Friday, November 5, 2010

Master Thespian

When I was at the University of Idaho earning my bachelor's degree, the wife of a friend convinced me to participate in a community production of "Beauty and the Beast of Loreland." She had a particular part in mind for me and sought to take advantage of my tremendous bulk to play the part of the jailer, who was supposed to be a menacing, if only briefly seen, minor character in the Beast's household.

As the friend's wife was the director, she directed us. The direction I heard most often was this: "You're supposed to be a jailer, yet you're walking like a ballerina. I want to see some stomping."

So I stomped with wanton abandon and had to be told to draw it in.

That was my first and last experience with community theater, though I had a narrow escape shortly after I got married and my wife got sucked into a production of "The Good, the Bad, and the Broccoli."

So I understand how Wolcott Gibbs felt as he retold the tale of his first appearance in a play as a very young man playing Puck in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He got directions from the director as well:

Our director was a man who had strong opinions about how Shakespeare should be played, and Puck was one of his favorite characters. It was his theory that Puck, being "the incarnation of mischief," never ought to be still a minute, so I had been coached to bound onto the stage, and once there to dance up and down, cocking my head and waving my arms.

"I want you to be a little whirlwind," the man said.

However, the director neglected to remember that Puck's costume included a large number of bells. Wolcott goes on:

To a blind man, it must have sounded as thought I had recklessly decided to accompany myself on a xylophone. A maturer actor would probably have made up his mind that an emergency existed, and abandoned his gestures as impracticable under the circumstances. I was thirteen, and incapable of innovations. I had been told by responsible authorities that gestures went with this part, and I continue to make them. I also continued to ring -- a silvery music, festive and horrible.

Oh, Wolcott knows kids, at least the kind of milquetoast kid I was: I, too, remember countless times being told to do something and doing it, even though the results weren't as expected. I was also incapable of innovation.

The bells went on to cause mayhem, as they distracted the other actors:

All this had a very bad effect on the fairy, who by this time had many symptoms of a complete nervous colapse. However, he began his next speech:

"Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are you not he
That . . .

At this point I forgot that the rules had been changed and I was supposed to leave out the gestures. There was a furious jingling, and the fairy gulped.

"Are you not he that, that . . . "

He looked miserably at the wings, and the director supplied the next line, but the tumult was too much for him. The unhappy child simply shook his head.

"Say anything!" shouted the director desperately. "Anything at all!"

The fairy only shut his eyes and shuddered.

"All right!" shouted the director desperately. "All right, Puck. You begin your next speech."

By some miracle, I actually did remember my next lines, and had opened my mouth to begin on them when suddenly the fairy spoke. His voice was a high, thin monotone, and there seemed to be madness in it, but it was perfectly clear.

"Fourscore and seven years ago," he began, "our father brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived. . . "

He said it right through to the end, and it was certainly the most successful speech ever made on any stage. I don't remember if I over knew, how the rest of us ever picked up the dull, normal thread of the play after that extraordinary performance, but we must have, because I know it went on. I only remember that in the next intermission the director cut off my bells with his penknife, and after that things quieted down and got dull.

Oh yeah. I can see that happening. That's exactly why I stay out of the theater. And it's the kind of acting brilliance that Master Thespian would appreciate. Probably something along the lines of this:

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