Strutting & Fretting

I wish I could say I’d forgotten how tiring this work during the day, rehearse at night thing is, but honestly, my memories of life during my days as God’s Gift to Theatre (and self-delusion) are primarily of exhaustion and the crankiness borne of same. And desperation. And fulfillment, And drugs. And really good sex. Ah, good times, good times.

What? I’m sorry, what was I saying? Oh, yes. At this point we’re a little less than a week from opening Shadowlands, a play which is my – perhaps temporary, perhaps not – return to the Legitimate Stage. An old friend from the aforementioned Full Metal Theatre days called me up last November and asked me to come out of retirement – again – for the show (he did this almost five years ago with one of my dream roles, Van Helsing in Dracula). I had been chafing badly at the murder mystery dinner theater I normally do on Saturdays, where I am something of a big fish in a small pond. I’m doing shows I have been doing for damn near twenty years. It’s not truly acting anymore, more an exercise in timing, and worst of all, by my reckoning, for an often drunken audience who regards you as a sort of low-rent 3-D TV, something that can be talked over or to, as one does in one’s very own living room.

Nothing is worse than drunks when you are, yourself, not drunk.

So. This is not a stellar role, a main character. I guess it could be referred to as a featured role, as unlike the other actors who are not in the four main roles, I only play the one character. (Fine by me, I’ve certainly done my time in the utility player capacity). But I do also have to move set pieces.

Ah, there’s the rub.

Shadowlands began life as a BBC teleplay, which was then adapted to a stage play (and eventually the Anthony Hopkins/Debra Winger movie); the stage version retains the sweep of the teleplay, moving from pub to Oxford to Lewis’ study to Greece to hospital room and all points in-between. Usually this is done with lights and scrims and the like, but this theater has no fly space to bring curtains and the like in and out. Instead what we have are five screens – well, they are referred to as screens, but what they are is full-size replicas of the monolith from 2001 on casters., with different visual elements on either side. When the scale model was shown at first rehearsal, it was emphasized that it was important that this not “become a show about screen-moving”.

It quickly became a show about screen-moving.

No small amount of frustration there, but the last few rehearsals have been more about winnowing down the amount of screen-moving (especially once it finally sank in that it was impossible to have a scene occur while the screens were put in place – the damned things are the opposite of silent), and last night – a week before we open – we finally got back down to the business of working on the bits between the screen moves. You know, acting.

It was the most satisfying rehearsal I’d had since the beginning or the process, since the screens starting rolling in from the depths of the shop.

So back again tonight, still trying to figure out how to best come on and be the comic relief after the death scene, which is hard to ignore and always leaves me in tears (“That’s alright, I’m an actor… I can use this!”) . I guess I’m succeeding, because the dead woman sat in the house the other night and I heard her laugh.

You see, this is why I love the theatre… I get to truthfully say things like “The dead woman sat in the house the other night and I heard her laugh.”

Rambling Onto the Moors

I am severely off-balance entering into this New Year. I appear to have officially joined the Middle-Age Club with my purchase of one of those pill organizers that you ladle each day’s pharmaceuticals into so you don’t get confused. It’s more laziness on my part than any actual fear that I’ll get confused; it’s simply easier to flip open one compartment every morning than five bottles. Not really helping is that the store only had two sizes of these organizers: a little too small and a LOT too big. I feel like I’m cracking open a Casio keyboard to get my pills.

I spent four and a half hours in a dental chair last Wednesday (the assistant was really surprised it took that long, too) with the result that the busted front tooth now has a clunky temporary tooth jammed into its space, while I wait for the crown to be manufactured. The temp actually looks pretty good, and I’m happy to be able to pronounce my sibilants and fricatives without special effort again, not to mention being able to manage the occasional slight smile. Let me tell you, that last two weeks of shows in December looking like I’d been through a bar fight (or months of meth addiction) was pretty nerve-wracking.

And hey, speaking of shows – I started rehearsals for Shadowlands last Tuesday night – yes, the night before the dental appointment, more concealing my deformity from folks – and it is very hard to express just how happy that makes me. I’ve been doing the Mystery Cafe shows for years, but working on an actual show in an actual theater which people will pay to see, during which there will be no clanking of silverware or people leaving in the middle of an act to get another beer… well. That’s heavenly. Going to wind up spending more than I earn on gas and tolls, but I don’t care. This is for my soul.

The drive there and back is providing me with time to catch up on podcasts. It means I will finally get through that five hour ‘cast on the death of the Roman Empire (jeez) and the like. Speaking of such things, my involvement with the Daily Grindhouse podcast continues, and I find I’m digging on doing research again. It’s pushing me into watching more movies, though not quite in line with my New Year’s resolution to watch more good movies. (The relatively high quality of Lethal Force notwithstanding) Having finally scored a bootleg of Kubrick’s first (and disowned) film, Fear and Desire, I finally own the man’s total output, and can embark on my personal project of watching them all in order. It’s shocking how many I have never seen, and the ones I have – well, that viewing was likely a decade ago. Or two. Maybe three.

Note I didn’t do anything so stupid as to resolve to watch nothing but good movies. I have a metric buttload of questionable DVDs I still have to watch. My sleep schedule as usual shot to hell on Saturday, I watched the Ian Richardson Hound of the Baskervilles (again, research) and found it to be a very credible version – in fact, it may be my second favorite after the Rathbone version. I find the Brett version rather lackluster, not even in the running. The Cushing/Hammer version is in third place. I’d love to see the two-parter the BBC did with Cushing; hell, I’d also love to see the four-part TV version with Tom Baker as the Great Detective. Not quite so interested in re-visiting the 1972 American TV version with Stewart Granger as Holmes, even with William Shatner playing Stapleton. I saw it on its first broadcast, rmember thinking it was okay, but just not British enough.

I should take time to mention that Ian Richardson was a wonderful Holmes; many qualities of his performance here were transferred into his Dr. Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms, which is likely the worst title ever for a TV series. The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes is only a little better. Bell is, of course, the fellow Arthur Conan Doyle based Holmes upon, and the four episodes of the series were based – one can only assume very loosely indeed – on the two men’s meeting and subsequent adventures. Well worth seeking out if you’re a Holmes fan.

The Richardson Hound is also worth a look, if only for the surprising breadth of its cast. Brian Blessed as the red herring Lyons, and Connie Booth as his abused wife; Denholm Elliott as Dr. Mortimer, Ronald Lacey as Lestrade, Elenor Bron as Mrs. Barrymore… those are just the ones this benighted Yank could easily pick out. Donald Churchill’s Watson is a bit too much in the bumbly Nigel Bruce vein for my liking, but that’s not his fault – it is a rock-solid Watson all the same.

Hound has always held a special fascination for me, not only because of the supernatural elements, but also because of its position in the Holmes canon. Told as a flashback by Watson, it was written and published after Doyle had infamously killed Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, and before he finally gave up and resurrected the character in The Adventure of the Empty House. Holmes is absent from the narrative for the entire second act, and I begin to wonder if this wasn’t Doyle slyly attempting to wean the public off the Great Detective. In any case, that give rise to one of my few complaints about the Rathbone Hound – Nigel Bruce’s Watson turns out to be pretty competent until Holmes shows back up, and even being in the same room with the sleuth, even is disguise, causes Watson’s IQ to drop by 80 points or so.

Hah. You see? It’s dangerous to get me onto the subject of Holmes. What’s that you say? What about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows? I didn’t mind it. I enjoyed the first Downey Holmes – it was more of a proper mystery. Shadows was an adventure movie with Holmes as a protagonist. I still greatly enjoy Jude Law’s Watson.

So yes, I don’t actual qualify myself as a Holmes fan – I’m a Watson fan. A good Watson can make me overlook a lacking Holmes, as is the case in the Asylum’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (truthfully one of their better mockbusters – but not, by any stretch, a good movie). A great Watson meshes with a great Holmes to create magic, as was the case with Edward Hardwicke and Jeremy Brett, James Mason and Christopher Plummer, Colin Blakely and Robert Stephens (Blakely was the first to show me how wonderful Watson could be), Law and Downey – and let us certainly not forget Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, who have been exhilarating.

"Oh, I SAY!"

I’m sorry Nigel, it wasn’t your fault – the producers wanted some reliable comic relief, and you obliged them, and obliged them well. You just weren’t my – sorry – cup of tea.

And good grief, my simply here’s where I am now has somehow turned into a thousand words on Sherlock Holmes.

It happens.

EDIT: How the hell did I forget Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine? Without A Clue is the shiznit if you’re a Watson man.