Sunday, February 18, 2007

The View From Here #121: Norman, OK

Reviewing recent e-mails, I was reminded of my performance at Central Methodist University, and the “Tartuffe” seduction scene. The show was going great, but it was one of those nights when no hands were going up in the first 15 seconds after asking for a volunteer.

From the back of the room came a gruff voice: “I’ll do it!”

On occasion in the past, we have “cross-cast” the volunteer scenes, mostly with women in the “Scapin” scene. Only once before have we had a man in the “Tartuffe” scene, but it had gotten big laughs, so I waved the fellow up to the stage.

I should have known by the amount of time it took him to get onto the stage that this was going to be a problem.

I should have known by the tone of his voice when he said “I’ll do it.”
The man was lit up like a Christmas tree. I could smell the alcohol from ten feet away.

It was impossible to even do a kind-of-a-parody of the seduction scene, because I had no idea what he might take seriously or not, in performance. If I made an inadvertent move towards him, he might suddenly turn into a very violent drunk, and any attempt to keep control of the show would be lost.

We worked through, as I made illustrative gestures, and resisted making commentary or humor from the fellow’s self-evident state, as this would have crossed a line, likely alienating the audience. As such, I recited my lines from a somewhat close … but not too close … proximity, while the man proceeded to wander about the stage. Occasionally, I would corral him back to face out toward the audience, and encourage him in a playful reading, but overall focused my attention on getting the scene over with as quickly as possible.

Afterwards, the fellow continued to wander in and out of the auditorium’s back door (presumedly to use the bathroom), and when the “Scapin” volunteer scene came up, this guy once again pulled himself out of his seat, and started heading down the aisle. “Oh, no, Richard, we’ve had you already; let’s give somebody else a chance,” I called, to head him off. Disappointed, Richard (not his real name) drifted back up the aisle, and back out the theatre door, while somebody else rescued me from the impending derailment.

Afterwards, some of the faculty asked me if he was “a plant.”

Had I been thinking, I would have said, “No, but he certainly was potted.”

I was working on three Shakespeare scenes, trying to rehearse and memorize these alongside rehearsing and memorizing two lead roles. Quickly I discovered that the time I’d intended to devote to writing a new book proposal, or to work the bookings for 07-08 was evaporating. But, at the same time, I was affirming several theories of Shakespearean performance that I’d outlined in my book. It was difficult to give full attention and support as acting partner to twelve different students, and for the most part, I was improvising my blocking and interpretation to respond to whatever they were bringing the scenes, but I was learning volumes about acting Shakespeare, as Prospero howls out “Thy groans did make wolves howl,” and Iago murmurs “By knocking out his brains,” or Angelo sneers, “you will stifle in your own report and smell of calumny.” At one point, amid a comment session on “The Tempest,” a student said, “When you said ‘A torment to lay upon the damned,’ I could feel the walls of the room vibrate.”

It was a perfect summation of a process in my Shakespeare workshop that begins with an exercise called “rattle the lights.”

I note that since my last exploration of Shakespeare, more than 20 years ago, my priorities have changed. I used to worry about how “realistic” I was being. Now it’s all about what I can do with the words. When the actors filled out my evaluation form, the most oft-cited discovery from these sessions was “Make bold choices.”

Opening night was coming up quickly. Every once in a while, I would get derailed off of my lines, particularly when I would perform a monologue that I do in my one-man show. Since these monologues have been cut and arranged to make logical sense for a one-man performance, there are sequences that have been left out, and sudden jumps that occasionally threaten to take me a few minutes ahead in the performance. My fellow actors generally know their lines better than I do. Of course, I had more to memorize than anyone, but often I have memorized a line in a particular way, incorporating a “re-write” which I’ve never incorporated into the script (which always feels like the way the line ought to be spoken, because I’ve re-memorized it in iambic pentameter).

I finally asked the very-supportive assistant stage manager to stop giving me line notes, because every time I slipped up in my speaking, the only thing I could visualize was her scribbling another note in her book, which was taking my concentration to all sorts of places that I didn’t want it to go.

Speaking of very-supportive, the students and the faculty have been amazing, providing me with everything I need, including my own dressing room, and my own dresser. I will clearly miss the luxury the next time I'm loading in my one-man show all by myself...

A week before opening, I got a cold, and beat it back quickly with fortified nutrition juices, “Airborne”, “Emergen-C” and “Re-liv.”

Three days before opening, I got food poisoning, and could only barely go through the motions on stage. Everybody felt badly for me, but there was no way I could take the night off, as there were some 70 people involved in rehearsal at that point. I marked through the shows, getting stronger as the night went on, and then feeling a relapse that night in the middle of the night. I blamed it all on some Soy Milk that I was taking to settle my stomach, but it wasn’t until last night that I discovered that the peanut butter I’d been eating had been recalled for salmonella contamination!

As opening night approached, I would rehearse my lines during the day, which would often remind me of individual problems or misinterpretations that had come up in rehearsal the night before, and I would e-mail these thoughts to Susan (the director), who would, in turn, share them with the rest of the cast. Ultimately, there was a level of trust to the conversation that enabled me to continue to push for my initial vision of the plays, all the way down to the detail of hitting this or that rhyme, or getting the presentational style consistent throughout the cast. As such, despite the very complex production that these have been given, it’s extremely cohesive, stylistically.

With opening night came lots of big laughs. I was confident about “The Doctor in Spite of Himself,” but I had no idea what the presence of an audience might do to the narrative thread that runs through my brain, and I wondered if the lines might disappear out of my head. As it turned out, the lines were dead on, and I found myself much more aware of what points needed to be stressed, and what pauses needed to be held in order for individual bits of information to register with the audience before moving on. “Doctor” got huge laughs, but it was the dance at the end of the show that brought the house down.

Jeremy, the choreographer, had created what seems to be a very quaint baroque dance as part of the curtain call, but towards the end, four performers from “Precious Young Maidens” (which has been set in the 1970s) enter, and the gentle baroque music shifts into a version of “The Hustle,” and the two casts’ choreographies intertwine as the astonished 17th century characters gape at the “mod rockers” crossing their paths.

“Precious Young Maidens” seemed to get even bigger laughs, and through the course of the run of the play, I noticed that the “favorite play” of the evening seemed to shift, as the second night’s audience responded more fully to “Doctor” while the third night (actually a matinee performance) enjoyed “Precious” more.

It was during this afternoon performance that I had my biggest line glitch of the run. I’ve been performing a monologue from “Doctor” for several years now, as a part of “Moliere Than Thou,” and when I do it as part of that show, I assume a crude Czechoslovakian accent. In this show, however, we’re all doing some form of British accent, and every once in a while I find myself in the middle of that monologue hearing echoes of Czechoslovakian coming out of my mouth. On this particular day, I knew that the dialect coach was in the audience, and in the middle of the monologue I suddenly found myself wondering if I hadn’t slipped into Czech. While I was wondering this, I misspoke one of the faux Latin words of the doctor’s “diagnosis,” and had no idea how to get myself back on track. After about ten seconds of dithering (which is an eternity on stage), one of the actors bailed me out with “The ventricles?” It was just enough to jump past the now-problematic Latin, and get me back into the swing.

When we got back into performances on Thursday night, the response was even better than before. I had drilled the lines twice that day, and felt completely in control of each line. This audience preferred “Precious,” and really responded to the “Stop, thief” section which has always been my favorite part of the one-man show.

Monologues that get fabulous response during the one-man show don’t always work when more actors are added to the mix. Suddenly the audience, which formerly only had me to focus on, has to “zoom out” or to “pan” from stage right to stage left, and some of the killer lines become a minor part of a flurry of details.

Friday was slightly off from Thursday’s high. Again, I note that I’d only rehearsed the lines once during the day, and I wasn’t feeling the level of texture and control that I’d realized the night before. Saturday, however, was up again, as squeezing in that second run-through before the performance seemed to spell the difference.

It’s now Sunday morning, and packing awaits. I’ve been “moved in” to this apartment for almost five weeks now, so I’m dreading pulling all this stuff together again. There’s a final matinee performance at 3:00, followed by set strike, cast party and fond goodbyes. Early tomorrow morning I’m flying up to Detroit for Isaac’s birthday, before flying back and working my way to performances in Florida Feb 26-28.

It’s been a very cold winter, as far as the Oklahomans are concerned, though reports of the deep freezes up north have kept me counting my blessings, and it looks like mild temperatures have returned just in time for me to load up the car.

From the “Oklahoman,” February 15, 2007:

Spoof, satire delight audience

NORMAN - A delightful spoof of a doctor who's really a woodcutter, and a heavy-handed satire of two "precious young maidens" fond of the disco lifestyle, were offered in a new University of Oklahoma production.
Called "An Evening of Moliere," the double bill was previewed Feb. 8 at the Rupel Jones Theatre, under the direction of Susan Shaughnessy, with choreography by Jeremy Lindberg, lights by Tyler Coffman and set design by Min Jung Cho.

In the first play, "The Doctor in Spite of Himself," Timothy Mooney and Rachel Kerbs were wonderfully robust and feisty as a woodcutter and his wife who seem to like to abuse each other verbally and physically, as well as the third party who tries to interfere.

Set up by his wife as a reluctant doctor who must be beaten before he will heal people, guest artist Mooney was hilarious in the title role, using fake Latin, body language and exaggerated gestures to con those willing to pay for his medical services.

Kate DuVall had some uproarious moments as a curvaceous nurse who appears to enjoy being examined by the dubious doctor, and Denis Pimm communicated her husband's outrage over the fake physician's attempts to do that and more.

Nearly stealing the show was Chris Baldwin as Geronte, the clueless, doddering master, engaged in a battle of wills with his daughter, Lucinde, portrayed by Marlowe Holden, who pretends to be mute until he allows her to marry the man she really loves.

Admirably filling the later role was Paul Stuart as Leander, who had some of his best comic moments disguised as an apothecary, trying to reveal himself to Lucinde.

Rhyming dialogue, the commedia dell'arte performance style and 17th century costumes designed by Stephanie Orr also made "The Doctor in Spite of Himself" nearly irresistible.

Contrasting nicely with this period piece, but often seeming overstated and simplistic compared to it, was the evening's second offering, "The Precious Young Maidens," adapted by Mooney and updated to Paris during the disco era of the 1970s.

Chase McCurdy brought powerful stage presence as Gorgibus, a man trying to "lay down the law' and arrange favorable marriages for his ditzy daughter and nice.

Sara Rae Foster and Isabel Archuleta managed to seem appropriately empty-headed, frivolously fun-loving and willful as the girls in question, who just want to have a lot more fun before they consider marrying the men chosen for them.

Carried on a litter, clad in a plumed hat and disco attire, Mooney got across the excessive panache of the flamboyant, pseudo-artistic Mascarille, a spurious "Marquis" while Baldwin was almost equally "over-the-top" as a wannabe viscount named Jodelet.

Much less sympathetic were Brad Davidson and Denis Pimm as the preferred suitors, who came across as almost brutal in their treatment of the two young women and the two men of fashion.

At its most charming during the transition between the two one-acts, when disco dancers invaded the space of dancers in period costumes from the time of Moliere, the OU production is well worth attending in its remaining performances.
-John Brandenburg
Photos courtesy Sandra Bent, University of Oklahoma)

From The Norman Transcript, Feb 16, 2007

The wit of his quill brings quite a thrill
By Johnnie-Margaret McConnell

Two plays from the 17th century French playwright Jean Bapiste Poquelin Moliere lighten up the Rupel Jones stage this month.

Guest artist and translator Timothy Mooney stars in OU’s production, An Evening of Moliere in both plays, “The Doctor in Spite of Himslf” and “The Precious Young Maidens.” Mooney leads OU’s young actors, with Susan Shaughnessy’s direction, through the twists and turns etched by Moliere’s pen to spread the humor, often in dagger form. Moliere would have gotten along well with Garrison Keillor.

“The Doctor in Spite of Himself” opens the night with Rachel Kerbs, playing a vengeful wife Martine, and Mooney as the husband Sganarelle. Kerbs and Sganarelle have an excellent banter as Kerbs’ pigtailed, coiled curls bounce directly above her perfectly erect shoulders framing her plastered smile. Abigail to Maritine, Kerbs has turned into this season’s evil wench, but not without good cause.

The cast’s comic physical stunts, known as Commedia dell’Arte, are mirrored by Min Jung Cho’s cartoon-like sets. Completewith side columns, muses and a rising curtain, Cho’s set makes the stage look like a pop-up book with moveable 17th-century characters.

While Sganarelle finds marriage a curse, audience members of all ages (but I would recommend the evening to those whose voice has dropped) are in for a delightful hour of mishaps and misunderstandings at the whim of two women, a wife and a daughter, who understand the real power of control. One always reads Louis XIV’s restructuring of aristocratic society put the women in charge. Moliere helps us understand.

Jeremy Lindberg’s choreography closes out the curtain call to “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” and bridges well to the 1970s feel for the seond play.

Sara Rae Foster holds together the second play, “The Precious Young Maidens,” dressed in her psychedelic pink stretch pants, long-skirted top and teased blond hair. She is excellent as the “dumb” blond seeking adventure with her trusty sidekick Cathos, played by the pint-sized Isabel Archuleta. Foster has springs in her legs that you expect to propel her in her weight go-go boots to the ceiling.

I often found myself awaiting the next character entrance instead of the next line in the evening’s second half. “The Precious Young Maidens,” also running around an hour, is quite a shift in time and delivery from “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” It does bring about more laughs, thanks to its sophomoric innuendos and wacky costumes.

OU’s Evening of Moliere proves great plays are timeless, even if they seem to be confections.

The crowd was dismal at best last weekend, but all who attended laughed a lot and left smiling as they hustled out. I hope this is not connected to Francophobia. The French do know how to have a good time.

I am glad to see that OU’s drama department is upholding its mission to provide quality education regardless of box office return. If art is guided only by the bottom line, Moliere may no longer be a rare experience to enjoy, but the standard.”

Discoveries: Killer monologues for a one-man show don’t always go over for a fully produced play. * Twenty-five years of acting since my days in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (including 7 years of performing Moliere) have transformed my Shakespearean abilities.
Temperature: 52 F
Miles: 215,000
Music: Robbie Williams and CJ Chenier
Next performance: February 26-27: Ocala, FL

No comments: