SEPTEMBER 8, 2003: Much like the wolf in that Warner Brothers cartoon, the author takes to the stage in a play by the immortal Bard. To be orrrrr not to be. Splat!
TWO BOARDS AND A PASSION
The call came unexpectedly. A director was doing Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor," had lost an actor and gotten my name from a mutual friend. I met him at a Blimpie's midtown. He had long, scraggly hair -- as it was in the 1960s, I imagined, except very grey now -- topped with a ratty cowboy hat, and wore greasy horn-rimmed spactacles, a threadbare t-shirt and musty jeans. He looked like an English professor who had just got out of the drunk tank.
We bought Snapples and I read him a few lines. "You have the chops for this," he said. I beamed. I would play Abraham Slender. We would open in three weeks, and play the show for two.
I ran home and hauled down my Yale Shakespeare. Slender was supposed to be younger and thinner than I could convey, but I began inventing explanations for a Slender of advanced age and girth. I laughed at myself for this, because it reminded me of the actor's natural capacity for self-justification. This was a distant memory -- it had been years since I had appeared as an actor on any stage -- but it came back swift and strong, as if it had been waiting close by for its cue.
Swift and strong too came the memory of first rehearsals -- especially the sudden fear of finding myself outclassed, because actors (and now I was very surprised at the speed at which these recollections re-collected) enter new productions like orphans joining a foster family, their ears raised for any sign of acceptance or rejection.
We met at a West Village apartment, cluttered with books, ratty furniture, and actors even older than myself. My compatriot in much of the play, Shallow, was in his seventies, and Mistress Quickly could not have been far behind. Mrs. Ford was a deep-voiced chain smoker whose laugh resembled a cough. I was relieved when Fenton and Anne Page showed up -- they were in their twenties. Falstaff was a white-haired, mustached trouper with a great rumbling voice and the bearing of an old colonel, and this was reassuring too because Falstaff has hundreds of lines and one would hope to have the great tent under which we were all now gathered pitched upon so sturdy a pole.
I read, I received blocking, I took direction. "Slender really wants Anne Page," the director corrected my diffident reading. "Once he actually sees her, he's smitten." Though this should have been in physical reality an easy thing to act -- our Anne would have smitten any straight man to the pavement -- I felt challenged and perplexed, because it just wasn't my idea. That feeling, too, was familiar. I pored over my lines in the subway home, struggling to move the cinder block of my interpretation more the director's way.
We started rehearsing in the theatre, an ill-tended outdoor space midtown, hemmed by a couple of buildings and brick walls. We marched, books in hand, across a fifteen-foot square, one-foot-high box of plywood, and entered and exited through a hole in a wooden background painted a mottled, stonelike grey and draped with filthy bolts of velvet fabric. Sirens, motorcycle roars, and practicing saxophone players punctuated our readings. We learned that Bardolph had quit, and then that we had another. Then Sir Hugh Evans quit. Sir Hugh is rather a large role. "If he had just told he didn't want to do it, I would have understood," said the director with a hint of professional frost in his voice. "But he said he was depressed." "Maybe he was depressed by this production," muttered an actor out of his earshot. We then had two weeks till opening night.
In came a new Sir Hugh. He was small and old and stooped, though dapper in his light jacket, open-necked dress shirt, and loose-fitting trousers, and cheerful in manner (good for the role, I noted hopefully). His only apparent problem at that time was that he couldn't move very fast. When crowd scenes involving him dispersed, he would exit several beats behind the rest of us, carefully lifting his legs as if he were walking on flypaper.
His dueling scene with Dr. Caius made me nervous. Caius was a tall, middle-aged Frenchman who might be described as of the "raw" school of acting, in several senses. He was an accredited psychiatrist who had recently decided to act, and seemed to regard this as an extension of the therapeutic experience; the new Bardolph told me that in an acting class they both attended, Caius had, in the course of an exercise, ripped all his clothes off and wept piteously. (When next the class did this exercise and it was Caius' turn to perform, the other students spontaneously got up and walked out of the room.) In rehearsal he had that intensely concentrated expression associated only with migraine headache sufferers and Method actors. When Caius, stripped (as was his custom) to the waist, began to ferociously duel with Sir Hugh, there was a general terror that the old man, still holding a script in one hand while timidly wafting a sword with the other, would be felled by a misplaced blow, or heat stroke. We were happy for his sake that the scene slowed to a crawl, sparing his life. Still, it looked pretty silly. "Well," reasoned the director, "Neither of these guys really wants to fight." And so, not for the first time in theatre history, a fresh interpretation came to the defense of actors.
When we went off book, most of us had trouble with our lines. But some appeared not to know any of them, or even, to my horror, to have read the play. Mistress Quickly would emit a line, then shake her head as if trying the jostle the next one out of her skull and into her mouth. The latecomer Sir Hugh contunued to hold book, and still had trouble getting lines out. His stammering seemed at first a charming character affectation, but over time became unnerving to those of us who had to act with him.
Blocking got rearranged. Every so often the director would stand up in the middle of a scene and advance upon his actors. "Ah," he would shout, and they would freeze and look around uncertainly. His chin would dip to his fingers. "Ah," he would repeat. He would nod his head. Finally, deeply: "Ah." And he would explain why an entrance had to come from a different side, or why an actor should be standing rather than seated. His explanations were cogent and sometimes scholarly, but I worried that they came about a week before opening.
The actors started to steel themselves for a production that had begun to feel, for want of a better word, unfortunate. Everyone had his or her own technique. Master Page, with the easy manner of a stage veteran, drawled, "You just have to have fun with it, it is what it is." Sound advice. Young Fenton kept up a running stream of mild insults, insolent impersonations, and show tunes. The Host of the Garter, a burly gent from Jersey who spent half his offstage time working his datebook and cell phone in support of his children's party business, grew sullen and brooded in corners. Sometimes he would ask, of no one in particular, why he hadn't quit when he had the chance.
But of course any of us could have quit. Who would blame us? Most of us had evaded bill collectors' calls, I am sure (actors are generally broke and we were not, in that regard, exceptional) and we could certainly evade our director's. But we stuck. Actors are traditionally loyal to the show-must-go-on code. This is partly, I think, because stage productions are built around the will of the director, and whatever we thought about ours, we were yet squeamish at defying his parental authority. Another reason, of course, was that, if we quit, we wouldn't get to act. You know the old joke about the guy who cleans up after the elephants -- "what, and give up show business?" It's not a joke.
We finally got to run-throughs of the entire play. The sight of the formless mass we had wrought depressed us all. Scenes that should have risen and floated like balloons proceeded with excruciating slowness and deliberation. The grounds crew at Shea Stadium could have dragged their tarpaulin through the gaps we left between cues. I stepped up my attack on the lines, sometimes running right over those spoken by other actors. Mrs. Ford, the rest of us noted with alarm, had yet to surrender her script. Nor had Sir Hugh, stammering still. His duelling scene remained slow-mo. Several of us were onstage as spectators to this "duel," and I sensed a general confusion as to what response might be appropriate -- contemptuous laughter could have worked, I guess, but none of us were that bold, and so we just looked on with mild interest, as if observing two guys in a subway car arguing loudly about the Yankees.
Opening night was delayed by the blackout. No one showed up for the second performance, so we rehearsed. Mrs. Page was finally off book but Sir Hugh still read from his tattered script. I suggested he paste its pages into the Bible his character always had with him. Why carry two books? "Oh," said Sir Hugh, smiling sweetly, "Don't worry, I'm working on it. Tomorrow I'll go out to my friend's place in Park Slope where I can concentrate." And tucked into a folding chair with the fingers of one hand splayed across his forehead, he stared at the script and muttered to himself.
Our first performance with an audience lumbered like a diseased elephant caught in jungle vines. It ran three hours. Three hours! There has never been a three-hour comedy in the history of Western drama. In the first scene -- mostly involving Shallow, Sir Hugh, and myself -- Shallow and I, attempting to juice the production, roared our lines as if barking orders during an air raid, but when Sir Hugh, his fingers still feebly clamping his script atop his Bible, essayed to speak, his focus wavering uncertainly between the text and ourselves, his voice a querulous, distracted yammer, time stood stock fucking still. My own focus strayed, too, from the situation we were supposed to be enacting to a fantasy of myself grabbing Sir Hugh violently by the shoulders and shaking him till his head snapped, screaming HURRY UP! HURRY UP! YOU BRAIN-DAMAGED OLD FOOL!
By my count, each hour of the play yielded one-and-a-half audible laughs. In downtime between my scenes I stood offstage and observed the audience, uncomfortably perched on their bench seats; they jiggled their legs, thumbed through their programs, and whispered to one another. We were bombing.
To my horror, people I'd told about the production showed up to watch it. The younger ones seemed to accept our incompetent display as some unfamiliar and abstruse ritual, like bunraku or Javanese shadow-puppet plays, that they were culturally unequipped to judge. When I complained, hunched over a post-performance beer, of Mistress Quickly's aphasia, one such friend said, "But I thought she was supposed to act like that." At that moment I felt less embarrassed for myself and more embarrassed for Shakespeare.
There were a few days off before the second spate of performances, and when we returned most of us were more or less resigned to the debacle. By then we had a better idea of the sequence of scenes -- previously we had been too panicked about our own little pieces of the production to attend to what came between -- and relaxed, when not on stage, in the foul, musty basement dressing-rooms, which were at least cooler than the performance area. (We grew so relaxed that one night Fenton and Anne Page missed a cue, causing a two-minute interval of empty stage.)
We chatted pleasantly, collegially, told jokes and old theatre stories. I found out more about the people I'd been working with. Master Page had once written a regular home improvement column for the Times. Master Ford wrote for a paper in Jersey. Shallow had a degree in Classical Literature and, though raised Catholic, told terrific, ribald Jewish jokes. (Sample punchline: "You vant bread on the table? Schtup a baker!") Anne Page lived near Kennedy Airport and slept poorly. Falstaff did a cabaret act with his wife.
Sir Hugh still sat folded over in his chair, murmurring into his script. But one night I came out for our first scene astonished to see no second text clamped to his Bible. Sir Hugh was off book! I practically recoiled when he sang out his first lines, clear and strong. He still botched cues, but what of that? Sir Hugh seemed quite pleased. Our production had been a great opportunity for him to learn a major Shakespearean role, and if this belated achievement little benefited our production, well, that, as they say, is show biz.
The last night was a relief, and in my relief I was able to savor all the little things we'd been doing on that plywood stage (the boards, they used to call it; "the theatre," said Lope de Vega, "is two boards and a passion") that we would never do again. Like the fine spray of spit, for example, I could not help emitting when I cried, "Dispatch'd!" and which made Master Page, a foot from my face, draw back and wince. The many ripe Falstaff lines that our own fat knight (plumped up in a by-now foul and sweat-stained band of cotton padding under his clothes) read rather beautifully, I now judged, into the cooling late August night -- "Divide me like a bribe buck!" and "I would the whole world were cozened" and "I do perceive I am made an ass." Lovely lines, Shakespeare well said, a pleasure under any circumstance, as were all the voices, the good, interesting voices (we were all good actors, I judged, unpropitious as our situation had been) that crooned, clucked, hissed and gargled these words that, I now knew, I would miss and perhaps even remember, whenever I remembered them, just as they had been spoken here this night.
I recall again -- what did I call it? -- "the actor's natural capacity for self-justification." Well, so do we all recall any endeavor, however unsuccessful, that for a while lifts us out of the base chatter and aimless movement that fills our everyday lives. It is something, Washington Irving said upon visting the Bard's grave, to see the dust of Shakespeare. Maybe we had ground Shakespeare into dust, but still it was something.
Do you know someone who does good headshots cheap?