Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Diary of an On-Stage Rapist

“Oppose not Scythia to Ambitious Rome”
How I played Demetrius and Kept My Soul
by James Melo

So, we’re two days into a run of a play that we’ve been working on for the better part of the last five months. Now, that’s a long time, considering that the last play I was in went up in thee months. Anywho, we just put up William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and I have only three words to describe it.

Holy. Bloody. Hell.

The play itself is a really heavy piece. Add to that the intense staging that our directors came up with and it gets to the point of ridiculous. People break down and cry. And in the middle of it all is something that my character, Demetrius, did.

Demetrius is a rapist.

Not only that, but he’s also a murderer and a mutilator, and a psychopath. He is, pound by pound, the worst character that I have ever played. He is just plain evil. And my god, it was amazing. I’ve never played a character that was so anathema to myself, and I’ve played some strange parts over the years.

So, this was a particularly difficult part for me to play. I mean, I like to think that I’m a pretty good guy, for the most part at least; so playing someone who was so clearly NOT a good guy was a real challenge for me. I’d go so far as to say that the hardest part of acting is two fold. On the one hand, you have to be completely aware that you are not portraying yourself when you step out on stage, because you’re an actor, and that’s what you do. On the other hand, in order to do it well, you have to internalize what your character would be feeling given whatever blocking or lines are happening on stage, and you have to become the character for the two or three hours that you are up on stage. That’s what sets actors apart from other people—anyone can get up on a stage and recite lines, but only an actor can make the audience believe that they are saying those words for the first time, ever. Yes, I did in fact happen to steal that particular bit of wisdom from a TV show, but that doesn’t make it any less true. That was my greatest challenge with the role—coming as close as possible to becoming the character, without crossing the line into being something that I couldn’t stand.

The ability to do that came from this simple fact: Demetrius isn’t actually the bad guy of the play. He isn’t as he seems, just evil to the core, but he becomes what he is because of what he’s had to go through. He was forced to watch as his older brother (or sister, as in our production) was dragged off by Romans to have his (her) limbs hacked off and be set on fire, as a sacrifice for Roman soldiers killed in a war with the Goths. That is what pushes him past the point of no return, and he is aimed toward what he actually does by Aaron, the only character in the play who is truly evil.

Of course, that isn’t even to say that the Goths are ultimately the evil side of the play. The simple fact of the matter is that there are no “good guys” in Titus Andronicus. Even the titular character, Titus, who is cast throughout the play as the long suffering hero of Rome that is beset by enemies, is actually a bad guy. In act 5, scene 2, he has the two sons of his enemy, Tamora (one of which is Demetrius) bound, and he explains to them how he plans to kill them, butcher them, grind their bones to paste, and make two pies out of them which will be fed to their mother as an act of vengeance for what has happened to his family. That is not the act of a good guy. The good guy would simply kill the two brothers in vengeance, rather than effectively torturing. The closest thing that Titus has to a “good guy” is Lavinia, the victim of the rape, but even she isn’t so much a “good guy” as she simply is a “victim”.

So, I guess what I’m saying here is that the way that I managed to play this horrible, terrible human being, and sell the role at all without completely falling apart is that I was able, on some level, to humanize him. In one way or another, all characters are real people, with real reasons for doing what they do, especially in Shakespeare’s works. By finding those reasons, I was able to connect with my character on a personal level, and internalize the terrible things he was doing, because I was able to understand the reasons for his actions.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I played Demetrius, the rapist, and managed to keep my soul intact.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Theatrical Televisual Moment

It's a rare occurrence when two of my great loves come together: Television and Shakespeare. The best example is the comedy Slings &Arrows, about the antics of a Canadian Shakespeare company. PBS airing Ian McKellan's King Lear as part of their "Great Performances" series and his subsequent Emmy nomination is another wonderful example. When Hey Arnold did Romeo & Juliet, when Mr. Feeney taught Hamlet or when President Bartlett went to see The War of the Roses I was similarly thrilled.

This week's Saturday Night Live monologue by Jude Law played right into my anxiously awaiting hands as he recapped his days on Broadway as Hamlet. In perfectly timed, brilliantly satirical, theatrical in-jokey fashion, Law delivered a hilarious monologue that both showed off his comedic chops and gave the audience a glimpse of his potential in the world's most famous role as he spouted the first few lines of 3.1's "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy.

See the video above for the full performance. My personal favourite moments included:

 "Hamlet rails against his mother 'frailty thy name is woman' he says, plus many other lines that are less famous and harder to memorize"
"I come back onstage and Ophelia's dead, don't know what happened there, I never watched act four"

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Remembering the Pride Last week I saw the touring production of The Lion King at The Boston Opera House. It was okay. I say it was only okay not because it was anything less than a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience but because the piece itself is capable of being so much more. During its extended stay in Toronto a few years back, I saw The Lion King on two different occasions and each time came away with the same feeling of grandeur, spectacle and amazement at what I had just seen. The Lion King, with its innovative (read: genius) artistic design and translation from film to stage and its beautiful musicality, is the type of show that really makes an impression on its audience. the sitcom Sports Night, when Dana (Felicity Huffman), a theatre cynic, returns from seeing The Lion King for the first time, she exclaims with amazement "I didn't know we could do that". That's what The Lion King did to me the first times I saw it. I didn't know we could turn human beings into strangely realistic representations of the animal kingdom's most complex beasts like lions, cheetahs, antelope, hyenas, buzzards and baboons. I didn't know we could make Hamlet into a children's movie, not to mention making a children's cartoon into a thought-provoking stage spectacle for all ages. I didn't know some of the most haunting musical theatre ballads ever written could be the work of an aging popstar. I didn't know that we could stage a stampede in a proscenium arch or make a ghost appear reflected in a pool of water or bring a life-sized elephant down the aisle of a theatre. I didn't know we could do that. But The Lion King, as envisioned by the unparalleledly innovative director Julie Taymor, showed me that we could. But it wasn't just that. The Lion King begins with a solo voice as powerful as thunder, Rafiki summoning the animals. Mustafa lives and breathes kinship, standing tall with incredible warmth mixed with power. The beautiful African-influenced choreography is executed with perfect synchronization; each note of the libretto is hit with perfect vocal technique and character detail. The animal realities become incidental as the story of the characters themselves takes centre stage.

But what I saw last week at the Opera House was something different. It was just as beautiful, the colours vibrant, the iconic costumes in tact. The music was all there, as beautifully orchestrated as ever. And the story was the same: all poignance wrapped in rough and tumble fun. But the production lacked the vibrancy of the previous one. The Rafiki understudy was shrill, her notes too big for her voice and her acting simply caricature. Mustafa was short and tough, lacking the natural kingly charisma the role requires; his "lion walk" taking precedence over his integral character and his voice, though strong, lacked the wisdom needed for a convincing "They Live in You". Young Simba lacked grounding, pouncing around the stage on spindly legs. His older counterpart fared better, making a pitch-perfect entrance at the end of Act One as Hakuna Matata sends the audience out to intermission. But he faded as the production wore on, stumbling under the weight of some of his more demanding vocals like "Endless Night". The dancing, though always impressive, lacked verve, as did the animal chorus in general. The hyenas, Zazoo, Timon, Poomba and Scar were all par for the course in generous roles geared for audience appreciation. But overall, the cast lacked the pizazz needed to support such a wonderful story, expert libretto and perfect production design.
The shining light in the cast was Nala, both young and old. The young Nala brought energy and a wonderfully fun sense of false maturity to the first act, dragging a simpering young Simba up with her. Grown Nala's arrival in the second act brought further lovely surprises as she proved to be both the most engaging actor and the most soulful and capable singer of the lot. She masterfully handled the prideful ballad "Shadowland", some of the hardest vocals in the whole production, then went on to highlight audience favourite "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" with strength and energy unparalleled by her costars. She brought up the level of verve on the stage whenever she entered and even reinvigorated her Simba with wonderful stage chemistry.
Overall, the touring production of The Lion King is a weak shadow of what a great company could do with it. But at the end of the day it's still The Lion King. It's still spectacular, awe-inspiring and momentous in itself, regardless of what the company does with it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lukewarm Comedy of Obnoxiously Unrealistic Errors

My Theatre is thrilled to introduce its newest author, James Melo. A Shakespeare buff and general theatre-lover, James has a bone to pick with one of the Bard's lesser-known comedies.

“I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,”
Why William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is a Terrible Play

by James Melo

Ok, so let me just go ahead and get this out of the way right at the start. I LOVE William Shakespeare. In my opinion, he is the single greatest author to ever grace the English language, and his equal has never been seen nor will ever be seen. If I had a time machine, I would go back in time, meet him in a pub, strike up a friendship, and see where it went from there.

That being said, Comedy of Errors is just an absolutely horrible play.

I was fortunate enough to see a performance of it by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre Troupe recently, and it was actually pretty good. I say pretty good, and not excellent, because the play itself has so many issues.

First of all, the entire premise is absurd. The whole thing only works if the most unlikely set of circumstances occur. Admittedly, very few of Shakespeare’s works are actually “likely”, but Comedy of Errors pushes it just far enough to make it beyond ridiculous. For those of you who are not familiar with the plot of Comedy of Errors, it boils down to this: there were these two people, a man and a woman, who loved each other very much. They had children, twin boys, and as luck would have it, someone else in their town had twin boys as well, so they bought the other twins to be servants to their twins. Now, this isn’t so absurd just yet. But here’s the kicker: apparently, these wonderful parents couldn’t think of more than two names. So, they called both of their sons Antipholus, and both of the servant twins Dromio. Would those who see the problem with this please raise their hands? No? Still a few who don’t see it? Ok, fine...

As though fate (or a hackneyed plot device) had preordained it, the two sets of twins are separated (along with the mother and father), so each Antipholus gets a Dromio, and they are sent on their merry ways. Years later, one Antipholus (Antipholus of Syracuse) and his Dromio, not knowing that they are actually twins, ends up being mistaken as the other Antipholus (and other Dromio) by everyone that the other set knows, including the other Antipholus’s wife, sister in law, and business acquaintances. The two Antipholi (yeah, I wanted to call them that since the beginning of the article) manage not to meet until the final scene, where everything is explained by their father (who just happens to be the prisoner of the Duke of Syracuse) and their mother (who happens to be a nun in Syracuse who one of the Antipholi sought sanctuary with). And so, everyone lives happily ever after, blah blah blah.

Now, I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy myself. I’ve never not enjoyed myself at the theatre. This particular play is funny, but only because some of the jokes are clever and the director is given a LOT of leeway by the text for entertaining bits of blocking. In other words, I enjoyed the play not because the play itself was good, but because the director did a great job of bringing the whole thing together.

Even with its absolutely ridiculous premise, Comedy of Errors is actually sort of funny. The problem is, though, that if you strip out the mistaken identity bit, there’s nothing all that funny going on in the text itself.
The play is only funny based on something that makes absolutely no sense, which sort of puts a damper on the play itself being funny. So, I’m going to have to say that although I admittedly enjoyed the staging of it that I saw, it is not even close to making my list of my top 10 favorite plays that William Shakespeare wrote.
And I swear to whatever god you want to make me swear to, if I EVER have twin sons, I’m naming one Bob, and the other Greg.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Best Wedding in Town

In fact, the best SHOW in town, and perhaps the greatest thing I've seen in quite some time, is called My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. Playing now at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto, MMLJWW is the latest great product of the Toronto Fringe Festival, the same festival that started The Drowsy Chaperone on its way to success. The funny, charming and moving musical premiered last summer at the Fringe, where it was spotted by theatre poohbah David Mirvish, who quickly brought it to the Panasonic for all to enjoy.

The one act musical, written by David Hein and his wife Irene Carl Sankoff, is the true story of Hein and his mother(s). A remarkable cast, led by Hein himself and the brilliant Lisa Horner as his mother Claire, give great life to the unmistakably beautiful story and catchy libretto. MMLJWW is one of those lovely modern musicals that's both smart and funny, touching yet light, meaningful and thought provoking but never preachy.

Hein serves as the comforting narrator, much like The Drowsy Chaperone's "Man in Chair", but more successfully in my opinion. The audience likes him immediately, from the moment he steps prematurely through the curtain to usher the final latecomers into their seats. He then takes his place on a stool stage left with his band, from where he narrates, sings harmony and plays the guitar while he waits for the point in the story when he can take over from the actor playing "Young David" (Kyle Orzech). David, the character and the actor, in all his "straight, white male"-ness is uncompromisingly ordinary; extroardinary only in the endearingly compassionate way he deals with life changing revelation after life-changing revelation thrown at him by his ever-growing set of parents.

David is joined by an equally charming set of characters, each of whom garners enough pathos to fuel an entire show just on their own. Claire, whom the story is really about, is wonderfully neurotic as she worries about how her choices will affect her son. David's father Garth is no less of a good guy for being the supporting player in a messy divorce story. David's wife Irene (originally played by Irene herself before she moved over to premiere the new role of Michelle, giving the part of Irene to Lori Nancy Kalamanski) also serves as a fun yet grounding force in the story. But the real crux of the piece is Claire's partner Jane (the remarkable Rosemary Doyle). Without the warm and earthy character of Jane, Claire's entire arc would seem random and unlikely. As expertly written by Hein and Sankoff and portrayed by Doyle, Jane becomes someone the audience falls for right alongside Claire, thereby actively involving us in her emotional journey.

Simple direction and a clever sense of self-awareness pairs with the beautiful story and quick wit of the writing to make for an incredibly pleasant evening at the theatre. Canadians will love the many in-jokes about Beaver Tails, Toronto's Don Valley Parkway and Ontario's "wet cold" as well as the eye-opening song "A Short History of Gay Marriage in Canada". You'll sway along, smiling, to "Wiccan 101", fall in love with "You and Me" and laugh until your sides hurt when you hear "Feelings are Important", "You Don't Need a Penis" and "Hot Lesbian Action". You'll fall in love with David, laugh awkwardly alongside a mother-smothered Irene and pine for a love as true as Jane and Claire's.

My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding will make you laugh, make you cry and make you sing in celebration when the characters learn of Ontario's decision to "legalize love".

Welcome Theatre Fans

Let me introduce you to "My Theatre" a new theatre blog and the newest addition to "My Entertainment World". Fans of "My TV" will be familiar with the format of this new blog. Here myself and other hand-selected theatre lovers will share our thoughts on the latest in the world of theatre, be that criticism of recent casting news, reviews of current touring productions, theoretical discussions of our favourite plays or praise for a local college production.

We'll cover everything from the Toronto Fringe Festival to Broadway's biggest hits to Boston's Actor's Shakespeare Project and everything in between. You can read about our all-time favourite Eponines, the challenges of translating Hamlet from the page to the stage, our thoughts on what we've seen recently (student, professional and all other types of productions) and even screen adaptations of our favourite shows.

So, welcome all to "My Theatre". Please turn off your cellphones, avoid using flash photography and enjoy the show.

Onward ho!