The View From Here #91: Cleveland, OH & Orlando, FL
First there was the race to get “Imaginary Invalid” up and running in Cleveland, with some final hard decisions about the interludes (cutting about 30% of them in the final days of rehearsals), and working to get packed up simultaneously. I bought a sound system for “Karaoke Knights” which, along with the flat screen TV set, filled the car to bursting, and I recycled the empty cans and bottles I’d been collecting over six weeks.
Running the show, I would also run the set up/take down process, and found that I could get the show up in less than 15 minutes, which is my limit for the fringe events. My sound engineer also put together a DVD of the show, which enables me to flip from the audio backing track to a karaoke video seamlessly. Of course, I’ve been rehearsing with audio-only for many months now, so the karaoke tracks are taking some getting used to, and we continue to fiddle with the levels and the timing. The trick with this DVD, though, is that there is no going back. Once the DVD has started running, I’m not allowed the luxury of any mistakes that would enable me to start the thing over. Any audience interaction has to transpire within this very specific time constraint.
Opening night of “Imaginary Invalid,” my friends Eric and Linda flew in from Chicago and Atlanta, respectively, to see the show. While they were in town, I performed “Karaoke Knights” for them, and their enthusiasm for the show got me excited about it once again. The fun part about performing it is that everyone seems to have their favorite songs, and I am reminded of the initial delight I had over songs that I’ve been working with for over a year now. (Eric couldn’t stop talking about the number “Tempted to be Tempted” which I’ve staged as a mock ballet.)
That night, “Imaginary Invalid” finally opened. The costumes weren’t quite complete; a microphone dropped out during the opening prelude, a couple of actors got inexplicably quiet at given moments. But the audience was laughing here and there, and the set, and what was finished about the costumes looked terrific.
Then, in Act II, came the Thomas Diafoirus scene, and the audience laughed robustly. Shortly thereafter was the Louison scene, in which the young daughter drops over pretending to be dead. More hilarious laughter. When we came back from intermission, we had the (significantly shorter) interlude that had been the source of much anxiety only two days before. It got big boffo laughs – First with Punchinello singing, then the Old Woman (a man in drag) singing in mockery of him, and then the Archers chasing him down. – Funny stuff. Back to the action, we have the hilarious Apothecary scene, followed by the even-funnier Doctor Purgon scene, and the audience was roaring, and even applauding the Doctor’s grand exit. The action winds down to a finale, which has always been our particular stumbling block. It went fairly well until the final moments, when the last three verses (I had, by now, cut out the latin verses) were impossible to understand.
Over the next week, reviews came my way via the internet. Here’s the first, from “Cool Cleveland:”
The Imaginary Invalid @ Beck Center 5/22What: A witty adaptation of the classic Moliere comedy about a hypochondriac and his obsession with doctors – in rhymed couplets, no less.Reasons to go: Costumes and sets are sumptuously professional, Tim Mooney’s new translation is funny and easy to follow, and there are several engaging performances. Looking tall and healthy as a horse, Matthew Wright plays Argan as an overgrown baby who craves constant attention, and Tracee Patterson sparks as his mischievous servant Toinette. The second act is particularly good, when the able Robert Hawkes shows up as Argan’s sensible brother, Jeffrey Grover thunders as his doctor, and Allen Branstein convulses in a cameo as an apothecary wielding an enema bag the size of a vacuum cleaner.Caveats: Mooney has choreographed the stylized schtick to within an inch of its life –- there are delightful bits, but too often he has the overmatched secondary actors running around like windup dolls. Two out of three of the added “interludes” are lame – what works as spoken verse falls flat when sung.Backstory: Mooney is one of the country’s foremost Moliere experts, and his rhymed adaptations have been seen on national stages. He also tours with his one man show "Moliere Than Thou".Target audience: General audiences -- especially anyone who thinks doctors or drug companies deserve a roasting.Details: Thru 6/12. Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood. 216-521-2540. http://r.pm0.net/s/c?3gv.d21s.78.9lsi.97nfrom Cool Cleveland contributor Linda Eisenstein firstname.lastname@example.org
Not a bad review; and although she clearly didn’t mean it as a compliment, I rather like the line “choreographed the stylized schtick to within an inch of its life.” For me, at least, that’s the sign of a director who cares.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had the least enthusiastic review (although they still liked my script), which they awkwardly bundled with the review of a local production of “Talley’s Folly.” I’ve extracted the Talley’s folly bits from the review below:
Romance attracts, but in these plays, the writing is the strongest part
Monday, May 23, 2005
Romance spans the centuries, the continents and even Cleveland's vast East Side-West Side divide in a not-exactly-matched-set of offerings that opened over the weekend at a pair of our small professional theaters.
To the west, Lakewood's Beck Center for the Arts assembles a cast of 13 to scale the heights of zesty 17th-century French farce, Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid," a piquant critique of the foibles of the rich and the quack physicians who exploit them.
On the other end of town, at the Cleveland Play House, Ensemble Theatre goes intimate with "Talley's Folly," American dramatist Lanford Wilson's moody, two-character contemplation of the heart in the country's heartland during World War II.
Both plays hinge on the capricious meddling of a little cherub called Cupid. While love wins out in each, the conquests come at a price. Permanent peace remains unlikely.
Neither production surmounts its deep flaws - too little performing talent beyond the leading two roles at the Beck, and a glaring lack of directorial vision at Ensemble - but both have their attractions as well, chiefly the scripts themselves.
A handsome production in need of subtlety
Attempting Moliere is challenge even for fully professional companies (witness Great Lakes Theater Festival's "Tartuffe," only partly successful). At the Beck Center, still emerging as a professional theater, "The Imaginary Invalid" is a bumpy ride.
The main attraction, again, is the script, a witty, self-referential verse adaptation by Tim Mooney (who also directs) in idiomatic contemporary English.
It's a handsome production, thanks to Don McBride's evocation of Versailles through a set of echoing prosceniums, Jeffrey Smart's bustles and Mooney's precisely choreographed but relaxed-looking stage pictures.
But beyond Matthew Wright's slim, extremely flappable Argan, the hypochondriac of the title, and especially Tracee Patterson's lovably antic Toinette - Moliere's trademark servant who outwits her masters - the cast simply isn't up to the stylization involved even in the updated language.
Mooney includes three rarely produced commedia dell'arte interludes that turn out to be more entertaining than the play itself. They provide nice comic moments for Jeffrey Grover, Noah Varness and Allen Branstein.
Like a dog dancing on its hind legs, it may not be done well, but it is surprising to find Moliere done at all.
"The Imaginary Invalid" runs through Sunday, June 12, at 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood. Tickets are $23-$26. Call 216-521-2540.
I’m not sure how I could choreograph something “within an inch of its life,” and still be “relaxed”, or have “lame” interludes that are “more entertaining than the play itself” but that’s the fun of getting multiple reviews. Everything is eventually forgiven.
Finally, the “Alternative” weekly paper published their review of the play. WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. This reviewer picked up on the theme of the ongoing references to enemas in the play and couldn’t stop (ahem) running with it.
Public Enema No. 1 Colonics are the butt of jokes in The Imaginary Invalid. By Christine HoweyPublished: Wednesday, May 25, 2005
It's been said that the proper role of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But in recent years, the American media has followed the federal government in turning that dictum inside out, supporting the wealthy against the predations of the working class. If only Molière were here to answer those bellowing McMansioned blowhards and add a new character to his murderer's row of social weasels: the hypocrite (Tartuffe), the retrograde cynic (Alceste in The Misanthrope), and the obsessed hypochondriac, Argan, in The Imaginary Invalid.
Happily, Beck Center is offering a captivating if frequently cacophonous production of the latter, adapted and directed by Molière mensch Timothy Mooney (of the deliciously titled one-person performance Molière Than Thou). By translating the original into rhyming couplets, some of them decidedly contemporary, Mooney has created an arch anachronism -- call it 17th-century Versailles-era satire performed with the subtlety of a Three's Company episode. The result is a broad yet fascinating frolic in the elegant bedroom of an apparently entirely healthy aristocrat who lives for one exotic medical treatment after another.
These treatments usually involve an herb-spiked enema, a bloodletting, or a purging by emetic (e.g., syrup of Ipecac). The medical profession of the time appears to have been entirely focused on draining the body of whatever fluids could be encouraged to exit the anatomy, under any provocation. As for Argan, his sphincter apparently never met a nozzle it didn't adore. As the play opens, he is tabulating the costs of his "injections" and determining how best to undercut the physician's prices for the butt-gushers he demands.
Although the play has a rather singular colon-related focus, it is leavened to some degree by the romantic attachment between Argan's daughter, Angelique, and a young nobody named Cleante. This is a problem for Pops, since he prefers her to marry Thomas, a local doctor, from whom he can cadge some invoice-free intestine-hosings. Refereeing this farcical fandango is Argan's uppity maid, Toinette, who makes no bones about what an ass her master is and inserts herself into virtually every discussion. When Thomas regales the assembled with his medical mumbo-jumbo, Toinette observes, "Would he practice as well as he preaches/The whole world will want him nosing in their breeches."
Under Mooney's sprightly direction, the cast surfs across his metered dialogue and creates a humorous collision that explodes in the second act. This is when Jeffrey Grover appears as Argan's doctor, Monsieur Purgon, and, in front of doubters, presents an impassioned defense of his procedures ("I can't believe the cheek/To block the passage which I look to leak!"). Toinette, played with untrammeled enthusiasm by Tracee Patterson, also shows up disguised as a wacko visiting physician (picture Groucho Marx cross-bred with Lily Tomlin) to try to break through Argan's medical monomania. Nothing works until Argan is convinced to play dead, so he can discover who really cares for him.
The largely capable cast is anchored by Matthew Wright as Argan, in a stellar performance that blends his character's enthusiasm for sickness with his exhaustion from the remedies he must endure. Perhaps the funniest sight gag is when his aptly named enema-giver, Monsieur Fleurant (a distressingly scruffy Allen Branstein), shows up to administer his client's scheduled flush & fill. The apparatus the technician carries -- a large bag with a lengthy hose ending in an applicator tip that looks like the flame-darkened casing of a jet engine -- would be enough to send any sentient human being screaming for the exit.
Michelle Ehrman is a bit too doggedly delightful as Angelique, swooning over Mark Genszler's Cleante, while Noah Varness, as the stiff and buffoonish Thomas, huffs with indignation. Michelle Michael and Robert Hawkes are strong as, respectively, Argan's unfaithful wife, Beline, and his refreshingly rational brother, Beralde. While some of the subplots are never fully developed, including an affair between Beline and notary Bonnefoy (David Bugherr), the main story clicks along with certainty.
In this handsome production (faux marble set by Don McBride, lush costumes by Jeffrey Smart), director Mooney has also included Molière's interludes, comic ballets that infuse the performance with the spirit of commedia dell'arte. In the second-act opener, John Stuehr is a stitch as an old woman trying to give a young romantic lout his comeuppance. Stuehr reappears in the finale as the president of a physician panel, to which Argan applies to become a doctor himself (so he can prescribe his own booty blasts). Although this scene is played too ominously to be the celebration of foolishness that's intended, it's one small misstep in a diverting evening of laughter, slapstick, and commentary on the grotesque foibles of the powerful in any society.
Altogether a satisfying collection of reviews: while I might have liked more unbridled enthusiasm, it seems that aside from a couple of actors performances and perhaps the finale, there was excitement about each aspect of the play in at least one of the reviews, and universal approbation of my script, which has turned out to be the most popular of my Moliere adaptations so far. The third review, while eminently scatological, is the most attentive to detail, carefully written, and responds effectively to the real humor in the play.
At 11:30 on opening night, I bid goodbye to my Cleveland friends, and got onto the highway, driving south. While I might have liked to enjoy the spotlight for a while, I had another spotlight waiting for me, some 1200 miles south. I cranked up the music in the car and drove. After about two hours, I pulled over for a half-hour nap, and then continued for a bit. About halfway through West Virginia, I could feel myself getting sleepy again, and at 4:30, I pulled over, napping until daylight. I worked my way on south, through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and into Florida, with two more naps in the process. I pulled into Orlando at about 6:30 that evening, met up with my billeter, and found the place that I was staying. I got back to the theatre and met with my technician, who had already set up a series of lighting cues for each song I was performing. They looked great, and he helped me unload the TV and Sound Equipment into the theatre.
Out in the hallway, I ran into a reviewer who’d covered Moliere in years past, and she mentioned that she was coming to the 11:45 show that night. Yipes! I dropped mention of the fact that I had just spent the night driving down from Cleveland, but assured her that tonight’s show would be a fun adventure.
It was a friendly but very small audience that night, with a number of old friends from previous fringes who wanted to catch my opening night. They were laughing generously, and seemed to be enjoying themselves, although the show wasn’t quite going over the way I’d anticipated.
The song “Forward Thinking” has been a recent addition for me, and for a long time I was stumped about what to do with it. It’s a bizarre, ethereal song, and a show-biz rendition of it would be totally out of character. I thought I would probably go out into the audience with it and relate to one of the women in attendance, but I wasn’t sure just how that might be dramatic or effective. I was sure that, when it came time to cut the show down to 60 minutes, to fit into tighter fringe slots, this would be one of the first to go.
I think I was rehearsing with an electrical cord, just to get used to manipulating a microphone cord during the show, when an idea struck me. I gathered the cord and wound it around the chair that I was “singing to” at the time. It seemed strangely effective. I continued rehearsing it this way.
When I went to do “Forward Thinking” in performance, with a live human being in that chair, this moment was getting so much audience response that suddenly the lyrics disappeared from my head. I could remember parts of the song, but not the parts that I was supposed to be singing. I stumbled around, wound and unwound the mike cord, and finally asked “AJ” in the booth if he had the script page handy. He ran it out to me and I caught up with the last verse of the song. The audience liked it, but were probably just as entertained in watching me forget my lines than anything else. I couldn’t imagine what the reviewer was thinking.
Next was an 11:15 performance the next night, and while there were perhaps as many people present, they seemed far less excited about being there. I had to drag people up to participate in the volunteer sequences, and the now-infamous microphone cord routine was resisted strongly (although, I must say that I haven’t forgotten those particular lyrics since then). There was evidently another reviewer present, and I assumed that this review would be disastrous. The vibes I was feeling were alternatively sleepy and hostile.
Back at the place I was staying, I was rehearsing the show three times a day. The initial feedback suggested that people weren’t quite getting what it was about, and I have committed too much money and time to this project (with six fringes to follow this one) to let it roll on uncorrected.
What I was really beginning to notice was just how much people were identifying with the characters of this play. On one level, this seemed absurd to me. I had written these songs 4-5 years ago, without any consideration of character. It was only long after they had been set to music that certain characters seemed to suggest themselves to me, and for performance convenience, I defined them by changing costumes and giving them names. It turns out that the audience couldn’t help but see this script as being a story about these specific individuals, seeing character first, before noticing the music or the lyrics or my performance.
The Monday performance was another tiny house, this one early in the evening, and Tuesday was finally a day off for me. I ran the play just once to keep it in my head, but found myself rethinking some of the show. Long ago, Deb Pekin and I had toyed with the idea of adding a Karaoke Jockey/Voiceover to the play, and it felt like this would help carry the audience through the show. Meanwhile the Orlando Sentinel review appeared, first on line, and the next day, in the paper (this was from the woman who was present opening night):
“Timothy Mooney has delighted Fringe fans in yeas past with a couple of nifty shows - last year's sci-fi “Criteria” and “Moliere Than Thou,” the farce fest from 2003. But I'm not sure what he's up to with Karaoke Knights: A One-Man Rock Opera!, which he performs in the guise of various characters: the leather-jacketed Sergio, the peppy Brian, the gravel-voiced Charles. Mooney has a likeable persona and a pleasant pop voice, but his herky-jerky dancing is on the odd side, and many of his lyrics don't add up to much.
”The notion that these guys are all performing in a karaoke bar -- at least I think that's the notion -- doesn't really come across.
”But he does have fun with the audience: At his first performance, a couple of women wound up dancing onstage, and another one got more entangled in the show (and in Mooney's mike cord) than she might have expected. The real karaoke in Karaoke Knights comes between Mooney's songs, and you'd better join in fast because the snippets of songs are over before you know it. The rest of the time, Karaoke Knights is just spectator sport.”
Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando Sentinel
This was kind of a sad review for me to read. A lot of what I felt was good about the play went unnoticed in light of confusion over the concept. I wasn’t going to sweat the comments about my “herky-jerky” dancing, because I don’t really see being “on the odd side” to be a meaningful criticism, and if I’m confident about anything in the play, it’s the lyrics. But lack of clarity around the concept gave her the space to get annoyed at other things. As for the overall lack of sing-along karaoke, that too seemed to be a product of her expectations being different from what the show was looking to provide. I delved further into work on the narrator, and started looking at which songs I ought or ought not be cutting from the Cincinnati production.
I was also looking at ways to “warm up” the presentation. Other musical events that I’ve attended usually find the audience entirely identifying with the singer, but somehow they felt largely at a distance from me. Somehow I had placed them in the position of judgment rather than participation or empathy.
On Wednesday, the CD’s finally arrived, and I was glad to have something finally available to sell at the shows. A couple of people bought theirs right away when they saw me walking into the theatre that night. And yet, nobody has bought any since. On Wednesday night, another review appeared. This one was in the Orlando Weekly, and I braced myself for a pan. This was the guy who’d been in the seemingly hostile audience on Sunday night. But instead, this was what I found:
“Tim Mooney likes playing himself, but he also can't help impersonating a few other characters while he's at it. At the 2003 Fringe, he created an enjoyable and educational ensemble in his one-man opus, "Moliere Than Thou." In Karaoke Knights: A One-Man Rock Opera, he invites his audience into his fantasy karaoke bar, where one of several different sides of his personality is always onstage.
”The show features 17 songs Mooney has written with composer Ray Lewis; they're satisfyingly delivered by a conjured fraternity of crooners. Some of the songs have a pop-rock feel; others are comically operatic. "Next" has echoes of Tom Lehrer; "Half a World Away" could have been on a Talking Heads album, and the brilliant "Dreaming Tax" sounds like a Tom Waits cover.
”Mooney's obsession with trying to find the answer to male/female relationships wears a little thin by the end of his 75-minute show, but he's such a good actor and inventive performer that he's always interesting to watch. And there's no doubt that the man can sing. One doesn't usually go to a karaoke bar to watch others perform, but in Karaoke Knights there are about a half dozen guys worth listening to.”
Al Krulick, Orlando Weekly
Suddenly, I felt significantly redeemed. I checked my previous reviews, and this same reviewer had given me a rave for “Moliere Than Thou” two years before. In fact, throughout this week, I was meeting people who still recognized me from “Moliere Than Thou”. And I was wearing wigs in that show!
Wednesday’s audience was again, very small, with only 8 people in the audience. At least four of those, however, were friends who’d really loved previous performances (one woman was a huge Moliere fan), and they smiled and laughed throughout the show. My technician at this theatre is the best I’ve ever had. When I showed him the Karaoke Jockey narration I was writing, he suggested that he could read it aloud from his microphone in the booth. What a great advantage! I could “try out” the material live before committing it to the disc, and finding out the issues that would come up after it was already complete.
Thursday night’s audience was still very small (20 people, perhaps), but responsive. By this time, “Forward Thinking” had worked its way securely into the repertory. And now I was faced with the issue of what to cut in its place. I had to work fast, because any changes I made had to be instituted on a DVD that would be coming from my audio/video engineer in Cleveland.
Friday was a day off, and I wrote and rewrote the Karaoke Jockey voiceovers, and began recording myself doing them. I wanted to have my favorite KJ, Don, record the voiceovers, but the time was running short, and I was still needing to make more changes to the text, particularly as I was still reworking which songs to use. This latest review had already cited one of the songs that I was sure I would cut this time around, “A Half-A-World Away,” which would make it difficult to use the publicity.
Saturday was a very early show: 11:30 a.m. I had no idea just who would come to see my show at 11:30, but I got up early and ran the show to warm up my voice. As I did so, another realization hit me. I was performing my biggest “production number” as the opening song of the show. It got people worked up early, and yet, there was no way I could top it in subsequent songs. All at once it hit me. I HAVE TO WORK MY WAY UP TO THIS!
And so, once again I changed the order. I moved “I’m Looking for a Groupie” to the fifth song of the show, which bumped #5 to #8, dropping #8 entirely. I cut the second-to-last song, as it seemed that the show had two “final” numbers following the emotional climax of the play, “Gravity’s Pull.” To get the show down to 60 minutes, I ended up dropping four numbers: “A Little Taste”, “Half-A-World Away”, “Dreams are Waiting” and “Sum One.” It kills me to lose some of these, but I think, finally, I could see where I was being too clever for my own good. All but “A Little Taste” would come back into the show when it went back up to 75 minutes, but by then (at the Winnipeg Fringe in late July), I expect I will probably have reworked the play significantly once again.
And besides, all these songs now live on the CD, where people can discover them with delight, out of the context of the show. It will also give a secondary selling point to the CDs.
Another review appeared on-line, this one from Carl F. Gauze (pen name for Al Pergande), on the on-line site Ink 19. Al was becoming a good friend a the beer tent, and he’s given me two good reviews in years past, so I looked forward to reading this one:
Karaoke KnightsBy Tim Mooney and Ray Lewis
“Fringe is a nest of one man shows, as there's just about no other way to make a living at this job. Perennial favorite Tim Mooney (Molière Than Thou, Criteria) returns with the interesting results of a recent personal project - he wrote a song a day for a year, then selected the best for this quirky performance. Mr. Mooney likes Karaoke, and from my experience professional actors are much better at this imported art form than the drunken masses.
“Notionally, Mr. Mooney plays a number a characters singing for themselves and their imagined audience. Sometimes he sounds like Tom Waits (Charles), sometimes he sounds like a Latin Lover (Sergio), and sometimes he's just a regular guy in a sweat shirt. There is some risk in seeing this show, as several audience members make the supreme sacrifice, standing on stage awkwardly while he croons to them. Or you can sit along the side of the stage, and He'll give you a beer for your trouble.
“The songs are loosely connected, but with complicated lyrics that remind me of that old band "Sparks." If you're dieing to sing karaoke at Fringe, the show is definitely for you. If you just like Tim Mooney, that’s another good reason to drop by. And if you want to be on stage but basically lack talent, he can cover that for you as well, and then you to can become a Karaoke Knight.”
Al, like several others, had chosen his favorite character (Sergio was extremely popular, as was Charles), and I’d forgotten about how much I’d enjoyed the band “Sparks” back in the 70s. All in all, I was amassing some great cross-references to use in the publicity for the show, and I was glad to see that the reviewers were starting to acknowledge the lyrical complexity of what I was presenting. It’s also a little gratifying to see myself, personally listed as a reason to attend.
Back to the show, Saturday’s audience was the smallest yet, with only 7 people in the auditorium. Adding insult to injury, four of the audience left before the end of the show, presumably to catch another show they’d previously committed to. I remained, performing for a faithful crowd of three, who were generous in their response.
Later, at the beer tent, the woman who’d stayed till the end of that morning’s show said, “Hey, my friend wants to see your show on Sunday, but only if you’ll promise to tie her up.”
Guess which song is NOT getting cut from the show any time soon?
Attendance: 100 in Cleveland (and more since opening night); 15, 16, 8, 15, 25, 7 in Orlando
In the CD player: Karaoke Knights
Reading: “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay
Discoveries: Efforts to second guess any individual's opinion are in vain. * The "hostile vibes" that I perceive may simply be my own hostility toward myself. * Sometimes theatrical excitement outweighs cleverness. * There comes a moment when one wants to just give up and write off a year's work as a ridiculous pursuit. The choices made in that moment determine an endeavor's ultimate success. I can choose to bang my head against the wall in despair, or dissect just where the thing is going awry, and try again. * Lack of clarity around the concept gives people the space to grow annoyed at other irrelevant things. * If you come out with your best stuff in the opening number, people will get restless later, and start to judge you against a level that you rose to, previously. * I work on my shows forwards, but people perceive them backwards, and the last thing I worked on is the first thing that they notice. Particularly, they are extremely conscious of character, and even if I created them in a frivolous way, they really identify with "Sergio" and "Charles."
Miles on the Vibe: 138,000
Next performance: 5/29, Orlando, FL, 6/1, Cincinnati, OH