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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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