Friday, April 30, 2010

How To Succeed (Winter: 1989)

The hyper intense theatricality of "Drood" lent the winter musical an air of invincibility. We were like cats who just discovered a cat-nip tree in their kitchen.

While all of the fun of "Drood" was an extension of the play itself, "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" wound up being the inverse. The parties got better but the show got worse.

This is not to say that it was not a good show. It most certainly was. The set was like a Brill Building grotesque, the costumes nailed the kind of buttoned up good-looking repression of 1950's big business, and the music was executed within an inch of its life.

But like the underbelly of the 1950's, there were some dark forces at work.

After a particular performance, Judith Swift called an impromptu meeting and chewed about fifty new assholes. It seems that someone had yawned on stage. The party the night before had lasted well after dawn which means that a good portion of the cast was most likely in that hangover stage where actual intoxication is still occurring.

Judith didn't name names and I don't know who yawned on stage but we were all guilty.

My house was a constant location for these debauched group performance art drinking sessions. There were distinct party factions, the drinkers and the smokers. Marijuana was becoming much easier to find and I happily planted flags in both camps. We shot hours of video footage of us dancing to hit songs of the day in complicated choreographed tableaux. We came up with the Insult Singing Game in which we would hurl insults at each other in made up song.

The show had a manic insanity. The sexuality that obsessed the office world of the play became out of control in the cast. Couples were formed and dissolved seemingly overnight. Triangles, parallelograms, hell, cubes of jealousy and intrigue arose and flamed out.

My character was named Jerry Tackaberry and I had one line. Someone said, "B.B.D.O?" to me and I repeated it a few times. Judith thought it would be funny if I sang it like an opera singer would sing "Figaro!" For some reason this moment totally worked even though it probably had no right to. Most of the time Jerry was kissing ass as far as he could up the corporate ladder.

We would take our curtain call and my face would ache from the giant plaster grin of a mask that I grimaced throughout the play.

One of my favorite numbers took place in the men's room as we all shaved in mirrors. We stood in front of a row of empty frame so we faced the audience. This gave the impression of us looking at our own reflections. We sang the song and used big bulky blocks of wood that had been meticulously transformed into old-fashioned electric razors. We made the sound of the razors in harmony.

I remember being vaguely in a panic throughout the whole run of the show. The energy was most definitely out of control and I was partying like I probably never have before or since. We steadfastly refused to let things like sleep or food get in the way of our fun.

The best number of the show was called "Coffee Break" in which the workers of the corporation threaten mutiny if they can't get their caffeine. A giant urn appeared and everyone danced in front of it like a Mayan zombie at a human sacrifice. That sense of being on the edge of some psychic break, that group-think was taking over.

We were one, fused into one giant infant, plugging two wet fingers into a live socket.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Get Down And Give Me Twenty! (Fall: 1989)

Whenever anyone else in the cast told you to you had to drop and do twenty pushups.

I was finally going to be directed by Kimber Wheelock in a full production. I'd done a staged reading and a ten minute clown piece. Which, when you analyze it, is hilarious: a clown piece rehearsed using The Method.

For the uninitiated, The Method is a technique whereby actors do not fabricate anything, they are not pretending. They use their specific history and personality to re-create true emotional states that (hopefully) match up well with the scene in question.

But clowns? We all had a few good laughs over that one. What sense memory recall do you use to figure out why you throw a bucket of confetti? To honk a horn while grabbing a girl-clown butt?

"Biloxi Blues" was announced as the first production of my junior year. This play was already famous and the movie had come out that summer. I knew I wanted to play Eugene Morris Jerome, the narrator. I felt confident that I could kill that part.

I got the part. Kimber and I worked very well together in his acting classes. He was notoriously prickly and impatient but I never felt the sting of his acerbic disdain. I talked back, I told him he was wrong, I pushed. It annoyed him sometimes but I think he respected me for it.

The play involved many scenes where the punishment given out was to do any number of pushups. One poor character had to squeeze out a whole slew of them. But we all began to do them in solidarity and all got into pretty good shape pretty fast. If you can't afford a gym and want to get in shape, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO...PUSHUPS AND SITUPS.

The play is part of a trilogy that follows this character (ostensibly Neil Simon himself) from Brooklyn in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" to WWII in "Biloxi Blues" and back to NY in "Broadway Bound".

I don't think Neil Simon gets his just due. This trilogy is not just another group of mildly amusing nostalgia plays. These are worthy of the time capsule. In the movie "Hustle and Flow" the main character is talking about a mix-tape put out by his rap hero. He says that everything in the world will turn to dust, everything will crumble. And if the people of the future try to reconstruct Memphis, if they want to know what it was like for HIM, all they have to do is play that mix-tape.

If the imaginary people of the future need to know what life was like in the 1940's in New York, if they need to know what the world was like just before the devastation of WWII, if they need to clue in to what the Jewish people in the free world were going through, all they need do is read these plays.

The cast was set and we started rehearsing. It was like butter. The play is perfect. It creates your performance without you knowing it. I barely remember staging it. This may sound redundant by this point but the simple barracks set that the design team constructed was simply perfect. It somehow was real and suggestive all at the same time.

In one scene the GI's visit a whorehouse. A sliding set was built so that when we set out on this lascivious weekend furlough a giant bed appeared almost out of nowhere. A USO dance was hinted at with a bit of bunting draped across the front of the barracks over some chairs. Elegant and practical, the set did nothing to distract from the narrative, which I think is not as easy as it looks to pull off. If the designers got enamored with showing off their period savvy it would pull focus from the journey that these characters are on.

A former URI student who was now living and working in New York City was cast as the gruff Sergeant. Eric Lutes, a fantastic actor, went on to a fine career in film and TV, most notably as Del on the hit series "Caroline In The City". I'd seen him act with my sister a few years prior in "Picnic" and was intimidated by his good-looks and talent. All of us were and this separation created the perfect tension the play needs.

The age difference wasn't as great as it perhaps is supposed to be, but that had the odd effect of making the mentally ill Sergeant an even more tragic character. He was so young and yet so profoundly disturbed and scarred by his combat history...a man old before his time.

Everyone had recently seen the film starring Broderick and Walken that had been a minor hit. Of course Hollywood fucked up the perfect structure of the play. Because Broderick and Walken were big movie stars, they rejiggered the final scenes to force the two of them into the conflict that had been building between the Sergeant and Epstein. This had the effect of waiting for a grand finale in a fireworks display and getting a dud. Forcing the narrative onto the main character and narrator robbed him of his status as an observer. The whole thrust of the play is that you have to get INVOLVED. No one is free to remain neutral. Which, although it is never overtly discussed, is most certainly a thematic dagger Simon is throwing at the world that stood by and watched millions get murdered.

Thankfully we were doing the play and not the movie.

I still remember the first moment when I addressed the audience. The scene opens on a train headed to basic training. Good natured bickering is slowly turning into something a bit more serious. After a few minutes I turn to the audience and say something snide and hilarious about one of the other characters.

It was like a bomb had gone off. When you break that fourth wall in the hands of a genius like Simon it is as if you are literally tickling hundreds of feet at once. They simply could not get over the fact that I was TALKING to them. Every time I turned my head to look at them it was like a mind meld.

To my way of thinking, this production embodied everything that works about The Method. There were no forced notes, no pushing. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention a valid criticism from Mitchell that I did not have a "Jewish" or "Brooklyn" I'd have taken it upon myself to cultivate it but Kimber didn't insist so it was never even an option). While that may have been an inadvertent false note by omission, all of the behavior exhibited in the play was natural, relaxed and fully realized.

David Fraioli, he of "As Datchery I Did My Bit" played Epstein, the determined antagonist of the bullheaded Sergeant. If he'd done this performance in New York he'd have been a movie star within six months. This play hinges around an intimate monologue his character has that perfectly illustrates the prejudice and ignorance at the heart of many Army interactions. The 550 seat theater shrunk to the size of the space between two people as he told it to me. I'll never forget it.

We knocked that play out of the park.

I was living Down The Line at the time, which meant in a rented house down near the ocean. We had a giant cast party that involved the entire cast lip syncing to 1940's songs as a USO band. Over two weeks nearly 3,000 people saw the show so I spent the next couple of months on campus experiencing the only true fame I'd ever know.

At least so far mo-fos! I'm doin' pushups again, look out!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Move, Clown! (Spring: 1989)

I have tried to get the chronology right but I just can't see that far back into the past so if anyone out there has contradictory information, please let me know.

I believe that the final production of my sophomore year was an evening of one-acts by Moliere that has come to be known (to me, anyway) as "The Molieres". Another artist in residence type deal, with new translations of three one-acts by Moliere.

Each one-act was to have a different director and no overlapping cast members. The first of the evening was to be done with masks, very traditional. Then my show. We were full on circus clowns. Finally the last of the evening was set in modern day Cranston, Rhode Island and a whole Jersey Shore/guido aesthetic was layered over the classical language.

The overall effect of the evening was one of a kind of manic schizophrenia. The first show ended in a tableau, corsetted actresses frozen next to cravat wearing powdered wig actors. The set was a series of flats made to look like an aristocratic palace or mansion. We clowns came flying up out of the vom, a runway that led from the stage to the underbelly of the Fine Arts building.

We batted the cast over the head with big nerf hammers. We kicked them in their bustled buts with big floppy feet. We shoved their set back into the recesses of Will Theater until it exploded in a giant crash which was a sound cue brilliantly conceived.

Our show was the shortest of the three. It was so much fun to hide in that ramp waiting for the first one-act to end. That classical rendition really got the audience laughing in spite of the unfamiliar arch style they employed. The masks took on personality and expression that seemed far more fluid than the fixed reality of the appearance. You could feel the audience transforming, being brought back to a different sort of attention span.

This made the arrival of a troupe of modern clowns that much more hilarious. Even before we'd begun our play we could hear the audience screaming with delight. Because, no matter how much you might enjoy a play done in masks, there is a small impish part of you that would love to give the actors a swift kick in the rear. I liken it to how people feel about mimes. Sure, they might suck you in from time to time but you're still a little angry about it when it happens!

So we gave vent to some innocent disgruntled point of view that the audience had already discarded! We reminded them that it was okay to roll your eyes at a bunch of assholes in masks! And then our show took off like a wooden jalopy on a flaming set of train tracks.

I played a lecherous clown doctor who was supposed to be helping a family find a match for their daughter. But mostly I grabbed her boobs and swigged from bottles of Jack Daniels while honking a horn to show how hot she was. This was not high-brow comedy. In fact, it was so low brow that there wasn't even a brow. It was just low.

They ate it up. I remember getting a big laugh because I did a double take that made the big curly wig I wore shake on top of my head. In a ten minute show I completely exhausted myself.

Then the last one act of the evening started, somehow weaving a Vietnam vet having flashbacks while lip syncing to "I'm So Excited". There was hairspray, tiny skirts, fuck-me-pumps, wife-beaters, leather jackets, and lots of long vowel expressions of disgust or lust.

The juxtaposition of the language of Moliere with these modern guidos and guidettes was jarring to a ridiculously funny degree. The crowd was mainly Rhode Islanders so they saw nuance galore in a portrayal of a local population that skewered them good-humoredly.

The best part about this production was the pre-show rituals that we all got involved in. Imagine these three shows jumbled into one dressing room. You had guys tying up ruffled shirts and buttoning breeches. You had clowns pulling on fake noses and smearing white chalk all over their faces. And you had tough guy guidos greasing their hair and practicing their moronic accents.

My good friend David (he of the hat toss from Edwin Drood) was the ringleader of this cast. I think Judith came up with the concept for this play specifically so that David could wield his insane brand of Italian humor like a battle axe.

The clowns and the guidos had a not-so-friendly rivalry going on. One guy would walk in and even though he had PLENTY of room would walk right close to you and say in a dead staccato blare, "MOVE CLOWN." He wouldn't pass until you moved! God, this shit was funny. And we clowns would pick our noses at them, blow Bronx cheers, copy everything they said until they were fuming, y'know, we clowned them to death.

Once it escalated into an arm-punching war between David and myself. We were both already in full costume and make up. He said something like, "You're just a fuckin' clown" and punched my arm. I repeated it in a Mickey Mouse squeak and punched him right back.

He said, "You're just a FUCKIN' clown." And hit me harder. I went higher with the Mickey Mouse squeal and punched him right back.

He said, "FUCKIN' CLOWN" and hit me so hard tears came to my eyes. We stood huffing and staring at one another, truly angry, until the sheer insanity of the moment overtook us and we burst out laughing.

I can only imagine what he saw, a forlorn clown with a tear trickling down his bright white cheek!

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.