Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Day in the Life: The Trickle Down Theory

I had a free day today (let's face it, they're all pretty free these days, but I won't start whining...yet), so I thought I'd finally make an effort to get down to see King Lear at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. The show is in its final week, and they had a noon matinee, just for me and the old folks. I have had some good luck in the past snagging a cheap ticket to these nooners, but alas, today that luck was not with me.

I worked with star Stacy Keach when he played Macbeth back in the 90s, and I came away with a huge respect for the man and his work. I learned a great deal about classical acting just from watching him (and by being slaughtered by him in my own personal duel in Act V; I played Young Siward). The reviews for this Lear have been raves, for Stacy and his costar, Ed Gero (I worked with Ed in that same Macbeth, and was slaughtered by him in Act the Shakes, they always recycle their soldiers to beef up the battlefield. Once you're killed, you crawl offstage and return to fight again).

The lobby of the swanky Harman Center was pretty crowded when I arrived, about half an hour before the curtain, and there were lines at all four windows of the box office. Everyone was picking up their Will Call tickets. I reached the front, and was confronted with one of my biggest pet peeves: talking to somebody through a glass window. At The Shakes, someone has decided the ticket clerks are in such danger, they must be secured behind bullet-proof glass, like cashiers in liquor stores on Skid Row. This perplexes me, as I can't imagine there is much money back there; the top ticket price is now almost 80 bucks, and surely patrons pay with their credit cards much more than using cash.

But what I really hate about this "Clerk Behind the Glass" routine is, I can never understand what the hell the clerk is saying. At The Shakes, each window has its own mic, but the young jerk (and he was a jerk, judging from his attitude toward me) couldn't be bothered to lean over to turn his on. Instead, he muttered some incomprehensible syllables at me, as I asked if there might be seats available. I couldn't read his lips or his mind, so after several minutes, he finally turned on his mic to rudely tell me that the performance was sold out, "of course."

I was less disturbed by this news than I was by this guy's attitude. As I walked around the corner to see a movie instead, I thought about his demeanor toward me, and decided it was just another example of a truism I have observed for years. The overall attitude of a theatre's staffers is a direct reflection of the attitude of the top brass. It does not matter if the theatre has three people on staff, or 300, it's always the same: the attitude at the top trickles down to affect everyone. If the Artistic Director of the company is warm, welcoming, genial, and easy-going, so is the staff. The opposite is also true. At The Shakes, the staff is arrogant, snarky, and disrespectful of their individual audience members, and even of each other. (Not their high-powered donors, of course. Just like all other theatres in the country, The Shakes is feeling the pinch of the economy, shrinking their season, furloughing their employees, etc. They do a great job of keeping the donors pleased. But in their one-on-one interaction with the public at large, the staff reflects the exclusionary attitude of those at the top).

Oh, about that movie I saw instead? Outstanding. (500)Days of Summer is a terrific little film, starring one of my favorite young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. You surely know him from television; he grew up in front of us, as a star of 3rd Rock From the Sun, and since then, he has made dozens of really interesting movies. His choices are always unusual, which has probably prevented his becoming one of the superstars of his generation, but his work never disappoints.

This film created some buzz at Sundance, and it deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Romantic Comedy, as a genre, is almost always geared toward women, even when the protagonist is a man. This film is smart, funny, endearing, and feels absolutely realistic (despite the occasional fantasy sequence). It feels true to the male of the species.

I was sorry to miss Stacy and Ed flinging their iambs around for three hours today, but I was more than compensated by this terrific movie.

Theatre Droppings: Summer Stock, Shenandoah Valley Style

While I spent a few months sidekicking, I was able to enjoy a couple of busman's holidays, seeing some Summer Stock. My own gig as Sancho Panza cannot be classified as a stock gig; Wayside Theatre began its life as a summer theatre, but has long since graduated to year-round producing. But elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley, there are two other theaters offering up summer fare.

A few miles up the road from Wayside, there is a summer stock theatre which has been producing big musicals for over a quarter of a century. Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre has a special place in my heart, as I've often mentioned in these pages. It provided the first job I ever snagged from a New York audition, and since then, I have returned to play some terrific roles. Though I've only appeared there a handful of times over the past decade or so, I do my best to catch at least one show each season. This year, a whole slew of Man of La Mancha folks gathered to attend SSMT's season opener, Hairspray. The cast was headed by my two favorite Shendites, Rick Wesley and Robin Higginbotham. Rick is an alumnus of the program at Shenandoah University, which hosts SSMT, and since his graduation about a hundred years ago, he has become one of the steady presences each season. This year, he played the drag role of Edna Turnblat, the agoraphobic, "full-figured" hausfrau originally played by Harvey Fierstein onstage, and destroyed by John Travolta in the movie. He was teamed with another Shenandoah favorite, Jack Rowles, and they tore up the stage as the parents of our heroine, Tracy. I admire Rick each and every time I see him, and hope one day to be able to share the SSMT stage with him.

As for Robin, well, I have already shared the stage with that firecracker; she is another alum who has become an integral part of each SSMT season. In Hairspray, she got the rare opportunity to play a villain ( "Miss Baltimore Crabs"), and she was a hoot. Robin and I were the comic relief in Brigadoon a while back, an experience which remains one of my favorites.

The big surprise in Hairspray, for me, was the gal playing best friend Penny, a young actress named Beth Tarnow. Beth played my daughter in Bye Bye Birdie two years ago, and has matured into a dynamic musical performer. She landed every laugh, and practically stole the show.

I love all the success stories of SSMT, because I know first hand how many odds must be overcome there. Artistic Director Hal Herman created the festival 26 years ago, and continues to direct almost all the shows himself. The kids in the ensemble get a crash course in true summer stock: roughly ten days of rehearsal which will include a maximum of four rehearsals with the full orchestra, and only a day and a half onstage before the opening. Even more terrifying, there is one, count 'em ONE, full tech-dress runthrough, without stops, before the opening night crowd shows up. After 26 years, Hal and his crew know how to do it.

Totem Pole Playhouse knows how to do it, too. Their schedule is almost identical to Shenandoah's, and they've been pulling off six or so shows each summer for a whopping 59 years. In previous generations, the theatre was run by Jean Stapleton's husband, and the walls of the theatre are adorned with pictures of her in a variety of shows, before she became a television superstar playing Edith Bunker.

My DC buddy Ray Ficca has recently taken over the reigns of the company, so I was very glad I had the chance to get out to Gettysburg, PA, to see one of his shows. I have seen I Hate Hamlet twice before, including the notorious original Broadway production, where one of the leading players quit the show during intermission (I wrote about seeing that show here). I also saw a community theatre production of this light-weight piece only a year or so ago (go here to read my rant about that monstrosity), so there were not going to be any surprises for me.

Except there actually were. The Totem Pole production was superior to either of the previous incarnations I had encountered, due to the performances of my friends Ray Ficca and Larry Dalke. (If you've dropped by these pages before, you may have noticed that my friends are always the best things in their's a mysterious phenomenon). Ray played the ghost of John Barrymore in this one, and as always, his physicality brought great sparkle to the show. Larry, I'm not surprised to report, swiped every scene in which he appeared, playing the materialistic Hollywood producer.

I love summer stock, both as a performer and as an observer. I think there is no greater challenge to the stage actor; there is never enough rehearsal, so actors must create on their feet, a very exciting and dangerous task. Hairspray and I Hate Hamlet have both closed by now, already replaced by new productions with the swiftness that only Summer Stock brings.

Both Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre and Totem Pole Playhouse know how to do it.