THERE ARE BIG TALL TERRIBLE AWESOME SCARY WONDERFUL GIANTS ON THE STAGE
“I, Rooster John Byron, hereby place a curse
Upon the Kennet and Avon Council,
May they wander the land for ever,
Never sleep twice in the same bed,
Never drink water from the same well,
And never cross the same river twice in a year.
He who steps in my blood, may it stick to them
Like hot oil. May it scorch them for life,
And may the heat dry up their souls,
And may they be filled with the melancholy
Wine won’t shift. And all their newborn babies
Be born mangled, with the same marks,
The same wounds of their fathers.
Any uniform which brushes a single leaf of this wood
Is cursed, and he who wears it this St George’s Day,
May he not see the next.”
— Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem)
Once upon a time when I was nine, I woke up and found myself on the stage of a gorgeous old theater acting in my first full-length play, a tragedy. I was playing a pumpkin, who, in one soliloquy after the other heartbreakingly laments the dreaded and terrifying fate that will befall him on All Hallows Eve:
(Curtain up on Gary, age 9, standing center stage wearing a large pumpkin head and a burlap sack. The sack is hot, itchy and smells fire-treated.)
GARY THE PUMPKIN
(short long, short long, short long, short long, short long)
“Oh why, oh why, oh why, must I, be snatched
From my mother’s nice soft and comfy patch.
The top of my round head so sharply cut,
My seeds scooped out and roasted like a nut.
My fine orange face carved-up and crudely hacked,
Changing my name from Gourd to Irish Jack…” etc.
A fourth grader speaking that speech today would undoubtedly scatter a few “f-bombs” amid the verse. Not unlike one of those poorly animated cartoon characters on that ridiculously successful cable show that finds the modern family huddled around the iPad each and every night to laugh at the anti-Semitic fat kid mommy loves to imitate.
The play was entitled, “Oh, Lantern!”, or something like that. And it was right then and there, at the ripe old age of Kyle Broflovski, that I learned the importance of being earnest regarding craft. Specifically, the success or failure of any theatrical monologue depends first and foremost on the audiences ability to hear you. Especially from the last row of folding chairs that make Grandpa’s hemorrhoids flare-up unless he brings his foam rubber donut to sit on. Or, in the case of my theatrical debut, heard through a forty-pound divers helmet type mask constructed of Plaster of Paris and coated with an orange spray paint that if used today would be cause for the arrest and conviction of my fourth grade drama teacher.
I also learned many other valuable acting lessons during that long play’s journey into night. For example, static movement is just as powerful at displaying human emotion as are long wordy speeches. Just think about the first time you witnessed a first grader make an entrance, look at the audience, freeze, and wet her pants. Nothing says terror like that all too familiar ‘poor-dear-in-the-footlights’ stare that is usually underscored by the sound of urine dripping on a brand-new pair of Mary Jane’s.
I performed this perfunctorily poetic piece of pumpkin ‘pieambic’ pentameter in an old proscenium palace that could very likely have been designed by Julia Morgan. Sadly, as with most of the gorgeous old pre-war schools in my hometown of Earthquake-USA, they tore it down in favor of building a school with a more, ‘Bauhaus-meets-maximum-security-prison’ style architecture.
Over the years I’ve learned that some theaters have a proscenium and some do not. Some are environmental spaces where the audience is actually mixed-in with the play. Like meticulously placed pylons the actors must navigate through us and often times we look at them and they treat us as if we aren’t there because to them, unless it’s an evening of Epic Theatre, we aren’t. On the other hand, if the director is going for something slightly more ‘Brechtian’, the members of the cast might be milling about the space in period costumes and chatting us up in a foreign dialect indicative of the world we are about to bear witness to, and that’s always a bonus especially if there’s a bar nearby. And speaking of ‘Pub Theaters’, some troupes are installed above noisy watering holes or in converted old restaurants and/or factories where one could easily find themselves sitting on a bench-seat from an old Ford truck as if to suggest, we are all passengers on this alchemical adventure through the collective subconscious. Whatever the preamble, I feel it is all done to welcome me to my sacred place of worship: The Theater — my home.
Once when I entered a plush old house of worship in San Francisco, a theater god dressed all in black was standing at the back of the orchestra section. He was invisible to most of us yet I sensed his presence even before I looked up to see the idol there before me. This had to be twenty-five years ago so I doubt he would be able to get away with this today. At least not without several members of the flock breaking his preshow focus for an iPhone snap with Gandalf. Yet, there he was waiting patiently for us to get to our seats before he walked up on stage to give virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Granted, over the years the acting barre in this country has been placed lower than a limbo pole at a drunken beach party on the Jersey shore, but never the less, there he was, giving us ‘pitch-perfect-text-book-proof’ that the perennial need for a direct and significant imitation of human life and action which can be played as music is played was alive and well and living in Sir Ian McKellen.
My most recent sojourn behind the sacred wailing walls of the theater in search of enlightenment was too many Tuesdays ago and ironically enough, I was attending a play entitled, Jerusalem, at Temple Beth Music Box, in the land of broken ‘promises-promises’ called, Broadway. As I settled in to the seat that felt fine and familiar, not too small and with plenty of legroom, I immediately spotted the non-believers twisting and turning, huffing and puffing, as they jockeyed for elbowroom on the armrests they would be sharing for the next three acts. I didn’t mind their discomfort or their territorial concerns. I didn’t mind that they used their smart phones to program their DVR’s. I didn’t even mind that the young couple in front of me — still miffed “The Book of Mormon was SO totally not on the board at TKTS!” — put on colored glasses from their previous night’s movie viewing and mocked, “Is this play in 3D? (Snort! snort!)” While the other added, “What, no drink holders? (Guffaw!)” I am completely relaxed, ready to receive the word that is Jez Butterworth’s; queued to witness the direction that is Ian Rickson’s — and I have a really cool buzz on the back of my neck.
As my eyes pan from left to right processing everything the theater gods are intending me to see, I notice the audience is sprinkled with many A-List movie “actors” who the couple in front of me — still donning their 3D glasses — are frantically trying to remember by looking-up on their hand-held devices. Thankfully, this reassures the rest of us in the theater that those two seats in row F will remain an internet hot spot for the remainder of the evening.
More often than not I pass the time before curtain wagging my coiled Playbill like a contented baby strapped in his child-safety seat gently shakes his rattle as he calmly awaits the “go-for-a-ride-in-the-car-car” phenomenon. Sometimes there is a main drape masking the stage. Sometimes there is a gigantic drop with something painted or projected on it giving us valuable clues regarding that particular night’s dream. Sometimes there is nothing at all and I’m immediately allowed access to the stage to consider the technical artistry that creates the illusion and that’s one of my favorite parts, too. Suffice it to say, when I walk in to a theater — any theater — I’m not hungry, thirsty, tired, or concerned about the outside world. My blood pressure drops to the level of an opium sozzled monk. I am at peace.
I’ve experienced a few other actors effectively hold the mirror up to nature since witnessing Mr. McKellen control the stage with nothing more than he, himself, and thy in his tour de force, Acting Shakespeare, but none so far have come close to the one-hundred-and-eighty-minutes spent with the gift that is, Mark Rylance. His portrayal of Mr. Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the broken man with mystical powers who tells fantastical tales about fairies and a Giant he met who built Stonehenge — for me — was beyond craft, beyond art, beyond charisma. He was like one of those acting savants I’ve read about who inspired Stanislavski to study and interview, and then write his coveted tome of recipes for creating delicious characters to be savored — not just with the senses —but with the soul.
Now it’s time for all my Atheist friends out there to ask, “What’s a soul?” Well, as an ex-Catholic force fed hypocrisies on Sundays, like toxic fish sticks on Fridays — I am more than qualified to answer this question: A “soul”, according to my second grade religion teacher, Sister Mary Kiran, is the shading she made with chalk around the stick figure of the pumpkin headed Catholic schoolboy she drew on the black board when he asked her that very same question. But that’s another blog and potentially the makings of another theatre franchise about singing and dancing Nuns. Regarding the religious experience witnessing the aforementioned spiritual performance of Mark Rylance: Nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the Priests nor the Scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself, understand what that kind of power is. And speaking of JC, I have it on good authority from some of my crazy Jesuit friends that if Jesus were around today He’d definitely have gone to see the play, Jerusalem, along with the rest of the Superstars who were in attendance, and he’d probably feel compelled to write about it in his theatre blog, too:
(Lights up. We see Jesus wrapping up his Blog of run on sentences that go on ad nauseam about the play, Jerusalem, specifically, Mark Rylance’s performance.)
(Speaking as he writes which suggests he may also be recording a “Godcast”.)
… so to summarize, Mr. Butterworth’s allegory is the perfect metaphor for the absurd and senseless bloodbath which has been happening on my old stomping grounds long before I was born and is showing no signs of a peaceful resolution anytime soon. And can you believe all of this bad behavior is over a little bit of earth? Sounds like those boys need some serious Drama Therapy. And with that, I’m going to wrap up this little diatribe by wishing you all a Happy Saint Genesius Day, which is a perfect day to go out and see some theatre/theater. The bad news is, ‘If you live in New York and you missed Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, you’re a ‘Deity late and a Dali Llama short’ because that Show Boat has sailed. Now, I don’t mean to beat a dead war horse — but Mr. Rylance’s performance on the stage made that little soft shoe I did on the water look like a second-rate river rafting trick. Dad darn him — I wanna tell you, it was some enchanted evening, Folks! Mom and I were sitting with Pacino and half way through the second act, Al, leans over to me and whispers, “Jesus Christ, what this Rylance guy does with just a cigarette lighter is better than anything I’ve EVER seen Hoffman do and that includes acting!” (sound effect: RIM SHOT!) Which reminds me of another classic joke about old guys with beards who like to whisper in my ear: Once upon a time, Leo Da Vinci, was at a gala to raise funds to retrofit a gorgeous old theater in ROME and some big Opera Buffa patron walks up to him and asks, “Mr. Da Vinci, I’m curious about something, what is it that you feel the Apostle Paul…or is it John…or is it Ringo…at any rate, what is it that you feel he is whispering to Jesus in your painting of The Last Supper?” And without missing a beat, Leo cups his upstage hand to his mouth and in his loudest stage whisper says, “Sure, You gave us a helluva show tonight, but can You do it eight times a week?!”
Blog In Peace…
St. Genesius is the patron saint of actors, attorneys, barristers, clowns, comedians, comics, converts, dancers, epileptics, lawyers, musicians, printers, stenographers, and torture victims. His feast day is 25 August.