Friday, February 24, 2012
A Mad World, indeed!
Shakespeare-centric theatre companies often willfully restrict their performance canon to a base of 37 plays. (Or, 38 or 39, depending on what you think of some of the apocrypha). While Shakespeare was very good at what he did, he was only one of the many authors writing 400 years ago, so, barring the discovery of some magical folio containing countless previously unknown plays with “Yes, I totally wrote these. Love, William Shakespeare” stamped across the front, we have 37 generally-agreed-upon plays to work with.
I am of the mind that half the fun is in interpretation and will happily sit and watch every single production of Much Ado about Nothing the ASC has mounted in the last ten years (many with the same or similar cast members as the Much Ado currently running in the Blackfriars Playhouse) and then ask for more. I’ve seen so many different productions of Hamlet that my eyes cross just trying to remember them all, but – hey! You’re doing Hamlet? Where? I’ll totally be there. Can’t wait!
Yet, no matter how many self-admitted weirdos like me there are out there, 37 plays may just not be enough for a year-round, internationally renowned company, fronting both a resident and a touring Shakespeare troupe. And (I suppose I should probably say this now) it turns out there were other playwrights in the early modern English era. It also turns out that some of them were writing some great stuff. Choosing to draw from this well, the ASC does not exclusively perform Shakespeare. Since the ASC's first non-Shakespearean early modern production, Beaumont and Fletcher's The Knight of the Burning Pestle in 1999, the company has mounted thirty-two plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries. The current Actors’ Renaissance Season features Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster, which is such a joy, and opening tomorrow is Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters.
My point about the whole Shakespeare-centric, only-37-plays-to-work-with thing is that it’s rare for someone like myself to go into the theatre completely ignorant of the play. Usually, I’ve at least got the plot down, which frees my brain to focus on other elements of the production. It’s easier to take in the nuance of performance choices when you’re not constantly worried that you may have missed some vital structural information. For Mad World, though, I decided to skip all the rehearsals, to eschew reading the play, and generally to remain ignorant about all of it – and then to show up to the dress rehearsal and to see what’s what.
Here’s what’s fun about dress rehearsals, especially during the ARS: the audience is sparse, usually just in the single digits and made up of stage managers, dramaturgs, box office staff, and interns. It’s low-pressure but high-fun. The actors have had about ten days of rehearsal, this is the fourth play of the season, and let’s just say I was certainly not the only one who’d never heard of it until now. Oh, and it’s filthy. And I mean filthy. (The filthiness is scholastically verified by renowned scholar Peter Saccio, so you know it's not just our dirty minds making too much of the text). As a result, the actors are barely off-book, they’ve got on some of the more insane costumes I’ve seen in my time here (Dan Kennedy as Bounteous Progress is… words fail me), and they have to perform what is among the bawdiest, raunchiest, more-venereal-disease-jokes-than-even-George-Carlin-finds-appropriate play of the early modern era.
They rocked it. This company is a well-oiled machine. A fine wine. A perfectly tuned piano. They make mistakes the way Paula Deen makes food: deliciously cheesy. Dan Kennedy, with fake facial hair and old-man walker, lost his mustache several times during the performance and went through such calisthenics to retrieve it from the ground that I was convinced they’d planned it; it wasn’t until he righted himself, after much effort, and called “Prithee!” that we realized the mustache was supposed to stay on his face. That’s saying something, because this happened about five times, and each time I was shocked when he called for line. That is, I would have been, if I had had enough breath left to be shocked; most of it was spent laughing so hard I may have bruised my ribs.
I’m glad I waited, because while it’s a joy to watch a play progress over the rehearsal period, it’s equally lovely to have a show bombard you, all at once, with every wonderful and ridiculous device in the plot and the actors’ decisions on how to interpret them. I don’t want to ruin too much, but here’s what you can look forward to: Greg Phelps dressed as a woman and singing Aretha Franklin, Jeremy West tied to a chair in a cop uniform, Dan Kennedy in general, a lot of rhyming verse, some very loud sex, and some inappropriate, on-stage bodily functions.
A Mad World, My Masters is a delightfully gut-busting play, made more so by the company that performs it. The Pay What You Will opening is tonight, February 24th, and the show plays until April 7th, You’re not going to want to miss this one. I walked into the theatre with no idea of what I was getting into and feeling a bit wary, and I walked out once again thankful that the ASC exists and performs shows like this.