The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, January 25, 2013

Talking Theatre

So, in my pre-lawyering days, in college, I fell in love with live theater. Being in it, I mean. True from the very first show I was cast in--an awful, utterly terrible production of dramatization of A Christmas Carol originally written for a Ladies Club in the early Twentieth Century, directed with all the electric verve of a dormouse in mid-winter. (The cast "solved" the problem by a heavy application of alcohol. I played Bob Cratchit as Eric Idle in an old Python routine. The Ghost of Christmas Future, blinded by his cowl, crashed into the orchestra pit at the first curtain call, although he somehow managed, after a few guttural cries, to scrabble back up before the lights came on.)

Yes, I loved the theater, especially after a friend from high school (if you read my post on Peter O'Toole's retirement, you know him as d"Artagnan) joined me at college, and we started getting cast in shows together. So as the fathers in The Romancers, done as a commedia dell'arte, my old friend and I played the parts as sidekicks-cum-rivals--not unlike Hector and Kilwillie in Monarch of the Glen (I was Hector-ish. This was 1986, so the TV series didn't exist yet, and when I recently stumbled on it, courtesy of Netflix, I gave a start of recognition as Richard Briers and Julian Fellowes started up their schtick.) Add our friend Porthos as a kinetic, bibulous Straforel, and the show was much more enjoyable than coherent.

Later, I did two shows in which I had a chance to do some real acting--in Jean Anouilh's Antigone as the lead guard Jonas opposite a more senior friend (our Athos) as Creon. Directed to be at attention throughout most of my big scene, I was forced to leave comic setpieces behind. Similarly, in The Tempest, I found a character inside the expositionary Gonzalo, and had a few nice moments. Nothing notable, nothing to write home about; just enough to understand the creative art that real actors bring to the stage, and admire it all the more.

But my favorite memories are of the more silly shows--when, in my senior year, d'Artagnan and I were cast in Ten Little Indians, he as the bombastic policeman Blore (undercover as an annoying millionaire) and I as Justice Wargarve, the seeming elderly Sherlock Holmes-figure who may solve it all, if he isn't killed. I smoked a curved pipe to suggest Holmes, and, in retrospect, some of my mannerisms evoked the late William Hartnell--but, oh, the fun each of us had trying to make the other break up onstage. So d'Artagnan's death cry grew longer and more ululating each night (one cast member swore it had crossed the line into lactating), and my expositions grew ever more intense, with me wheeling on d'Artagnan, pipe in hand, the stem jabbed outward as a pointer, as I pounced on a trivial admission like a hawk about to a draw its prey...

This post doesn't do justice to my friend, who in fact was a very talented actor. Cast in Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Athos, d'Artagnan showed he had the makings of a professional actor. It was, for a student performance, deeply textured, well thought out, solidly executed--and ably supported by Porthos, whose Jamie Tyrone was every bit as good--lovingly etched by an actor who had found a role whose tragedy moved him deeply, and with a haunting Mary Tyrone. It was one of those lightning in a bottle shows, where inexperienced kids do something way out of their league--and it works. Athos's direction made it possible, and the close-knit family atmosphere back stage was helpful, if a challenge to Athos as director, holding it all in balance.

I was production manager on the show, and scrambled to keep up with my friends. I managed not to run into any farcical catastrophes until opening night, Halloween. Now, our Edmund was friends with the two punk rockers on the campus that year--two very strikingly handsome women, if a bit intimidating. We were in a "Little Theater" on the third floor of a gorgeous Gothic pile, and among my duties was to make sure that the floor waxer didn't run his machine during the show, because our electrical plant was straining the circuitry to the limit. The floor waxer was known to be a little, er, off--shy, easily startled, and so dealing with him required diplomacy and patience. During the show, I heard the waxer start up, and slipped outside to stop him. I entered the hallway to see the man starting to put the machine through its circles, only to freeze at the sight of the two punk rockers--in full, 19th Century Goth gear (this in 1987, on the campus of a Catholic college mind you), low-cut billowing dresses, flowing capes, drifting like spectral galleons through the hall.

Reader, he bolted. I could hardly blame him; the sight of these two women in that setting on that campus was like nothing I'd ever seen, and I knew them reasonably well.

Yes, he bolted. With his floor waxer still running, on an extension cord into which large cables from the Little Theater were jacked, as well, all moving downstream away fro the theater at a pretty good clip. The extension cord pulled out of the wall, the lights all went out both in the corridor and onstage. As I fumbled around in the dark for the end of the cord, with the floor waxer emitting little bleats of terror, I heard:
JAMES TYRONE: Of course, we'll pay whatever you need. [pause] Within reason, lad, within reason, that is.

[Lights go out]

[loooong pause]

JAMES TYRONE, annoyed: I paid that electric bill, Mary, so help me.


JAMES TYRONE (thoughtfully): Well, most of it, at any rate.

[Lights come back up. Actual O'Neill dialogue resumes; gasping Production Manager lays against wall holding newly-reconnected extension cord tenderly, while aforementioned galleons step over him. Floor waxer starts looking for another outlet...]
Yes, despite all this, I love the theater. But I have to admit, when I see the occasional moment where it all misfires, and have unabashed admiration for those who manage to land the big bird despite these moments (Mark Harelik, in particular, did it with the most consummate aplomb and generosity to a cast member in trouble I have ever witnessed)--well, a life in the law has its points after all.

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