Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Actor-Scholar Council 2/11/11

Last Friday’s Actor-Scholar Council focused on Look About You. Audiences may remember this show from the Bring ‘Em Back Alive two years ago. The play has had a special place in my heart because I formatted and annotated the script for that performance and, I also played a couple of small roles. The version in this year’s ARS is much more heavily cut, thanks to John Harrell, who plays Skink. In addition to John, actors Jeremiah (Prince John), Chris (Redcap), Miriam (Lady Marian Fauconbridge), Tyler (Sir Richard Fauconbridge, Porter), Paul (Henry II, Block), and Greg (Prince Richard) were in attendance.

The council started off with Ralph asking if any actors were confused about plot points. Look About You is a confusing play, one which he says, “takes the conventions of disguise to sublime heights.” To the actors, who work from sides, it almost seems like parts of the play are missing. An example of something they wanted explained is why the purservant laments the loss of a box. Scholars explained that Gloucester drugged the purservant to get the box, which contained a reprieve for the porter that Gloucester wanted to keep out of Prince John’s hands. Veteran actors call it the most confusing production since The Devil Is an Ass. John feels it was very hard to cut, and the initial read-through was illuminating because it made who was talking much clearer than on the page. Tyler ventured that an even bigger problem than the confusion was the “stage business”, and that some plot points happen offstage.

The actors had visions of audiences rolling on the floor with laughter, but they couldn’t tell, because the show is confusing and has so many characters in so many disguises, if they would really love it. There was a bit of a panic after the dress rehearsal, which had a small audience. Many felt concern that audiences wouldn’t retain disguise signifiers (such as capes and fake beards) long enough. Fortunately, audiences received it well, and there is only one time (when Prince John comes on as Gloucester after a long stretch) when it may not work. The actors grow more comfortable with the play as the run progresses; Miriam said that on February 10th, the show’s third performance, she felt that, rather than just actors trying to make their cues, relationships and moments had a chance to develop.

According to John, the original audience would have known a few things that audiences today don’t. They would have accepted that hermits who can tell the future live close to London. Most of them were somewhat familiar with the court of Henry II and the factions among his sons. The actors said that most of their understanding of this came from The Lion in Winter, so they understood about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, but had questions about Gloucester. The Robin Hood in this play is very different from the image we have formed based on Errol Flynn, an actor said. This Robin Hood is very young, more than a boy but not yet a man, and so pure and virginal that he can woo Lady Fauconbridge and nobody worries about him doing anything improprietary. Like many other characters, he disguises himself in this play, which leads to a comic moment in which other characters say, “Goodbye, England’s pride” to him while he’s cross-dressing.

One thing we aren’t sure how original audiences reacted to is Redcap’s stutter. No other early modern plays have stutterers, said Dr. Ralph. Chris, who plays Redcap, says that audiences now don’t have the patience to listen to it. They just want him to finish the line or thought and feel sympathy; if he’s taking a line to an audience member and stutters, they always break eye contact. Perhaps the original audience didn’t have our compunctions about laughing at someone with a speech impediment. Chris had to cut back on the stutter because he realized it caused some of the story to get lost. He said it was the hardest thing he ever had to memorize because he memorized it with the stutter, found out he didn’t know the lines without the exact stutters, and had to go back and re-memorize without them. In delivering the last line of the play, Redcap doesn’t stutter, and his success surprises him. Audiences are happy for him, according to the actors.

At one point a sword fight takes place between Gloucester and Richard, who are friends but are in disguise at the time. The actors initially wanted something “stupid and simple” for the fight, but they made it comic. Partway through rehearsals Ben suggested adding some Matrix-style slow-motion moments. Then they included their swords getting stuck together like that scene in the movie Spaceballs. The money moment is when the two reveal their true identities to each other, especially since the audience could easily see through Richard’s disguise (as a random servant) the whole time.

The actors could have put more absurd things into the play if they had had more time. The scenes, being especially complicated, took up more rehearsal time than usual, and with the exception of “Come On Eileen” they had to pick quick and easy songs because they didn’t have time to do music. The drugging of the Purservant is a prime example because, while only 36 lines, the scene took over 90 minutes to work (the actors didn’t tell specifically why). The actors advise people to come and see the show now or in another couple of weeks, by which time they’ll have been able to add more absurd, zany moments. If you’ve already seen the show, you should come see it again. See if you can count how many times variations of the phrase “look about you” are used (there are at least 11). And don’t forget to listen to the podcast of this week’s Actor-Scholar Council, available soon on the ASC website.

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