Sunday, June 22, 2008

"I come not to praise Caesar..."

...actually, I do.

I popped into Julius Caesar at the Shakespeare Theatre Company today, to see the first half of their current Roman Rep. (I saw Antony and Cleopatra on its opening night, about which I have already blogged.)

I am not at all surprised that my buddy Kurt Rhoads, who assumed the role of Marc Antony just last week, has slipped seamlessly into the part. (I don't know why, but my friends are always the best actors in their shows. It's a mystery...). Kurt had been greatly underused in his previous roles in the Rep, but he surely shines now, especially in the uber-famous funeral sequence, as Antony simultaneously eulogizes Caesar, and euthanizes the reputation of Brutus. This long speech must rank as the second most famous monologue in all of Shakespeare, right behind Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be." NOBODY wants to be saddled with a speech so familiar that an audience can easily tune it out. But Kurt's performance was full of immediacy and realism, and we quickly forgot that we had heard the speech dozens of times before.

That's a fine actor.

Aubrey Deeker, whom I don't claim as a buddy but is an actor who always impresses me, is mostly unseen in this show, but his brief appearances as Octavius set up his much larger presence in Antony and Cleopatra.

Director David Muse has done his best to enlarge the influence of Caesar in the play, and Dan Kremer plays the title character with arrogance sufficient enough to turn his friends into his enemies. But structurally, Shakespeare never meant Julius Caesar to be about Julius Caesar, as he is dispatched in the middle of the play. The piece is meant to be dominated by Antony, Brutus, and Cassius, and this production fulfills that obligation.

Tom Hammond brought true heroism to the role of Brutus, and Scott Parkinson was a less sleazy Cassius than others I have seen. I enjoyed both their performances very much.

I can only find a few faults with this production. One is its length. Caesar can easily be abridged, but here, I found my mind wandering on occasion. The scenes with the conspirators seemed to brood an awful lot, rather than display the dynamic urgency with which they are usually played. I also had some trouble with the fight choreography, specifically the battle sequences in Act II. I have a personal dislike of stage fighting in slo-mo, and feel it really only works if the stage is full of actors participating. Here, a handful of soldiers crept on, in dim light, and displayed such stylized movements that I was completely removed from the reality of the moment.

I was quite taken with the final scene of Julius Caesar, which clearly set up the future importance of Antony and Octavius (who ultimately became the first Roman Emperor, Augustus) as the rulers they would become in the second part of the Roman Rep.

And of course, I'm thrilled that Kurt has this terrific opportunity to really show off his chops...

"Happy Trails"

It's the song sung backstage, usually off-key, at the Kennedy Center's Lab Theatre whenever an actor is leaving the long-running smash, Shear Madness. Last night's performance marked the departure of at least half a dozen actors, as the annual Spring Fling ended, and the summer season begins.

It was almost exactly one year ago that I last said good-bye to the Madness of Shear. Two springs in a row, I have played "Tony" in the second company of the show, performing Monday nights, and Tues-Wed afternoons at five. Last year, I maintained that the job is one of the hardest, but most satisfying, gigs in DC.

I stand behind that statement, though I have to confess, if I'm going to be honest, that this season was more difficult for me than last. There are several reasons. Last year, our cast remained in tact for the entire 18 week run. This season, we had a large overhaul around mid-way through, and replaced one actor only a month ago as well. This is not cause for great alarm for the Powers That Be: they consider the second company of Shear Madness to be a part-time job for actors, who occasionally leave the gig for a better-paying engagement. But it is cause for additional rehearsals and notes sessions for all the actors involved. We had very few weeks during the season which did not include a rehearsal or a notes session or both.

Well, certain disruptions are inevitable in that situation. By my count, over the 18 weeks of this season, I worked with two different "Barbara's", three different "Mrs. Shubert's", three different "Eddie's", and a whopping four different "Mikey's". That last number is always of concern to the actors playing Tony, as Mikey is the character who comes into the hair salon during the pre-show and gets his hair shampooed, rinsed, cream-rinsed, cut, moussed, and finally dried by Tony.

You have no idea the trouble a klutz like me has when, suddenly, I'm faced with a new head of hair to negotiate during the show.

Still, it's all part of the job.

A bigger problem we had this season was a result of the (seemingly) constant adjustments we were required to make to accommodate one or two audience members. I'll try to explain.

Shear Madness has never been an explicit show, but has always had its bawdy moments. These are completely harmless bits of fun, and always have the audience in stitches. A decade ago, when I first played in the show, the majority of audiences during the spring were high school groups who had traveled to DC for field trips and such. They adored the show, and the same schools have been sending their students to the Kennedy Center for 20 years. Shear Madness is doing something right.

These days, however, the majority of school groups attending the show are middle schools. Instead of our median audience being age 16, it's become closer to age 12. We have had more and more elementary schools showing up, too. As a result, during the spring, the show's bawdiness is toned down a bit.

This year, however, the evening cast experienced several instances where chaperons were so concerned about the show's content that they yanked their students out of the theatre in the middle of the show (this did not happen at anytime during my cast's performances, only during the night company's shows). One particular chaperon from Kentucky was so incensed that the show was portraying a gay character onstage (in 2008!!), that he complained to the Kennedy Center itself. ( I feel the need to reiterate that there is nothing in Shear Madness which can't be seen on any Will and Grace rerun at any time during the day, and there is no language in the show which can't be heard on network television nightly).

As I said, most of this controversy was happening to the evening cast. We had always been playing a slightly gentler show during the day, and to my knowledge, we received no complaints.

Still, the creative forces behind the show decided (under pressure from the Kennedy Center, I believe) that one or two mouthy right-wingers ought to have full script approval, so all of the hilarious, harmless innuendo was censured from the text. (The worst word in the script, apparently, was "bitch," uttered by my character in an explosion of pique, in one of the most hilarious moments in the show. One can hear the word "bitch" used every day on televised soap operas and sitcoms. It was replaced by "cow." As you can imagine, the life was sucked out of the sequence.)

Well, as an actor, I'm only a hired gun, and have no say in the creative direction of a piece, so I feel it's my job to make the show work as best as possible. I hope I was able to wring a bit of fun out of the new, bovine twists in the text.

There is one more reason that last night's farewell performance was difficult. A year ago, when I left the Madness, I had three gigs lined up for the remainder of the year. This year, I don't. It's always a bit scary to be leaving a secure job when you don't have any idea when your next one might pop up.

But I'll reiterate what I said before. Though this last month it sometimes felt like we were playing A Shadow of Shear Madness, the show remains the most challenging, and rewarding, job in DC.

happy trails to you...until we meet again...

Laugh At Me

It's quite a coincidence that I ran across this Youtube clip at this moment, as the DC Gay Pride Parade is currently underway (in the rain). The Pride celebration is actually about two weeks early, as the official Gay Pride Day remains June 27 (I'll blog about that later), but Pride Parades and Celebrations are now spread throughout June, and even May. Back in the early days of the Pride Movement, the celebrations were always held on the weekend preceding June 27, but organizers soon recognized the error in that scheduling. Why hold all the Pride Parades on one day, when, if they were spread out, then all those gays with expendable income could attend ALL the festivals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego? The routine is mirrored on the East Coast, where official Gay Pride celebrations in New York, Philly, DC, Boston, etc., are all held on different weekends, so everybody can attend them all.

I don't attend any of them these days, but sometimes, when I run into a particularly evocative image, like the video above, I pause. This video is clearly made by amateurs, filmed in a single shot in a raw, under-rehearsed fashion. Set to a rare solo hit recorded by Sonny Bono back in the '60s, I confess that, with all its shortcomings, the clip moves me.

I guess those of us who have been laughed at, never get over it...