Saturday, July 25, 2009

Notes on a Play

I don't get to the theater much, but recently i set out the goal of catching a play. As it happened, a friend's boyfriend was involved in local production, so we went out to see it, a musical based on a Mark Twain story. I suppose I walked into the show a bit distracted. It wasn't that the play was boring, but other thoughts kept drifting in. It was opening night, and this was a small community theater, so not surprisingly, the play was a bit rough around the edges. A few scenes into the first act, my attention snapped back to the play when one character took a magnificent stage fall, breaking through a flimsy faux-railing and falling down the stairs in mid-song, then sprung back up without missing a note. His fall was so realistic that one woman in the back row jumped up out of her seat like she was about to run down and help him up. The rest of the crowd seemed finally to fall into synchronized appreciation, and responded with a roar of applause. Finishing up the first act it seemed that the actors were kind of settling into their parts, finding a good tone and tempo for their parts. Perhaps the first roars of the crowd help the actors figure out their role- and hence a reduced price on opening night.

So the play was moving along, gaining some momentum, when a couple of scenes into the second act a cell phone went off in the audience. It came from a couple sitting in the front row at the side of the stage. I had noticed them earlier. They looked to me a bit awkward and strangely dressed, maybe out-of-towners. It occurred to me that they might have been family of one of the actors in the play, but then I couldn't see anyone with an obvious resemblance. They were the only ones in their row, which was right at the stage level, and because the audience seating wrapped around 3 sides of the stage, a good two-thirds of us were looking right at them, either head on, or from the side. They were so close to being right on the stage that they were half-lit by glow of the stage lighting. And then it happened, the ringer, set at high volume, a dance club ring-tone with a driving un-ta-ta, un-ta-ta, beat. It could have been clearly heard by everyone in the audience. I don't know if it was in my mind or not, but there then came this low-level, collective hiss from everyone throughout the theater. I watched the woman flip the phone open and fiddle with it for a good 5 seconds or more trying to silence it. Once it was off, she looked around with a perplexed, what just happened expression, and over at the man next to her, who must have been her husband. This was when I really started paying attention. The man's reaction was one of pure, unfiltered, deep-rooted scorn. I had a vague recollection of the archetypal, loathing couple from Edward Albee's horrifying play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The man was so animated in his expressions, that all I could think was that, knowing they were being watched, he wanted to show the audience just how unhappy he was with his wife, repeatedly shaking his head, his lips pursed, brow furrowed, face full of contempt. And the woman's mortification couldn't have been more obvious. She looked like she was back in second grade sitting at her desk with a puddle of urine under her chair and her school mates looking on. She sat paralyzed, her legs clinched together, her eyes big and gaunt, still pressing the phone into her lap. The dynamic of the frightened woman and and the vengeful husband was hard to ignore even as the play went on in front of me.

I suppose that being in the theater, and thus unable to verbally condemn her, he had to resort to body language. He was turning his back to her as thoroughly as he could possibly maneuver, arms and legs crossed, periodically glancing back at her with a scowl. He went on like this for some minutes. It was the exaggeration in his show of condemnation that most struck me, but I couldn't exactly tell if he was doing it just for her, or for us, the entire audience. Was he trying to show us that by scorning her, he wasn't like her? Trying to dispel any guilt by association we might be harboring towards him? But the punishment he was doling out seemed to me out of proportion to the crime. A couple of minutes passed and, my mind was starting to drift back to the play when I glanced back again. Unable to bear his treatment, the woman apparently trying to break the ice, reached over, put her hand on his arm and stretched to put her head affectionately, beggingly on his shoulder. Instantly he jerked away, yanking his shoulder out from under. She recoiled back like she'd been nipped by a goat at the petting zoo, and settled back into her frightened pose again, stone still. I was a bit jarred, even confused. This was happening because of a cell phone noise.

This scene took place within a couple minutes or so, and eventually my focus started drifting back to the play. But now I was also beginning to question my own fixation on the couple. I had to wonder if I wasn't in some part responsible for what was happening. After all, it was clear that we, the audience, were the ones sitting in judgement, and this was why the man was chiding his wife. I felt a tinge of guilt, because in some way it was as if he was doing it on my behalf. So I tried not to watch, but I couldn't help but glance back now and then unthinkingly. Now, I know that eaves dropping has a red flag of immorality hanging on it. There's certainly something in my own upbringing about not nosing into the personal dramas of strangers. But there it was in front of me, essentially right on stage. How could I ignore it? And you know, if the man had just laughed it off, I would have too. I would have gone back to the show after the ringer was turned off, with little thought more. But now how could I ignore this little peephole, poking into my face, and what good would it have done if I did?

Eventually I did settle back into the play I'd come to see, which was now getting well into the second act. At this point, the mysterious, caped, scoundrel character, whom the audience already knows committed a murder, is being exposed to the rest of the characters. This led to a cartoonish chase scene where all the characters ran around the stage, hilariously snaking through the various stage props, then through the audience seating. They looped back down onto the stage for their final pass and suddenly, as impossible as it seemed, the woman's phone rang again! This time she leaped out of her seat, squashing the phone into her stomach like a bleeding wound, and ran out of the theater only a few feet in front of the whole cast, as they ran down the isle behind her and into the lobby. The crowd burst into a roar of applause, not for the woman of course, but for the actors. But I, and I presume the much of the audience, saw the scene with the cell phone happening simultaneously, and so found ourselves now looking back to see what the husband was going to do- join in the chase? No. He stayed right there in his seat, but utterly transformed. Rather than showing anger, he was suddenly the most animated, laughing, cheering member of the audience! I can think of only two things possible; he either miraculously broke through the hate barrier and tumbled into a world where his wife no longer existed, one where he loved the show and was just another happy member of the crowd- or else he decided that his next scene called for a very different performance, one that showed that he was so far above ringing cell phones in the theater that he wasn't even going to let it register, wasn't going let it get him down. Either interpretation leaves room for the other, and really, at the core, how can you explain such a thing, especially from my vantage point?

For the rest of the play the woman didn't return. The man sat in his chair and cheered along with the rest of us, though I did catch him looking back towards the lobby a couple of times. Once again my mind found its way back to the play, and once back, I made another bewildering observation concerning a different drama taking place. The actor who had taken the great fall in the first act had a developed a limp, and was moving around the stage with the aid of a cane. I searched for some way in which the fall could have been part of the story, but it didn't fit into any part of the plot. There was no reason for him to either fall, or be injured as part of the story. As the act went on it became clear to me that he wasn't singing and dancing with the vigor that was so obviously intended in his role. His motions were decidedly stiff and careful. I was shocked to reevaluate my recollection of his fall. Where before I thought he was a master of stage stunts, now I was awed at his drive to continue on while so obviously injured. After the show I learned from a friend that the woman who had leaped out of her seat during the big stage fall was the director, who obviously knew it was a real fall, and a bad one.

I didn't see the woman with the cell phone or the angry husband on the way out of the theater, which kind of left me hanging, wanting some kind of resolution, but I guess I saw enough. I suppose I could have tried to follow them for a bit, confirm that it wasn't going to get uglier or something, but wouldn't that be totally going over the line? Eavesdropping is no virtuous past time, I think, at least in part because of the half-truths you're left having to invent to fill in the gaps. But how do you ignore a scene like that?


  1. What, indeed, was part of the play,and what wasn't? I have a disease I call metaphorization, which tends to read messages into everything. schizophrenics and artists have it. And people on psychedelic drugs.
    Of course the actors in the play were impersonating the audience in the theatre who chased after the criminal in their midst along with the woman in the audience whose phone rang and all the people in the audience and the chasing crowd masked their own complicity in crimes large and small by hissing and chasing or staying put in their seats as if they were not involved at all. Everyone who has ever made a call to someone who has a cell phone is responsible for every time a phone rings in a theatrical performance...complicity...
    I liked your essay Jesse....
    I like to think of the fine borders between theatre and reality, certainly....

  2. Thanks, thanks! It was super fun to write this, realizing that it's easy (especially with a wandering mind) to forget what is what in any situation. In this case, the supposed artificiality of the theater was a line that seemed worth romping all over.