Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What's your motivation? Dude, you're dead. That's your motivation.

I remember, when I first started working with André's company, I couldn't get over the way the actors would hug when they greeted people. "Now I'm really in the theater," I thought.

Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André

In my own case I discovered I was really in the theater when my colleagues invited me to drop dead.

After decades away from the stage (reviewers said my high school turn in "You Can't Take It With You" was "tenacious" and "unhampered"), this Sunday the 13th I am once again treading the boards. Kind of.

If we understand "treading the boards" to mean that I'll be "sprawling lifelessly on the boards."

Still, "roar of the greasepaint" and all that.

The Broadway Rose Theatre Company has kicked off its seventeenth season with Les Misérables, (which, by the way, The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, and Willamette Week all loved, and for which tickets -- including this Sunday's never-to-be-forgotten performance--are still available)

My part -- if I may be modest about this -- is quite simply the linchpin of the whole story. I play one of the dead bodies in Act II, sprawled at the base of the barricade -- a huge set-piece on the turntable that spans the stage -- during the 1832 student uprising in Paris.

Playing dead for the afternoon is one of the perks of serving on the BRTC board of directors. (There's no truth to the rumor that, if my performance goes well, they'll look into casting some of us permanently. That's just jealousy speaking.)

I have two moments on stage: The turntable shows first the heroic students and their allies as they sing inspiring, yet depressing, songs of social injustice and unrequited love. Then it turns to reveal me lying there, dead as a flounder and definitely on the wrong side of the barricade. Then back to the students, for another hearty song of struggle and self-sacrifice -- then back to me and my mates, roadkill on the highway of French history. One more turn, moving me out of the audience's view, but not their hearts, and I'm done.

My role is obviously essential; its purpose is to help the audience feel the reality of death in the story without causing them the discomfort of, you know, actually seeing it happen to any of the characters they might care about.

In this respect my role stands (so to speak) in the grand performance tradition extending back to the crewmen in the red shirts who never make it back to the ship from a "Star Trek" landing team. I shall attempt to do it justice.

One of the chief reasons I came out of retirement for this part is that the show is directed by Rob Hunt, who starred as Javert on Broadway and in the national tour. He's a man of enormous talent, who's lived and breathed "Les Mis" for years. I let the reader imagine the moment when I humbly asked the veteran for advice--how to make my performance count for everything it can in this powerful story, spanning several decades with over 30 singing parts? Imagine him taking me aside for a moment, grabbing me with both hands and squaring my shoulders, gazing levelly into my eyes: "It's a long second act. Don't forget to go to the bathroom at intermission," he said.

And then the moment was over. I may never have another one like it.

(Images via Wikipedia and Think Geek.)


Misty said...

Hey, you know what? I was in You Can't Take it With You when I was in high school as well! I was "Essie".

It was one of my favorite productions. :-)

Nothstine said...

I was Paul Sycamore [Grandpa Vanderhof's son-in-law]. The fireworks part was the most fun.