Friday, April 23, 2010

The Mystery Of Edwin Drood (Winter 1988)

The year had started slowly in the URI Theater Department. A staged reading of Harold Pinter's "Old Times" opened things on a decidedly somber note.

I had no idea what a staged reading was. I had no idea what the play was about. I did the reading as if I were a sleepwalker. I might as well have been reading a foreign language using phonetics.

Suffice it to say that the teeming sexual underbelly of Pinter's play was TOTALLY lost on me, a repressed nervous insecure TEENAGER who had barely even fantasized about what was clearly at stake in the story between these hardened grown-ups. I literally had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT ONSTAGE.

The famous Pinter pauses were filled with thoughts like, "I wonder what that means," or "What could she possibly be hinting at there?" Hilarious.

I'd had something of a tumultuous summer. I'd spent a few months at the end of my freshman year dating a senior girl named Diane. Diane was awesome. She would tell everyone it was my birthday whenever we were out and about. I was always getting free donuts at Bess Eaton, cakes and candles in restaurants and illegal free beers in pizza joints. But Diane was a senior and saw the writing on the wall.

She had sensed that there was something flirtatious going on between me and Sandi, Mitchell's younger sister. Being clueless I had no idea this was happening. But she was right. She told me I should be free to date anyone I wanted. I was a freshman! Of course, she got deliberately drunk to tell me this and neither of us REALLY wanted to break up. I went out with Sandi a couple of times immediately and had a lot of fun. But I was rather confused.

By fall Sandi and I were not really seeing each other full time. We never officially dated but we never officially broke up either. We would meet occasionally, have coffee, see a movie, make out, laugh.

My main focus, however, was the Theater Department. I liken my attitude to being on a sports team. I was gung-ho. Every day was a blast.

The Fine Arts building had a giant lobby that served as a cafeteria, meeting ground, rehearsal space and communal therapist couch. Everyone rotated in and out of the lobby throughout the day. It was not uncommon to see theater games spontaneously erupt.

My favorite was the instant death game. The rules were as follows: you had to move briskly across the lobby, not a run but a very fast walk. At the height of your speed someone would call out a manner of death which you had to immediately succumb to.

Flaming arrows. Double barreled shotgun. Mack truck. Poison dart. Heartbreak.

You get the picture. Girls in skirts would flail to the ground clutching their breasts which had been strafed with hollow tipped ammunition. Guys in jean jackets would clutch at their throats as the imaginary cyanide asserted itself.

I was determined to take part in the musical this year because I'd been too cool for school my freshman year and missed out on a chance to be a part of "Anne Of Green Gables", still in the Top 5 Best Theatrical Events I've Ever Seen List. Plus my sister was Anne and she was unbelievable.

I'd never heard of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", either the unfinished Dickens novel or the musical based on it. I was cast as James Throttle, the Stage Manger of the Royal Albert Music Hall.

The conceit of this musical is a fantastic one. Dickens left the novel unfinished. A music hall troupe has decided to put on a production of the novel. Therefore it is a play-within-a-play type of deal. You get the atmosphere of a theater troupe and the great storytelling of Dickens.

The best part? The audience votes on who they believe the killer is.

The interesting thing about my part is that I was the only member of the giant cast who only played ONE role. Everyone else had a Music Hall character (slutty showgirls and grizzled cockney clowns) and a Dickens character that they then adopted.

But since I was the Stage Manager of the troupe, I was NOT IN THE PLAY. I stood off to the side at a podium and assisted in the faux production we were doing. Judith Swift immediately sensed that this part was badly defined. Why was he there? Well, her take was that I was a sort of visual reflection of what the audience should be going through.

If the scene was funny I laughed harder than humanly possible. If it was scary I was petrified. If it was romantic I was over the moon in love. I was a cartoon of emotions. I never set foot backstage. Whole worlds were lived back there, a cast unity that I was always separate from. Judith directed the cast to have vague contempt for me, which is a kind of joke in the theater community. When a stage manager is on the bad side of a cast things get nasty real fast.

My favorite part of each night was when the voting happened. Cast members accosted the audience row by row demanding that they choose a suspect. Once they'd tallied the vote from their section they would rush the blackboard slate down to me. I quickly could tell who was the winner/loser. I chronicled this hilarious process in another post called "As Datchery I Did My Bit".

As usual, the tone of the show pervaded every aspect of the theater department. Girls went around flirting in cockney accents, guys had to have muttonchops or giant beards, it all began to turn into some crazed harmless Jack The Ripper co-ed fantasy.

My main function on stage was to be the right hand man to the leader of the Music Hall, played by an amazing actor named David Wagner. He doubled as a constable or mayor in the Dickens story, some figure of authority. He was also the narrator. Whenever he would switch from Music Hall to Dickens character he would take off the soft hat he was wearing and thrust it in his pocket. I would fire the hard top hat he wore as the Mayor through the air to him. It was often quite a long toss and he and I practiced it relentlessly so it would never fail us.

I can still vividly see him whipping the crowd into a frenzy and then turning to me from across that giant stage. It was SO MUCH FUN TO DO THIS BIT. You wouldn't think that something as simple as a hat flying through the air could be exciting but the level of difficulty was actually quite stiff. The crowd loved it, they ate it up, cheering louder each time we completed the haberdash javelin.

Did David love and respect my character James Throttle more because of this connection? Of course not. His character had great scorn for poor James Throttle and this translated to David trying to get me to crack on stage by standing just offstage behind my podium and throwing pennies at me.

I have probably never had more fun in a play than during "The Mystery Of Edwin Drood". We were chosen to compete in the regional competition of the NETC and gave a monstrous standing ovation worthy performance but narrowly missed being chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center.

It didn't matter, though. We knew what we had done.

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