Monday, January 25, 2016

Three Stages of Theater

Last week was a great theater week. I had the opportunity to see three plays at different stages of the creative process. I'd be hard-pressed to say which experience was my favorite. 

I am loving my "Behind the Scenes" class at Florida Studio Theater. Our latest session found us in the rehearsal studio with Claire Warden and Gil Brady as they went through one of their scenes in "Outside Mullingar" for the very first time.  Director Kate Alexander explained that the morning would be about laying in the basic framework and that an additional two-three hours would be spent on the scene before opening night. 

There were two things that struck me when sitting in this rehearsal. The first was the collaborative nature of figuring out the logistics. The scene is set in Claire/Rosemary's kitchen, and Gil/Anthony has to enter from the rainy outdoors. Anthony was scouring the ground with a metal detector when Rosemary spotted him.  For the day, the metal detector was a headset and a crutch, which Claire laughingly called "brilliant."

Gil with his "metal detector"
The actors and director spent a fair amount of time working out how Anthony would enter the house and negotiate getting off his coat, hat and boots while dealing with the metal detector. "Are you giving me your coat as well?" Rosemary asked.  "I'm not wearing a coat," Gil replied. "Well, you'd better be because you give it to me." After the first run-through, Gil jokingly declared, "We're not going to do better than that. Why do we need to go back?"  (Gil seems to always have a self-deprecating humorous remark at the ready. About a minute into the rehearsal, he had commented, "I think it's going really well.  Who else got choked up?) 

I was taken by their attention to detail as they worked through the scene. The flimsy towel originally planned to be given to Anthony to dry off his head was swapped out for one more sturdy. Claire questioned whether the sink would be "practical" (i.e., working) and whether the Guinness would be room temperature or if she would grab it from a refrigerator (which wasn't blocked out on the set).

The second thing I was struck by was Claire and Gil's easy rapport. When Gil asked if she could give him a chair to take off his shoes, Claire said, "Always, babe." It was hard to believe the pair had only met the previous week. When I asked Claire about it, she said they had an instant connection. It was like, "Okay. We're BFFs now." They are absolutely adorable, both individually and together. (And, in case you can't tell, I've become totally invested in this show, which opens on February 3rd.)   

Carolyn Michel
Then there was Carolyn Michel's "Women I Have Loved."  This show was part of the 2016 SaraSolo Festival, a grouping of 16 different performances celebrating the solo performer. Michel put her show together specifically for the Festival. It was a pastiche of five characters she's portrayed in one act shows, including Ann Landers, Dorothy Parker and an 80 year old Holocaust survivor. And it was wonderful.

Before a sold-out house, Michel transformed herself from one character to the next, changing clothes and wigs as she sang a tune to segue to the next scene. I don't think I would've known it was the same actress if I hadn't seen the changes myself. Accents, of course, made a huge difference, but so did body language and the way the character moved.

Ann Landers solicited input from the audience (with my favorite question being the age-old controversy of the "right" way for toilet paper to be put on the roller. Landers received 15,000 pieces of mail in response to this column.)  Dorothy Parker wisecracked her way through her portion of the show as she tossed off familiar quips like, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."  But it was the stories of fictional characters that most grabbed me. You could have heard a pin drop as Rose recalled losing her family during the Holocaust. Bev shared having to be hospitalized when striving to be the perfect mother and wife became too much. Bev's mother-in-law (another Rose) had the audience singing along to "Sunrise, Sunset."

The show opened and closed the same night, so Michel didn't have the benefit of a preview period to perfect her act.  She didn't need it.

Last up was "Butler" at Florida Studio Theatre, a show that has been onstage since December. The production deals with a little known historic incident in which Union General Benjamin Butler discovers that three run-away slaves are seeking sanctuary in his fort. Even during the Civil War, the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect, a law that required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. (The Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1863.)

Eric Hoffman was terrific as General Butler, and it was a pleasure to see Shane Taylor return to FST's stage as an errant slave. (Taylor appeared in last year's wonderful production of "Fly.") The story was engaging, with humor throughout despite the seriousness of the topic. And the "convoluted" way Butler came to interpret the law made this lawyer proud.

"Butler" runs at Florida Studio Theatre through March 5.


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