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Archive for October, 2007

Before our show in Westchester, we had what amounted to a day and a half in the area, which almost all of us used to go into the city. I visited briefly at different times with my good friends Emily, Alex, and Stephanie, and had a truly lovely time with each of them; the wonderful Dan Kennedy also joined me on a couple of occasions. (In my fantasies of ‘Piercing Eloquence Visits New York’ I wanted to see a few more friends, but one can only do so much with a day and a half.) Stephanie has a brief but quite amusing and quite accurate account of our Chinatown brunch on her blog.

I also saw a couple of plays on Broadway, which translates to about one-eighth of my month’s salary. And that was getting a half-price ‘student rush’ ticket (God bless Boston University for not putting an expiration date on my I.D.) for Pygmalion, and my lovely friend Alex Savronsky getting me a discounted ticket for Cyrano, as he is in the cast. (You know what that means: I am now only one degree away from Kevin Kline. This is an even more momentous event to being one degree away from John Cleese, thanks to Lewis who is currently filming Pink Panther Deux, and almost as momentous as being no-degrees away from Jason Isaacs. That’s right. I may be no one, but my friends are famous.)

Both of these shows were in their previews; I was actually fortunate enough to be part of Cyrano’s very first paying audiences. Despite the fact that I saw Cyrano from the second-to-last row in the upper balcony and Pygmalion from row eight in the orchestra, I had a much better experience seeing Cyrano. This was also no thanks to the people surrounding me, as the woman behind me literally said, at intermission, “So I have no idea what’s going on except for that there’s this guy named Sergio. I don’t know what the chick’s name is.” Can you not, I thought, read the front of your program? Or the marquee? Or are you expecting someone named Kiren-o to suddenly show up in the second act? I would love to believe that she was joking, but her friend replied, in all earnestness, “Yeah, I liked The Lion King better. There was always something to look at.”

But I wept through the entire last scene. I was gripped with the apprehension that it is impossible to have more pathos in a scene than exists in Cyrano’s closing, and I haemorrhaged tears. I received odd sorts of cringingly sympathetic looks as I was going down to the lobby, and it was only when I had the good fortune to go to the ladies’ room that I remembered I was wearing non-waterproof mascara that day and thus my cheeks were striped like a zebra.

Kevin Kline was, of course, brilliant; as I can only imagine that he received rave reviews on his exit from the womb, this statement contains about as much new information as ‘The earth travels around the sun.’ I had the good fortune to see him as Falstaff in Henry IV Condensed at Lincoln Center a few years ago, so I was fully prepared for his brilliance. But, though I certainly knew of her, I had never seen Jennifer Garner before (in anything…why yes, I do live in a box), so I was completely bowled over. She had a gorgeous synthesis of body and text and voice, which carried her emotions so well that I, in row 289, was able to feel them. That’s amazing, especially from someone who is also such a successful film actor—though Alex tells me that she was originally a classical actress before someone said, “Hey, how would you like to be famous?” At least, that is how the fantasy continues to run in our poor little classical actor minds.

To sum up: Jennifer Garner wins the Ellen’s Weekend of Broadway Theatre Film Star On Stage Award, beating out Claire Danes in Pygmalion. I thought Claire Danes was quite good most of the time (the very difficult Eliza Breaks Down After the Party scene wasn’t quite as good), but I was fundamentally unmoved. Jefferson Mays as Henry Higgins was also excellent, as was Jay O. Sanders as Doolittle. Sandra Shipley played Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, who, because she graces the Boston area occasionally, thus enabled me to say to Dan and Chris (my theatre dates that evening), “Hey, I lost an award to that woman!” (I may be no one, but I have lost awards to people who are famous.) To be quite fair to Miss Danes and the entire production of Pygmalion, as if they had any care for my opinion whatsoever, I am most certainly a tougher critic on the play as I played Eliza myself a couple of years ago. Which is not to say I think I did it better, by any means, but I’ve simply a great deal of Opinions about how it ought to be done. And honestly, as much as I admired Jefferson Mays, I rather missed my dear Kevin Ashworth’s Henry, and preferred it on a number of counts. It may simply be that we have an affection for our OWN version of the play, which, because we once accepted it as the ultimate reality for that text, is difficult to dislodge.

For this reason, my illustration to this weekend of star-studded casts is a picture of Kevin Ashworth and unfamous me in Pygmalion, from just about three years ago. (I may be no one, but I run this blog.) It’s mostly because I love this picture; I think it speaks volumes about the Eliza-Higgins relationship. I especially love how Kevin is kind of flinching.

I won't go near the king, not if I'm going to have me head cut off!

If I could have seen one more thing on Broadway, it would have been Mauritius, so that I could officially slag them off for not hiring Michael Aronov. No, I don’t know the man, but he made that brilliant play more brilliant, and I can’t imagine any one giving it the mixed reviews it’s been getting if they saw him leap half the length of the entire stage saying (and here I paraphrase) “How about we talk about the STAMPS!” It was one of those Finest Moments of Theatre, Shakespearean or Otherwise, That I Have Ever Witnessed. Had I been wearing non-waterproof mascara, I would have been a herd of zebras from the amount of tears that I shed, I was laughing so hard.

Valhalla, New York, October 13:

On Saturday, we moved to Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway for our own performance of Merchant of Venice. It seemed like one of our sparser audiences yet; the sixty or so audience members who attended may not have looked as dwarfed in other spaces, but as the auditorium was vaguely reminiscent of an IMAX theatre, I think everyone, actors and audience alike, felt swamped in space.

But sometimes I feel freed by a small audience, and feel a greater devotion to the play itself, for its own sake. For example, I think the best performance of A Doll’s House I ever gave was for about six people. I’m not sure I could call this performance of Merchant the best, if only because I could tell that it was not the best show for a few of the other actors, and I think the excellence of our whole ensemble is integral to the excellence of any single person’s performance, because that is when we are listening the best, and most strongly attempting to communicate. At least, I know that I admire my troupe members so greatly, that I know I must be better when I am striving to match their fire.

But all this being said, I had an absolutely revelatory show. It may not have even appeared very different, from the outside, but there was, within me, an utter fullness of consciousness, or perhaps an utter voiding of my own self. I felt a wholeness through a marriage of my intention and the space: the entirety of the world and my mind, which had become like a deep bay, with my own life its faint, insignificant, bottom. There is much more to it, but it is extraordinarily difficult to explain, a difficulty compounded by a wilfully uncommunicative strain in my thoughts. Perhaps I will feel free to talk more about it after the long run of these plays are over, or perhaps I never will. I apologise if it seems odd to have ‘confessions’ in which I will not make confessions, but it would seem a dishonesty not to mention it at all, and a violation to make a full disclosure. Chalk it up to my bizarre nineteenth-century mind, if you will, be it an overly Romantic spirituality or an overly Victorian prudence. If I were greater, or if, indeed, I thought I had any worth at all, I would share it. But I am nothing, and it is not mine: what is mine, is not mine. I have made a kind of promise of reticence, which, if I were to break, might spoil the most precious jewel of my days.

One certainly delightful element of this performance was that we were joined by Ginna’s boyfriend Sheffield. He himself has been in Merchant of Venice a couple of times, once as Gratiano and once (I believe) as Salerio, which meant that when Evan picked him to be Sir Oracle, he spoke the line with Evan, “I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips let no dog bark.” THAT doesn’t happen every day! I also indicated Sheffield on the “If thou wert near a lewd interpreter” line, as Ginna correctly asserted afterwards, he was probably the only audience member ever to get the joke.

Also exciting was the fact that our Off-Off-Off-Off-&c. Broadway run was also our brush with Hollywood, as we were joined by a couple of lovely people (one of whom is the daughter of ASC’s Executive director) who were filming us, in the interest of proposing a kind of touring theatre reality television show. This will no doubt please my grandmother, who, not two weeks before, when she came to see Merchant in Baltimore, was insisting that someone really ought to make a television show about touring theatre. “Or this could really be a book. You should write a book about it,” she said to me, at least twice. I did not say “A book! Hey, who needs a book when you got blog posts the size of these?” because I am not a) a stand-up comedian, b) a New Yorker, c) a New Yorker stand-up comedian, or d) Paul Reisman. Also e) I had not started writing Bardolatry and Peace for each blog entry at that point.

But a few people were interviewed, and they got dramatic shots of us trying to figure out where to set the tables and fixing Alisa’s Star of David necklace. I hope we gave them useful clips, though I cannot help but think that we were not quite as dramatic as one expects we might be, in theory. No one really hates each other (to my knowledge), and no one is secretly making out (also to my knowledge…though perhaps if it’s ‘secret,’ I wouldn’t be aware of it, by its very nature). I walked around feeling as though I wanted to help their filmic efforts, whilst also being really glad, personally, that I am not on a reality television show. I think I missed out on that desire, when they were passing it around. It was probably because, whilst all the twenty-first-century babies were lining up to be born, I was dawdling about in the nineteenth century collecting preferences for really long-winded prose.

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So I was trying for a very long time to figure out some way in which I could relate today’s haze of Red-Sox-related joy to the actual Bardolatrous subject of this blog. I noted last night, whilst watching the post-game blather, that one of the owners (I forget who) referred to the team as a “band of brothers” and I thought in passing about people quoting Shakespeare without even really being aware that they’re quoting Shakespeare, but really, I cannot be false and try to pretend that’s really what’s on my mind, simply because it happens to be pertinent.

  In fact, I am seeking vent for my excitement because I spent eight hours in a van today when I wanted to be doing the Papelbon dance. And because yesterday, when the game ended, I was Riverdancing all by myself in the basement of a host home in Canton, NY, trying not to make any noise as everyone else in the house was asleep. And even when I had watched games in the student center, I was generally one of the last people there. Granted, perhaps this was because I had frightened the college students by wincing and shouting, for I have a hard time being anything but an active audience member; nevertheless, part of me kept thinking, ‘Are you really telling me I’m more interested in the playoffs and the Series than a full campus of college boys?’

 And in fact, I knew I would miss my friends, and I knew I would miss the theatre community in Boston, but I had no idea how much I would miss little old Boston itself. I loved it, surely, but I underrated how much it had begun to feel like my own, and how much I had felt that I belonged to it. Now, in my dreams, my fairy godmother whisks me off to Boston, just for today, and everyone is smiling at everyone else on the T, and exchanging banter at Dunkin’ Donuts, and lightheartedly bashing the Yankees, and I walk around the streets, watching Boston being Boston. Whilst many would claim this vision of Boston to be an improbable fiction, I know that sporting victories make tight little communities out of big cities, and TODAY, the only part about this fantasy that is false is the existence of my fairy godmother.

(Also false is the fact that, the existence of a fairy godmother presupposed, I’d spend my whole wish on just going to Boston.  As long as magic is involved, I think I’d be asking for an actual baseball player.) 

But seriously, in the end, I suppose this is somewhat pertinent to the topic of touring, if not Mr. Shakespeare himself, for I’ve found that there is nothing like a state of homelessness (though not ‘houselessness’) to make me realise that I once had a home. There is nothing like loss of identity to make one grasp at identity, which is why Americans often put such store into their roots, saying, ‘I’m Irish,’ or ‘I’m Italian,’ or ‘I’m Greek,’ and why I, feeling that I have cast off almost everything that I recognise as myself, think hopefully, ‘Yes, that’s me, Boston is my town.’

Because even though I’m so close—we’re only in Connecticut—I feel like I’m hearing of the world’s goings-on as if from orbit, a kind of space station of hotel rooms. But you can bet that I’m doing the Cinco Ocho Jig and the Youk Running Man in zero gravity.

 Oh, and the title of the post is in iambic pentatmeter. I thought that, at least, might tie things together.

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As your friendly neighborhood Shakespeare Nerd, it is my duty to wish you a Happy St. Crispin’s Day! Ironically, we have the day off, and won’t be doing Henry the Fifth until Saturday. Nevertheless, this is the closest I’ve yet come to my lifelong dream of being in a production of Henry on October 25th. In the Ellen’s-Head-Cam, that amusing part of my brain that makes hypothetical situations into miniature movies, the whole cast, and possibly the angels in heaven, chime in at key moments, to emphasise the timeliness:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

 And what about:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d!

And then everyone would shudder with the apprehension of the truth in the text, that we are remembering it 600 years later, the way I get chills whenever I see Julius Caesar and Cassius says, “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Oh man. It gets me every time.

As it is, I’ll be stripping my sleeve and showing my scars whilst I watch the Red Sox.

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A brief question and answer session, in the earlier tradition, regarding the title:

Q. Do you really intend the bad sound-play pun in the title that I perceive you do?
A. Are we not Shakespearean actors? And does this not hone our fine sensibilities to attempt bawdy jokes on all themes, at all times?
Q. You are answering my questions with more questions again.
A. Neither are you sticking to your interrogative purpose.
Q. Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?
A. No, sir. But I bite my thumb, sir.
Q. You are a nerd.
A. Was there ever any question?

Colchester Vermont, October 10:

World records exist to be broken, and in a similar manner, the second group of highschoolers from Powhattan High School could not remain our best Taming of the Shrew audience for all time, nor could my Weyers Cave Shrew stay forever the best (though I had begun to fear that it might). The breaking of our records differs slightly from that of sports, in so far as we use absolutely NO Shakespearean steroids in an effort to surpass former glories. (Paul’s Grumio has been suspected by authorities, but continually tests as clean.)

Reasons that the show was excellent are as follows:

1. The chief contributing factor was the superlative excellence of the audience; the house was already packed at the beginning of the pre-show, and they were immediately singing and clapping along with us. They were certainly revved up, which made us more excited, which made them more excited, and so on until the end of eternity! Or, at least, the end of the show.

An amazing thing happened in the pre-show: during one of our earlier songs, a man shouted out, “Play some ‘Free Bird’!” This warrants the adjective ‘amazing’ because Scot says that exact thing during the improvised Sly opening of the show, which was to come within the next half hour. Ginna and I exchanged a look of shock and awe, mouthing at each other, “I can’t believe that just happened!” It was as if we were cosmically aligned with this audience.

2. The performance space, which was built as a music hall, had an acoustical wall around the back and sides of the stage, meaning that the centre entrance through the discovery space did not have access to the entrances downstage right and downstage left. So, we set up the pipe-and-drape system along the entire back length of the stage, with centre, upstage left, and upstage right entrances. This was chiefly a problem because there was no access for entrance into the back of the house except via the downstage entrances. So, if you exited to the downstage sides of the stage, you couldn’t enter through the centre, and if you exited through the centre or upstage entrances, you couldn’t enter downstage or through the house. ALL OF THIS COMPLICATION IS TO SAY: we had to alter some blocking.

Why is this good, do you ask? Simply because, in my opinion, it stirs things up, and in a solid show like our Shrew, that’s generally advantageous. A few examples are as follows:

2.a. Chris Johnston had to go to the true backstage area in order to retrieve the mandolin for the Latin/Music Lesson scene, but Raffi and I were of necessity stuck behind the pipe-and-drape backstage area. So, instead of all three of us entering from the discovery space, Hortensio entered separately, which gave Raffi and I the opportunity to construct an entirely new pre-beat for the scene, in which our flirtations were interrupted by Hortensio’s entrance. I’m sure that kind of thing happened for a number of different people, and it simply lends a new flavour to the scene.

2.a.i. An amusing side note to the altered blocking in that scene was that, once he’d exited to the true backstage space in order to get the mandolin, Chris realised that he’d left the Gamut with brightly-coloured hearts in the other pipe-and-drape backstage space. So somehow, in the brief time afforded him, he made a whole new Gamut. What it lacked in blue-and-salmon colour it made up for in the gigantic size of the heart on the front, reading, “The Gamut of Hortensio.” Naturally, receiving it felt very fresh and new, and reading the inside felt doubly fresh and new, as it read:

Gamut I am the ground of all achord
I left the prop backstage, sorry

[several bars of written music]

love love love love love
love love love love love
love love love love love
love love love love love

I have problems reading one set of words and speaking another, so this was what one dubs an Interesting Challenge, when one is trying to be judicious.

2b. I sat in the false backstage, i.e. in the five feet behind the pipe-and-drape system, for the entirety of the show, but there was really nowhere to sit/stand where you couldn’t be seen through one of the curtain flaps during entrances and exits. Still, I made the extraordinarily poor choice of standing precisely at the point where Kate comes barrelling through in I.i. (“I will go sit and weep / ‘Til I can find occaSION OF REVENGE RAAAA”). As I made the realisation that I was in full view of the audience through the curtains that Ginna had just parted, I threw my hands up, uttered a faint “aiee” and scuttled through to the comparative safety of the discovery space. I think I heard a few chuckles from our Supremely Responsive audience, but honestly, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, as Bianca. And it may well be the pre-pre-beat to the scene where she ties me up in my own sash. (Ginna and I have gotten the pre-beat down fairly well. I will not disclose its full glory, but one key element is tickling. Other elements may include “O Christmas Tree,” the machine gun, or the Finger Ninja. These are actual elements. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

3. Chris quietly sang the “L is for the way you look at me” song into my ear during the Wedding scene. This was perfect, as my submerged consciousness found it very amusing but not quite as amusing as “Can you feel the love tonight” during a previous performance, which was so funny that my submerged consciousness almost lost it. And this would have somewhat foiled the look of supreme discomfort that I, as Bianca, am trying to cultivate.

4. There was a whacker noodle left on stage for the final scene, as I’m always praying that there will be, and Bianca’s vaguely lewd gesturing with it on “head and horn” and “draw your bow” was the best I’ve ever managed it.

5. Personally, I strove particularly hard to connect with Bianca’s spirit, and made another breakthrough of the kind at Weyers Cave. This was in part because I realised that I want little more on earth than to achieve that connection, because it has been so elusive. And when I feel it, it absolutely makes the show click. Granted, I think it was a great show for everyone—as Ginna and I came off stage from the Sisterly Bondage scene, she whispered to me, “I think that’s the best it’s ever been!” It certainly was for me:  the difference between shows with and without the spirit (for lack of a better term) is quite striking. I find it all the more awe-inspiring because the vast majority of either parts or performances I’ve had within the last four years or so have been with, rather than without, the spirit, and it is amazing how vacant I feel without it. The subject is touchy, both in and of itself and discourse upon it; I get so nervous and almost superstitious in feeling that I shouldn’t talk about it, and in a way I only feel comfortable speaking about it regards to Shrew because it’s been so difficult, because I know I can technically do the show without it. It is such a precious thing, and I often feel with Shrew that I am a kind of damaged vessel trying to coax in a spirit that cannot be upheld, or that I do not deserve.

This comes too near the absurdity of my self. Therefore no more of it! Hear other things.

Our audience was also excellent in so far as the resident Drama Club held a wee reception for us afterwards, with soda and approximately 13.5 petit fours per person. They were lovely to talk to, and real sweethearts for waiting around whilst we finished what seemed to be the longest load-out ever.

The foyer in which the reception was held featured the following sculpture. (Thanks to Alisa Ledyard, who posted this on Facebook.) It depicts a scene from one of the three plays in the Piercing Eloquence Tour’s season. Guess which one it is before you scroll down below the picture to see! If you don’t guess, and peek, Santa Claus will know.

So if you guessed that the bearded gentleman is Princess Katherine of France, you lose. It is none other than the illustrious Courtroom Scene from The Merchant of Venice. The bottom (not appearing in this photograph) reads, “Is it so nominated in the bond?” As this post is a post of lists, and as many excellent things about this sculpture are not visible in the photograph, here are things I love about this sculpture:

1. Bassanio’s gigantic moustache. It looks like the now-absent and much-missed handlebar that Mr. Daniel Kennedy sported this summer.
2. Antonio looks like a Ken doll. Also he looks really happy to be taking his shirt off. Apparently, now that Bassanio is here, he’s hasn’t a care in the world.
3. Portia’s inane expression. She maybe also looks like a Ken doll, or at the very least the Disney version of Portia. In my mind, as she replies, “It is not so expressed, but what of that?” she sounds kind of like those ‘soothing’  female voices used in elevators, GPS systems, airports, and decades of futuristic movies.
4. The random staircase. What courtroom has a staircase in the middle? And why is Portia going up the staircase? It’s like Shylock is saying, “But soft! What light through yonder forfeit breaks,” and Portia is saying, “That which we call a pound of flesh by any other word would smell as sweet!”

Alisa also took a picture of Mr. Scot Carson, Mr. Josh Carpenter, Mr. Chris Seiler and myself, replicating this pose, but without the staircase. I do not include it here out of shame. I am not ashamed that my eyes were crossed, which was an intentional effort to achieve the utterly vacuous expression on the Portia-sculpture’s face. However, I look as if I am with child. As I pointed out on Facebook, this would somewhat revise the line at the bottom from “Is it so nominated in the bond?” to “That’s not a man! He’s pregnant!” And I don’t want to provide any more fodder for those tabloid reporters who are following the American Shakespeare Center On Tour around so persistently, constantly flashing photos of us as we emerge from our motel rooms. No! That’s not a baby bump! Let’s see how you look when you eat at as many fast food establishments as we do!

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Burlington, Vermont, October 9:

Our performance of Merchant of Venice was an interesting one (at least for us, the actors on stage—it would be unfair to make assumptions for the audience), because we actually hadn’t done the show in a couple of weeks, though it had been approaching stability at that time. My personal experience of the show was a war (or at least a tug-of-war) between my head and my body: because the last time we performed the show, it had reached a point where I could truly drop into my body and turn off my mind, the substantial part of me felt that was a possibility, and kept striving for it. On the other hand, it had been two weeks since we’d done the show, and it really wasn’t in my body anymore. Hijinks ensue!

The worst of these were the kinds of flubs of which I never would have believed myself capable, when once I lived in the cloistered state of Running the Same Show Five (or Six) Nights a Week. I had always joked that I was going to get the ‘Come, Nerissa,’ lines mixed up—I have three lines that begin with ‘Come, Nerissa’—and now my fondest hope is only that it will never happen again. The first time I said, “Come, sirrah,” instead, and had to correct myself; not the End of the World, but as I sat down, my mind was berating my body, “Come, Nerissa, sirrah go before” over and over again. The upshot of this was that when I got to the second Come Nerissa in a later scene, all I could think of was “Come-Nerissa-sirrah-go-before.” Nor was the correct line on the tip of my tongue; it rather felt that it was loitering somewhere in the neighbourhood of my toes. So I simply picked up the casket and moved it, which is the action that usually accompanies aforesaid absent text. All the angels and saints bless Ginna Hoben, who completely saved me by coming in with her next line. I was thoroughly ashamed as I sat down, but was thankful that it wasn’t an actual Elizabethan audience, who would have been expecting a couplet at the end of the scene, and would have recognised well that “Come, come Nerissa…!” and “Bassanio, Lord Love, if thy will it be” do not a closing couplet make. Then they would have thrown potatoes at me, or eggs, or maybe live chickens. Of course, this would have to have been when I came back on stage for the next entrance, since if I were performing for an Elizabethan audience, I would not be sitting on the side of the stage during the other scenes.

What I would like to say in my defense is this: I went over all of my lines that morning. I even paced around my hotel rooms in rough blocking patterns. And yet, more times than I could count on my two hands, I really had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth next. Fortunately, my body does know the show well enough, that on all of these occasions save one, I actually said the next thing. And, granted, that next line that issued from my mouth was often very spontaneous, very new, and one naturally feels more fully the immediacy of what one says when not quite sure what this Theoretical One will say next.

And so, the best part was that the show was certainly fresh. Both Ginna and I agreed that the stakes seemed much higher that evening than, perhaps, they ever had been previously. It was certainly the best Morocco Casket Scene I’d ever had (I was terrified out of my mind), and I was significantly more wound up whilst Arragon, and, especially, Bassanio, chose caskets. It also may have been the best Courtroom Scene yet, which did a great deal to change the opinion that I had about a third of the way into the show (namely: This is my worst Merchant ever). I thought a great number of the company had exceptional shows by the end; one of the really beautiful things about being on stage the whole time is the way in which electricity can run from one scene into the next, and it may be that my sense of heightened stakes came from someone else’s energy, or that it fed the energy of the next scene. Evan brought a real spark into the show by jumping off stage and hitting on a girl in the front row on the line, “Nay, but I bar tonight: you shall not judge me by what we do tonight,” rather than going for Josh’s belt buckle. It’s brilliant either way, but it was new, fresh, and full of joy, and furthermore, we as actors get to witness the invention of our colleagues. I remarked to Ginna after the show that I’m sorry I don’t get to sit on stage during Shrew and Henry, so that I can see the work that everyone else does. Nerdy? Why yes. But that’s in the title, my friends. You knew what you were getting in for when you started to read. If the general paragraph size didn’t already speak for itself.

The audience was large in number but quieter in response, yet seemed to be listening and engaged. We had a total of three Merchant workshops in two days, and the third class, particularly, was especially astute (though they probably benefited slightly from having seen the show the night before). The workshops are about racism in The Merchant of Venice, but at the end of the classes, some of the students asked really excellent questions about interpretation and acting; I most easily recall those that were asked of me, such as “What were you thinking at the end of the courtroom scene?” and “How do you justify the ring business in the last act?” (short answer: “I’m still working on that”). Furthermore, the illustrious Josh Carpenter, in the phrase-creating tradition of Shakespeare himself, coined a term in the third workshop: the soul fart. As in, when Gratiano says “Here comes Lorenzo and his infidel!” we might become uncomfortable, thinking, “Whose soul farted in here?”

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Powhattan, Virginia, September 30-31:

What was supposed to be a two-hour drive became a five-hour inch-forward through a traffic jam. I avoided any irritation, myself, by sleeping as though I had been drugged, though I retained some awareness of the valiant driver (Mr. Aaron Hochhalter) and skilled navigator (Ms. Ginna Hoben) doing all of the re-routing and swearing that the job required. When we finally saw the Days Inn, its sign rising majestically above the strip mall, but could not figure out how to actually get around said strip mall to the hotel, Raffi started singing, “C-e-l-e-brate good times COME ON.” It remains, to this hour, unspeakably funny to me, though I grant that I had the benefit of one who had not truly experienced five hours of supreme traffic-related annoyance.

We performed two shows of Taming of the Shrew at Powhattan High School, the first of which is known as “the Battle for the Stage” and “the Great Whacker Noodle Massacre” by alternate historians. Whacker noodles, for those of you unacquainted with these august objects, are foam tubes used in our production of Shrew largely for masters to beat their uncooperative servants, or for servants to beat other uncooperative servants. As we demonstrate in the pre-show, they do not really hurt, provided that the blow is not aimed in a delicate place (“Stay away from the 8×10,” said Jim, referring to the headshot area, “And the 3×3,” added Ginna, referring to the line “Away, you three-inch fool!” and subsequent jests). We hand them out for the front rows of the audience, to hold them, but Chris and Chris also inform the audience that they may hit the actors if they’d like.

Like all great historic battles, in which one soldier or commander turns to another and says something that will prove oddly prescient or bittersweet by the end of the day, this story has a prologue. Alisa and I were standing backstage, as we are the Whacker Noodle Wenches, and were listening to the pre-show. At one point, Chris Johnston says, “There’s something that makes actors very sad,” in response to which Chris Seiler holds up his two blue whacker noodles under weepy eyes. Johnston comments, “Those are some long tears, my friend.” I find this funnier every time I hear it. And on this fateful day, I said to Alisa, “You know, I think the ‘long tears’ are my favourite part of the whole pre-show.”

In brief, the high school students had the highest F.P.C. we’ve yet encountered, achieving units of whoopage comparable to the Sumatra earthquake on the Richter Scale. Allow me to be upfront: I vastly prefer this kind of high school audience to its alternative, the Sleeping High School Audience. Perhaps the most disturbing is the Awake But Staring Ahead with the Recognition of the Undead High School Audience. But when a High School Audience is feisty, I hardly feel we can take all the credit; at least one-third of their feistiness is due to the fact that we are neither their teachers nor a video, and one-third of their feistiness is due to the fact that they are teenagers. The remaining one-third, in this case, was perhaps largely inspired by the fact that they were told they could hit the actors. After two kids ran into the middle of the stage to whack Lucentio and Tranio with their pants around their ankles, I think all bets were off.

Let me be clear: I was never actually hit, nor do I really have enough lines in the 90-minute version to have to contend vocally with audibly rambunctious audience. I noted to Ginna, after the Kate/Bianca Bound scene, “It’s a little intense out there,” and that was about the utmost of my experience until the Five Kissing Poses of Lucentio and Bianca scene in the fourth act. But High School kids always scream when they see people kissing, and it didn’t even particularly surprise me that they were yelling things like “Get a room!” (I think I remember, pretty clearly, a high school kid telling Peter and Anne in Diary of Anne Frank to get a room, and thinking, ‘How have you not grasped the central concept that we are all stuck in an attic?’)  However, I felt poorly for the actors who were actually talking whilst we were kissing, or whilst really anything else was going on. A lot of whacker noodle blows were received by the company, but I think the knowledge that those were pulling focus, more than that there were blows at all, was distressing to many.

The true tragedy was that a couple of the whacker noodles were snuck all the way into the middle of the auditorium. When we realised that we were missing a couple of them by the end of the show, Evan (because he is charismatic and his surfer dude Biondello always wins over the audience, especially high school ones) and Alisa (because the whacker noodles are her prop children) went out on stage to plead for their return. I didn’t see what was going on, but I heard Evan saying, “C’mon, we need them back,” about ten times, and Alisa repeating, “We can’t get more because it’s not pool season anymore!” When the noodles were slowly restored, it became obvious why their homecoming had been so hesitant. They were maimed, and, in a couple cases, completely vivisected. Specifically one of the blue noodles. And when Alisa mourned, “Now there won’t be any more long tears,” I had to mourn with her.

But, as is often the case, recalcitrant high school students can be the most noticeable, but they are not representative of the whole, or even the majority, of the student body. In my opinion, whatever their faults, redemption for them came about ten-fold. Our second audience was perhaps the best Shrew audience we’ve had yet—student or adult. They were excited, responsive, and, it seemed to me, utterly wrapped up in the story. (I think the fact that we told them to hold the whacker noodles, but made no mention of hitting the actors, may have helped.)

I thought Ginna had a really amazing show the second day, whenever I was lucky enough to be on stage to witness it. I hope I am divulging any confidence when I write here that she later commented that the students were really with her, perhaps because they identified with her rebellion. And at the end, she said, it felt as though she was betraying them. When in the final speech she said, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” she heard a girl say, “Sike!” But I think that speech has never been so clear, and so urgent, and I think that they were simply very giving as audience members—no matter the gift. From my own experience, these two audiences are the only ones in which every single person that Bianca flirted with waved back. In Baltimore, I recall, the boy that I waved to actually turned his head, assuming that I was waving at the person beside him.

But even more heart-warming than this was a student named Amanda Walker, who came to us before the show on the second day with an entire bag full of whacker noodles that had been at her grandmother’s house. Amazing! Amanda, and her friend (I think?) Samantha also wrote us a letter of appreciation, delivered to us after the second show. Amanda Walker of Powhattan High School, we love you. I wish I had your address to write you a thank-you card. But for the time being, we’ve simply rechristened Gremio’s walker, which we always dubbed “Walker Texas Ranger” to the “Amanda Walker.” And that’s the kind of elegant and dignified memorial one can receive in the theatre.

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Sterling, Virginia, September 29:

Our second-ever performance of Henry the Fifth saw an improvement over its predecessor at Loyola. We were all a little less frantic, if that’s possible in a production with so many costume changes, and as I looked out at the audience, I did not feel as though I was speaking another language. Unless, of course, I was.

The stage was fairly small, which meant that we had to alter the battle sequence slightly. The non-combatants (Pistol, the Boy, and Mr. Paul Reisman as the drummer) scooted off stage as quickly as possible, eliminating Pistol’s crucial pickpocketing-of-the-French-soldiers, and my less crucial holy-wow-look-at-King-Henry-kick-some-French-derriere-gaze-of-awe.

The placement of our set, otherwise known as six black boxes, was also thrown into jeopardy by the small space. Evan had the idea of moving the furthest-downstage box off the stage into the front of the auditorium for the English Night scene, which worked very well. Or, at least until the wooing scene in the final act. When he realised that the box onto which he usually ‘vaulted’ had been removed, the split-second glance before he decided to leap all the way off stage was priceless. (Afterwards, Evan said, “It’s fitting that it was my idea to move the boxes, and I’m the one who was messed up by it.”) Fortunately, Princess Katharine found him all the more charming for being all the more flustered. But she opted for sitting on the upstage rather than downstage box this time around. That’s the kind of crazy blocking gymnastics one has to do as a Theatre Ninja.

We had a fair amount of cell phone interruptions during this performance, which made me think that we should revert to the one time in the Merchant pre-show in which first Raffi, and, two minutes later, Alisa told everyone to turn their cell phones off, on pain of derision. (Or rather, “The Most Important Thing I Could Possibly Tell You Is TO TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE thank you.”) Alisa has a much more excellent account of Rude Cell Phone Man at this performance of Henry on her blog; it excels in part because she was stationed in the theatre lobby at the time, and in part because Alisa’s manner of telling a story makes me laugh until I cry. I only noticed the Cell Phone Perpetrator once, during the Crispin’s Day Scene; I glared in the general direction for a minute, but, as the only unarmed person on the entire stage, I left the menacing to Scot, who was doing an admirable job.

Speaking of the Crispin’s Day Scene, Evan told me afterwards that he noticed a few men in the audience mouthing not just the famous lines but the entirety of the speech along with him. He said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” right along with a man who was sitting on stage, to the left. Now, this can go either way; I was once in a production of Macb*th that performed for a few classes of 5th graders (don’t ask) and the entirety of the audience recited aloud “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” along with my friend Mr. Risher Reddick. That was a little unnerving, at least for me, and I was witnessing it from behind the metal supply closet ‘backstage.’ But Evan said he loved it, and I agree that it’s a particularly powerful moment in which to be literally sharing the words with the audience—because the Crispin Day speech is all about this particular group of people being thrown together at this time, in this place. That’s theatre! Plus, you know your soldiers are really with you when they know your speech. This might also help me with the Quality of Mercy, which I have recently become aware may also boast a fair amount of simultaneous audience recitations. I will say, “Therefore Jew: / Though justice be thy plea, consider this: / That everyone thinks mercy is so great / They’re mouthing all these words along with me.” Case closed.

After the show, we went to the Hoffmann house (because Evan’s parents live nearby) for the best dinner we had in weeks. Evan’s parents were more kind, gracious, and hospitable than we truly deserved, as we simply scarfed down the make-your-own salad, lasagne, and 87 different sundae combinations as if it were our job. Which it kind of is. Being an actor and being starving go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly; like cookies and milk; like turkey and stuffing; like hummus and pita. You will notice these are all food similes—that is not a coincidence. Evan has a picture of a few of us (pictured are Mr. Paul Reisman, Ms. Ginna Hoben, and, I believe, Mr. Josh Carpenter in retreat) either smiling or groaning under the weight of all that delicious food on his Piercing Eloquence Blog; he also has posted a few pictures of us at Loyola.

We were staying at the second most beautiful hotel yet (after the Belmont Inn), so it was unfortunate that we were only there for a night. When we walked into our room, I suggested that we commute to Staunton from the hotel. Paul did not hear me, because was already locked in an amorous gaze with the gigantic flat-screen TV. It seemed like a 478-inch television, which is the only kind of estimation I can give, being much better at hyperbole than actual real-life size measurements.

The thing that ultimately made parting from the television and the pillows bearable was the fact that the staff was a bit bungling, or at least, not speaking to one another. Paul went to register us for a late check-out time, but they had already lost the photocopy of the sheet with all of our names and room numbers on it. So they made another copy. The following noon, we were accosted by staff warning us that if we didn’t check out, we would be charged. Paul went down and explained, but no one had either of the previous two photocopies, any recognition or acknowledgement that this arrangement had been made, or, apparently, two hospitality-trained brain cells to knock together. They solved the problem by making a third photocopy of our room sheet. I proposed that the staff worked there because they liked the aesthetics and the complimentary apples, not because they were particularly committed to hotel management.

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