We go to school together; he’s a 21 year old engineering major and I’m an old guy who needs help with his calculus homework. It’s an 80’s buddy-pic in the making.
(“Why are you in this class?” he asks me all the time. “You went to school already. What’s the point?”
“It’s part of my artistic process,” I tell him. “Some artists abuse themselves with violence or alcohol or tumultuous relationships, I do it with Craig’s Interpolation Theorem.”
“Yeah, but don’t you also abuse yourself with violence and alcohol and tumultuous relationships?” he says.
“Shut up,” I explain.)
The theater department of our tiny community college had posters up everywhere advertising their spring production and I’m a Support-Your-School kinda guy, plus I thought it would be fun to bring my buddy to his first ever play. And to make things even sweeter, it was Twelfth Night.
Perfect, I thought, little Shakespearean gravitas, but a raucous comedy… good first play.
He got all dressed up. “If I’m the only brown dude there, I gotta represent.” That’s a young person expression. I’m pretty sure it means, “I’m hoping to score some artsy chicks.”
“Why do you think you’ll be the only one?” I asked him.
“Theater is a white people thing,” he said completely without irony, something that still rattles the soft bits of my skeleton. I opened my mouth to argue with him because I’m also an Argue-With-Anyone-About-Anything kinda guy. Still, I knew right away that I’d lose this one, but that’s a different blog altogether. (I know, I know, I’ll get to it one of these days. Calculus, man. Cut me some slack.)
So we cruised into the campus theater on a sultry night. It was one of those ginormous theaters that exist only either in the high falutin world of fancy-pants subscribers and Broadway ticket prices like the Taper, or on a campus. 90 percent of the theaters I’ve worked in are two rats away from being bulldozed to the ground, but you walk into a university theater and it’s like you just got a job at the Palladium. Big, well-equipped, comfortable, like a gazillon seats, the whole bit. Even at about half full, there were more audience members that one night than saw my entire run of Coriolanus at Shakespeare Santa Monica and that’s a shame because I was the balls in that show. Just sayin. THE BALLS.
Lights out, hush falls, off we go.
And it was awful.
I mean staggeringly, mind-numbingly bad. This show was so god damn fetid that at one point I wanted to lean over and ask my buddy to punch my eyeballs squarely in the dick, because I deserved that for bringing him there. Not just Undergraduate Theatre Bad (which I generally appreciate) this was “The Last Airbender” bad. It was Trump at Langley bad.
It’s not just that it wasn’t funny; it’s that it was the opposite of funny. Not dramatic, because it was the opposite of that, too. It was the opposite of theater, the opposite of storytelling. It was a non-thing. The actors were like fat southerners at a Vegas buffet, hungrily eyeballing the text that they were gonna gorge upon so they could vomit it back at us later. It was a fiasco of bad pacing, misunderstood text, mindless zombie direction and totally unrealized potential.
***WARNING: MASSIVE DIGRESSION AHEAD, BUCKLE UP, BEEYATCH***
Here’s the thing: I like bad theater, not gonna lie.
I like a little off-key singin, unglued mustache, too old ingénue and too young dad, inappropriate costuming and poorly constructed foam brick walls in the service of storytelling; the ambitious overreach of sophomoric don’t-tell-ME-how-to-play-Chekhov histrionics that serves for technique in this age of over-trained and under-experienced actors.
I love that stuff.
And honesty? Honesty is over-rated and trust me on this: that thoroughly modern notion that it all has to boil out from some cauldron of Stanislavskian veracity, as if earnestness is a sacrosanct virtue. What a bunch of hooey. I’ve never bought the long con of 60’s method-hounds that their real tears were any more effective than the ones Barrymore sprayed on before his entrance. (Twice as much for Hamlet, kid, let’s not be stingy with the glycerin; there’s paying customers out there!) Not for a second.
But there has to be a commitment to the storytelling, the deeply human shared joy that comes from traveling with an audience through a series of verbs that culminates in a couple of adjectives. If there isn’t at least some attachment to the clan-around-the-fire ecstasy of shared experience then I check out; when the actors are too involved in themselves and not enough in US. You know that guy at work who is so good at telling stories? What is it about that guy? He’s not wearing fancy costumes or using expensive magic tricks, but man alive does he spin a good yarn. That guy tells great stories, kid; not because the moment capstones in his own exultation, but because the story itself becomes elevated beyond the vocal gimmicks and wacky faces he makes. Maybe that’s it. I aint going to pretend that I know for sure.
We’re all in service. That’s what I’m saying. We’re all in service to the story, the image, whatever. We’re all scholars in the translation process that cyphers that cacophony through the brainpan of our writers or directors and rebuilds it into something discernible, something receivable and observable and watchable and ultimately, something fucking feel-able. (That should be a word: fucking feel-able. Fulable? Feeckable? Whatever.)
Simple really, take what’s in one person’s head, and put it in someone else’s. I’m pretty sure that at some point we’ll be able to do it with an HDMI cable, but for now we need artists.
More’s the pity.
But that’s what we are, we are scholars in service. In service to the story.
***WE NOW RETURN YOU TO THE RANT YOU ORIGINALLY SIGNED UP FOR***
After the play, without offering my opinion, I asked my friend what he thought.
“I liked it,” he lied. “It was cool.”
“No you didn’t!” I said. “You hated it! Know how I know? Because it was terrible. No one would like that show. The lead actor’s mom wouldn’t like that show. The guy who directed that show should be forced to watch “The Big Bang Theory” for ten hours a day until he beats himself to death with a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics. Don’t lie to me, ya ponce.” (I actually used “ponce.” I was feeling all Shakespeary.)
“Well, I don’t know… What was it supposed to be like? What does a good play look like?” It’s a good question, actually. Mary Overlie could make an entire dance piece about that question. It would be boring.
“It doesn’t look like that,” I assured him.
He went on, “I don’t have anything to compare it to, I guess.”
Later, in the elevator, there were two freshmen girls who had sat near us during the show. I noticed them because they were conspicuously NOT on their phones and that gave me a spark of hope for humanity in the midst of that Shakeswamp.
“What’d ya think?” I asked them.
“It was great!” one of them gushed. “Sooooo good.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Who’s girlfriend are you?”
“Um, Manny. The guy who played Orsino. Why?
“Nothing,” I said. “Glad you liked it.”