopkeeper of the criminal trio, senior Joshua Sanville tackled his first dramatic endeavor.
“The process for Don was probably the most unique process I’ve done because it’s the first drama I’ve done,” Sanville said. “It was a very different kind of process, but a very rewarding one.”
Closing out his involvement with the club, he credits the genuineness of the show and process as a meaningful last bow.
“I have two years of fantastic memories with NRT and friends I’ll have for the rest of my life I hope,” Sanville said. “But going out with American Buffalo is one of the best ways I could imagine going out because it is such a powerful show and so different from anything else I’ve ever done before.”
Acting alongside Sanville, fellow senior Nikolai Korbich plays the role of the unlawful “Teach.” While at first glance the character appears villainous, the deeper story gives new insight into the average man’s desperation to acquire the honorable American Dream.
“He believes in friendship despite the world trying to tell him otherwise, presumably for his whole life,” Korbich said. “He also believes in business, and the lines get crossed in this show.”
Showcasing honest friendship onstage, “American Buffalo” also aligned the team’s long-time history with the club.
“Sam’s directed me twice. I trust him a lot, and I’m going to miss that collaboration,” Korbich said. “He’s just the one I have the most history with.”
A small but cohesive group, the cast and crew portrays the story of flawed passion through chemistry.
“It’s a very small group of people which is something I’m not used to and something I had to acclimate myself to,” junior Nathan Carter said.” But I know them and had been friends with them for a while, so it was really nice to be in such a close-knit environment.”
Closeness became a common element of the show, and the set is dressed to match. Transforming Forum 111 into Don’s Resale Shop is a sea of objects and treasures, supplied from various places in true NRT tradition of homegrown values.
“It’s a junk shop so it has to be very dense and there has to be a lot of things for them to mess with. Making it two-dimensional doesn’t give the actors the requisite space to explore,” Fremin said. “All the junk is from our families, from our dorm rooms…literally everything from storage.”
Completing the cluttered environment, the intricate set design finalizes the realism of the script.
“We casted back in early January and just seeing the cast get to grow into the roles and slowly connecting all this junk to our onstage was perfect to watch it all come together,” assistant director Ally Setliff said.
Playing with other thematic elements, “American Buffalo” also features varied lighting themes to symbolize the dark turns taken and conflicts emerging between the men.
“It’s dark for them, and we see the darkness reflected on stage,” Fremin said.
Friends turned foes can be seen through the representation of individuality presented on an ominous stage.
“You see the split even in the lighting with more warm lighting onstage on Teach’s side and more cool lighting on the side with Don: the cooler head versus the hotter head,” Fremin said. “Bobby is sort of splitting the difference there in the middle as the target of these two clashing egos.”
Synthesizing the complicated relationship, the theatrical elements further Fremin’s directing style of discovery enjoyed by the cast.
“I want my actors to inhabit authentic humans versus recite inauthentic dialogue,” Fremin said. “I want you fully immersed, and I don’t wanna suspend your disbelief.”
Following in the footsteps of senior members of the club, freshman and assistant director Ryder Quiggle reflected on the happiness and value of joining the organization.
“Working with Sam is so freeform, and he’s very fluid,” Quiggle said. “NRT is a big learning experience. It’s a very unique type of theatre in that it’s workshop theatre in the sense that it’s very experimental, and it’s a place where people can come together.”
Looking back at the production, director Sam Fremin reflected with gratitude for the club and the people of “American Buffalo.”
“I’m very proud of this cast and couldn’t be happier with the final product,” Fremin said.
“American Buffalo” will open at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 30 in Forum 111. Two more showings will play at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 1, and Saturday, April 2. A content warning is present for violence and language.
As always, all No Refund Theatre productions are free of charge.
Sam Fremin is an associate editor for Onward State. He had no involvement in the editing of this post.
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