Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Bride Of Olneyville Square (Winter 1989)

After the euphoric emotional release of "Drood" came a different beast altogether. Edward Allan Baker is a wonderful Rhode Island playwright who has been chronicling the difficult lives of downtrodden Northeasterners for thirty years. At URI we had a chance to workshop his newest work with him on the scene, "The Bride Of Olneyville Square".

Judith was set to direct. I was still itching to be a part of a full-on Kimber Wheelock production but he'd chosen to do "Old Times" as a staged reading instead. Don't get me wrong, Judith Swift is one of the greats in my opinion, but I had been wanting to be in a Kimber show since I saw Sheila in "Picnic" years earlier.

The plot of the play is as gritty as they get. Tenement houses back up against each other and form a small square where the tenants uneasily coexist. The "Bride" of the title is an older woman who has had a brutal life. A tentative romance buds between her and a quirky neighbor. Their relationship sets off shock-waves in the tiny community.

This play took place in cavernous J-Studio. Once again the design team outdid themselves. Four back porches lurched out of the walls. The play was done in the round, with the playing space of the theater becoming the courtyard created by the houses. Extension cords stretched over the audience from upper porch to run-down bedroom window. Transistor radio blared. The pipe and steel girder grid of the studio ceiling created the sense of a rapidly encroaching industrial aesthetic, crushing the homesteads, slowly eating them alive.

The most exciting thing about this process was that we were going to work directly with the playwright in shaping the script. He had written a few drafts but trusted Judith to explore the play to its fullest potential. Improvs, in-depth discussions, group think...all these would be employed to hone what was already a very moving and difficult story.

But there was one catch for me.

My character didn't speak. Oh, he was onstage probably more than anyone but Baker chose to leave him silent. Which meant that I wouldn't be having much of an impact on the actual DIALOGUE of the play!

I am not complaining though, because I was challenged in a fundamental way in playing the part. I was a CIA prison guard, the CIA being the infamous high-security prison that sits just off of I-95 in Cranston like an angry mirage. In my research I found that psychological tests can discern very little difference between guard and inmate, that a guard is at best the flip side of the same coin and at worst something darker and more twisted.

Til now I'd not done any part that required me to be anything other than some extreme version of myself. But this guy was outside of my realm of experience. His wife hovered around him, spewing forth a constant stream of invective against their neighbors but he did not even speak to her. At a crucial moment in the play he deliberately ignores obvious peril to easily saunter off to work. There was something malignant in his silence, nothing laconic or reserved, but aggressive and hateful. A fist of quiet.

This was before the tiresome audience habit of reacting to onstage cigarette smoke as if it is some sort of racial slur and there was simply no question that my character smoked. Everyone smoked.

The play builds to a wedding celebration that takes place in the dingy courtyard. My wife and I attend with all the enthusiasm of parents at the trial of their murderous child. A pot-luck feast is spread across the weather-beaten picnic tables.

This is where my favorite moment from the play occurred. Judith wanted to make sure that my wife and I still maintained our disdain and remove from the other characters. Her solution to this?

My character would only eat the food my wife brought to the party. Even though it was a green jell-o casserole. But Judith also wanted to continue to carve out the obvious anger and spite I wielded towards my wife. So I never stopped smoking even while I was shoveling green jell-o into my mouth.

Apart from that scene, I spent the rest of my time sitting in my chair glowering directly ahead and pointedly ignoring everything that happened in front of me. Smoking. Drinking coffee out of a thermos in my guard uniform pants and a wife-beater.

The audience sat on either side of my porch and could look up at me. But I felt them studiously avoiding it, shrinking back from the unpleasant presence I projected, the way you walk around a dead bird on the sidewalk.

I don't take credit for that in any deep way, it was all set up by Judith in the staging and presentation. The way the other characters shied away from getting too close to me. The way I slapped at my wife's hand as she fussed at me before sending me off to work.

It taught me a great deal about theater, to feel such a recoil from what is essentially a silent character, a blank canvas that doesn't invite creativity but spreads its blankness, eroding at the color around it.


Peter said...

Interesting how in both this and Drood you play a character outside of the action - separated from the other characters in a fundamental way.

Brendan O'Malley said...

hmmm...true! you must be a grad student!

Brendan O'Malley said...

that sounded WAY snarkier than i meant it to by the way...

Kevin said...

Brendan was quite possibly the only member of the department at the time with the perfect mixture of raw talent, instinct and quirkiness to pull off these types of rolls with what one reviewer once described as "great verve and wit".

Brendan O'Malley said...


Kevin said...

you think you were deliberately marginalized?

Brendan O'Malley said...

kevin, ha! yeah, judith really had it out for me!