Theatre Thursday: Fun times

People have asked me, “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had acting in a play,” and I’d really have to answer… all of them. That even includes the “excruciating when I look back” elementary school efforts, and the few times I was a musician for a musical — but that’s its own kind of acting.

I think I only did three of those, off the top of my head, and only three as a performer, well technically.

See, this also brings up the less traditional “play” plays that I’ve done, meaning most of the year 2012, during which Playwrights’ Arena celebrated their anniversary by doing 20 Flash Theatre Plays in various locations in L.A.

Each was only performed once and not in a theatre, but in a public location, ranging from the parking lot of a pet food store in Culver City to a cemetery in the Adams District, to Union Station downtown, and several street locations in Silver Lake.

I participated in 13 of them, and it was intense. A lot of them were, in fact, mini-musicals, with singing and choreography, and we’d basically just erupt into the location, do our thing, and then vanish.

A lot of fun, but if you’re wondering about full-length plays, then these weren’t them.

But sticking to stage plays, including musicals… I think I wind up with a tie in my head between two very, very different shows.

One was Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which I’d read long before I did it, and was always fascinated by because it was just so… fucked up. To me, it basically represented an artist who was at height of his fame and power, but also at the height of his addiction, so that he could shit anything out on stage and Broadway and the audiences would eat it up.

Except that, with this one, they didn’t, and it only lasted 60 performances, mainly because it was just too weird and idiosyncratic.

The other was The Pension Grillparzer, adapted from John Irving’s The World According to Garp, itself being a story-theatre style telling of the story within the book that is Garp’s first sold short story.

The nice part about this one was that we all worked with the creator/director who adapted it from the book, so it was an original work but its second production.

And… it’s still hard to judge which one was more fun.

What I can tell you is that Camino Real was never fun for our audiences, and since we all got to be so in their faces, I learned that firsthand. Don’t blame us, though. It was entirely Tennessee wanking all over the page, and even we didn’t know what the hell the script meant.

But we got to play a lot of weird-ass characters, and to this day I’m still good friends with quite  a lot of that cast, a few of whom are sadly now deceased.

It did give me the opportunity to work with the legendary Malachi Throne, although I was way too young to have any idea who he was. However, I did know that he was a funny and gracious man behind the scenes, and since I was technically playing Jesus to his Satan in the show, he always gave me stuff to play off of.

Oh yeah. My character in the play was The Dreamer, and my only dialogue was in Spanish, which was fine with me. I was this mystical and powerful badass in a leather jacket, black jeans, and black and silver eyeliner, who eventually drove off the angels of death, and generally led around my blind mother, who was so much the Virgin de Guadeloupe that it was ridiculously obvious.

One of my fond memories from  that show, near the end of Act II — Mom gave a long monologue while holding the “dead” hero, Kilroy, across her lap, Pieta style and draped in an American flag. Except that she couldn’t hold him up for that long, and I had to support his shoulders, waiter-tray style, while pretending that I wasn’t under cover of the flag.

At the same time, all of us on stage had been directed to drill eye contact with the audience — normally a big no-no — and then ever-so-slowly turn our heads and keep shifting that contact from one audience member to another, stage right to stage left, during Mom’s monologue.

For me, this was one of the most weirdly gratifying moments, since I was sitting about four feet from the front row, and I could absolutely sense how damn uncomfortable it made everyone.

Our ridiculously hot stage manager (Hi, John!) timed this for us in performance, bless his heart, and the scene generally took seven minutes. But the audience discomfort was kind of the point of the whole scene. Tennessee was deep into his “Fuck all y’all” mood by that point, after all.

But… lest you think that torturing audiences brings me my biggest joy in theater, the show that’s tied with Camino Real is kind of its polar-opposite. Sure. It’s dark and twisted, and almost everyone dies because it is John Irving, after all. But… it was an absolute blast to do.

The main reason was because Mollie Boice, the adaptor and director, gave us the text and let us loose. Since it was basically story theatre, it was in the form of the actors reading the non-dialogue lines (i.e. the “he said/she said/they did this”) and then performing the dialogue when it happened.

It made for a really interesting structure. On top of that, my main character was a depressed, unicycle-riding bear (in Irving? Quelle surprise!)

Anyway, a lot of the time when I wasn’t the bear, I was a random human staying at the Pension, hanging in the background and providing all of that narration. When I was the bear, I got to go all animal on stage, and it was wonderful.

Basically, as long as I didn’t maul any fellow actors, I had free rein, and according to reviews, I king of stole the show just by being there, and the only concessions to bearness were a big, brown furry hat, and an oversized brown sweater.

The unicycle itself, I had to mime, because there was no safe way to ride one on our limited stage, plus which I never could master riding one in the first place.

But playing the bear was fun, because I basically got to turn my brain off, not worry about dialogue, and react to everything in the moment. Plus, I trained myself to be able to drool on command at key points during the evening, and hearing the audience cringe and “Ewww!” to that made it all worthwhile.

So, there you have it. My most fun moments on stage have been playing Mexican Jesús and a depressed Bear. For those of you who are actors, what are yours?

Image source: Camino Real Cast, The Company Rep.

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