Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "For Want of A Horse..."

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Friday - Sunday, 28 - 30 May, 1999: "For Want of A Horse..."

As I dashed toward the door to catch a ride back to Jamaica Plain in what was already Monday morning, a smile like a follow-spot caught me fixed in its golden glow. That smile has a name, but I have not been able to discover its e-mail address, and I've seen it all too briefly, all too seldom. As that smile held me "in my light" it asked "And, have you been enjoying yourself?" I would have spent hours answering, but could only mumble "Yes, I always do," stumbling to catch up with those generous friends. So this is some of what, had I time, that smile might have heard.

There were at minimum fourteen dramas played out in the Spingold Theater Complex last week-end. I was privileged to participate in one of them.
If I lived a hundred yards on the other side of the Orange Line tracks, my address wouldn't be Roxbury but Jamaica Plain, and I asked if anyone connected with The Footlight Club's production of "Equus" could drive me to and from Waltham for the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters' annual festival. The show's director Nancy Curran Willis told me to be at the theatre at 10:30 sharp, when the crew would truck the set out to Spingold, but said it'd be easier all round if I slept over in her guest-room rather than become a very groggy ping-pong ball. Actually, in a week-end that collegiates all over the area were commandeering transport, that huge truck wasn't available till noon. The sets were disassembled and waiting --- and so were the crew, which included techies and actors alike.

I love to talk with theater people; it's how I learn.
I asked James F. Lynch, who had designed and helped build the set, how he got into theater, and was surprised to hear that he had played a policeman in a Charles Playhouse Children's Theatre production of "Toad of Toad Hall." ("When I stuck my mug out and said "He called me 'Fat-Face!' and got my laugh, I was hooked!") That meant I had seen his debut! In fact, he confirmed a story John Watson (who had played Toad) told me --- that when Toad pretended to be sick in order to break out of jail, one afternoon a little girl with a toy medical-case walked up onto the stage calling "I'll help you, Mr. Toad! I'm a nurse!" Jim had an almost eidetic memory of sets he had designed and lit during the years his fat face was developing character and his hair becoming a flamboyant white banner above those smiling glasses. He even told me what a "gobo" is!

When the truck arrived the heavy pieces of the revolving play-space, like a boxing-ring with its "mahogany" outer railing, and the tall background structure of a marble Greek temple, so delicately made of painted canvas and dominated by a huge horse-head sculpture carved from styrofoam, went into the truck along with the stylized heads for six horses (fashioned by Robert Canterbury) and benches for the entire cast to sit on stage awaiting their entrances. Ropes and padding were needed to insure that the ride didn't destroy the illusion and the very sets themselves on the trip.

I drove out with Fred Robbins, playing Dr. Martin Dysart in this eloquently intense psychological exploration of religion, sex, and the passionate intertwining of the two. He admitted to having done a few summers of paid stock, though he got his degree in Business Ad just before "Equus" opened, and his wife is just beginning a career as a professional actress. Fred has dreams of putting his business school acumen to work running a theater company.

But out at Spingold the manager/actor slipped on his thick gloves and became a roustabout again, unloading the set and spotting it in the huge wings of Spingold's big Laurie Theatre. (Lighting Designer Heidi Hinkel, who had driven the truck, was already up in the light booth setting levels.) Stage Manager Judy Forgione and her crew were to get only one chance to move all of that on to the stage, and spike everything with colored tape, then to strike and store everything for Saturday evening's performance. The actors had a few minutes to feel the stage and explore the house before again reverting to stage-hands. The put-in and the strike had to be carefully timed, and the performance itself could go not a second over 45 minutes; if any of this ran overtime, the production would be disqualified from competition.

As the set came on the stage, I noticed spotted behind it a familiar piece of scenery, and discovered that Jim Lynch had changed from an "Equus" t-shirt to one adorned with the tastefully small "M. Butterfly" butterfly --- he was part of the crew moving that show on and off the next night.

Friday Night:
While everyone was settling into the dressing-room, and probably honing their nerves, Sharon Eliott, who played the girl who seduces Tom Berry into the nude sex-scene which is the centerpiece of the play, introduced herself. She's a psychiatrist (though I can't believe anyone looking so young and so pretty could be old enough for that job), and admitted she was doing theater to deal with stage-fright. "I'm fine lecturing," she said, "but doing a role is terrifying. So I treat it as a challenge." She was the only cast member who responded to my standard question "What's your next show?" with a quick look of panic and "Well, I'll have to see," while a subtext behind her eyes said "Do this Again??? You must be out of your mind!" She did say though she had picked a great group to work with. "They've all taught me so much."

With the work done and the next day's schedule planned out, everyone drifted off to their own lives. I caught the last 20-minutes the Rose Art Museum next door was open --- a retrospective of some provocative paintings all looking a lot like excellent advertising art --- and found myself a little grassy alcove in which to grab a sandwich and read another chapter or two of Iris Murdoch's "The Unicorn". I tried to whistle a little competitive dialog with a catbird, and all of a sudden my body discovered it had been upright and talking since about an hour before I'm usually out of bed and breakfasted. But the first night's productions still lay ahead.

The first show was actually a showcase: one of the winners of this year's Massachusetts High School Drama Festival. St. John's Prep Drama Guild presented "A Girl's Guide to The Divine Comedy/Ghostwriting The Inferno" by Shelley Berc. The production-values and performances here were excellent, and Brother Ron Santoro, C.F.X., who directed did great things with a script that was mostly descriptive monologs strikingly illustrated by mime and tableaux --- a script I had a hard time concentrating on, since it tackled all seven circles of Hell in unrelenting order.

Then The Wellesley Players did a cut-down version of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" which had wide ranges of ages in the cast, wide ranges of expertise, and wide ranges of underplaying and full-out emotional pitch. I felt it was all extremes, with little smooth flow from fairly obvious part to part. This may have been the result of cutting a 45-minute segment out of a full-length play.

Last on the program was "God...It's A Tough Job" an original written and directed by Robert Lawlor Mattson and presented by the Harvard Community Theatre. I talked a bit with Mattson later in the week, and found he has the fastest comic-inventive mind I've ever met. He had written several dinner/mystery-theatre plays that get done around the country, until he found the formula too cliché and restrictive. Despite conversations with one or occasionally two other people, "God..." is essentially standup-comedy chattergun jokes and one-liners that never stop, never flag, and wander all over the Biblical map daring the audience's minds and funnybones to keep up. Hysterically funny but not a play was my judgement, though the comic timing everywhere was flawless. I was surprised to see Joseph Zamparelli Jr. doing Noah/Judas/Lucifer shticks, and the "Equus" boy Tom Berry doing Adam and Jesus. Zamparelli and Dave Sheppard (who played God) were both dirtectors of other shows in this year's competition.

I may as well start making critical comments here, because the "Divine Comedy" and "The Children's Hour" were plays I noticed early that suffered from what I referred to as "letter-slot blocking." I mean, all the action seemed to take place in a wide, shallow plane across the stage; standing close or apart, actors rarely came down front or up to the back of the set. It was a formula that, as the festival progressed, separated the ins from the outs.

After the program, both of us dead tired, Nancy Curran Willis drove me to her lovely home, showed me the guest room, and we both collapsed. On the way we talked, about her exciting new plans for the summer, about her stint as Assistant Director for Rick Lombardo at The New Repertory Theatre in Newton Highlands, about doing it again next season on her first musical, and about critics' quirks. I woke up hearing a cardinal's call, and we were off and running again.

The first four productions that day were to start at noon, with "Equus" third, but of course there was an early call to get everyone together and focused, since some of the company hoped to watch at least the first show. But when the company assembled one of the six horses hadn't appeared. No one knew what had happened --- whether he had overslept, or had an accident racing to the theatre, or --- what?

People called and getting no answer left messages, hoping he'd appear late, but they couldn't take the chance. I ducked out to check on something, and when I ducked back in the dressing room I saw Paul O'Shaughnessy in the black tunic with glitter-red breast sitting there while actors strapped the high wooden hooves to his feet. He was slipping on the long black socks that hid his hands and forearms, and looked for all the world like Pinnochio turning into a donkey on Pleasure Island. Someone had his horse mask, and Monica Bruno the Choreographer (who played another of the horses) was saying that, just in case, they would take him out to the parking lot and rehearse the blinding-sequence near the end of the show.

Paul wasn't the horse's understudy. He wasn't even a credited member of the company. He is a Footlight Club board member who volunteered his muscle and expertise on the crew for the move and the set-changes. Now here he was, willing if necessary to go out on that set a stage-hand, and come back a horse. I got myself out of the way and went round to the auditorium.

There, the first show was David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" by The Arlington Friends of The Drama. I had called this show the best (out of 140) I had seen all last year, and I ached to see it go head-to-head with "Equus" at the festival. Director Celia Couture cut it well into its 45-minute summation. But in that big hall, Patrick Wang as Song Liling needed a mike in places because of his necessarily small voice, and a recorded bit of Puccini was out of synch, a special light had been badly mis-focused. Was the cast a little nervous, or was I comparing this shortened performance with the first time I had seen it, complete? No matter, the play itself was a winner.

Then The Quannapowitt Players did an early David Mamet one-act called "Reunion" about a recovering-alcoholic father contemplating his third marriage confronting his past in the shape of the unhappily married daughter whose life he walked out on. Harold Bond who played Bernie also directed, and I found out that Sharon Mason was cast in another play later in the week. I was a little surprised to note that back in 1976 Mamet still had a heart. Still, it was another letter-slot play, and I was never sure what was going on in the daughter's mind.

Then my friends from Jamaica Plain launched into the eerie chant that began "Equus". And I know I have a tendency to dance with the one what brung me, but I don't think Tom Berry or Fred Robbins nor any of them ever gave better performances than they did that night. The play has people stepping instantly from one time to another, one place to another, yet every one of those transitions was sharp and clear, and I thought the cuts molded the 45-minute summation into a smoothly flowing whole. I thought they nailed it. (Later on, in a collage of photos from the festival projected on a huge screen, there was a picture of Stage Manager Judy Forgione's stop-watch showing that the show had taken exactly 44:52 minutes --- they had done every syllable and finished eight seconds from disqualification. And it was only today that I realized that Paul O'Shaughnessey had never done his role until that very moment.)

The final performance of the afternoon was another showcase: Terrence McNally's one-act "Next" which had won for the South Hadley Community Players the Best Production award at the 23rd Drama Festival of the Community Theatre Association of WESTERN Massachusetts, as well as awards for Best Actor, Best Backstage Crew Ensemble, Best Props and Best Set. I saw The Theater Company of Boston do this play over 30 years ago, when the idea of a 48-year-old fat guy being examined for induction into the army (and by a martinet of an Army nurse) had a little more bite because of Vietnam. Somehow, here I missed the subtle transformation from "You can't seriously want a guy like me" to "I refuse to be rejected this way." Maybe my memory of seeing it originally got in the way, but I felt it went on a little long, and this time it didn't make me cry.

In the break between sessions, Nancy assembled her entire company out in the parking lot to toast their performance with bottles of champagne and beer she'd packed in coolers in the trunk of her car. It was here that I became, for the first time, an indispensable member of the company: my Swiss-Army knife had the only bottle-opener anyone could find! I came home with three Sam Adams caps still in my pocket, which I will treasure always.

We toasted a performance to be proud of, so we would always have a memory of that achievement, but Nancy was already tinkering with the cutting, in case "Equus" were chosen as one of the four finalists. One of the commentators had missed the scene, just before the seduction, in which the girl made the boy take her to a dirty picture show --- only to find his own father in the embarrassed audience. (Yes, the cast agreed, but if you put that in, what will you take out? We're up against the clock.) She decided to allude to it by putting back the father's line, in another scene, "Ask him about the girl. He was with a girl that night," before he gouged out the eyes of those six horses he loved so much.

In a quiet moment in the party I went over and asked "You're a horse now, Paul, right?" and when he guardedly said "Yes" I held in front of his nose one of the baby-carrots I had brought along for snacks. Immediately his eyes lit up. He locked his hands behind him, snorted, delicately lifted the carrot from my fingers with his teeth, rolled it about into his chomping teeth with his tongue, and gratefully nuzzled my shoulder just as the horse Nugget did Tom Berry's neck. I had thought up my gesture the night before, and planned on springing it, but Paul responded, in character, totally spontaneously. He mentioned some time earlier that he had done time in an Improv Group in the past.

Tom Berry was very quiet --- for an actor --- but while we talked he expressed the wish, though he had won awards for performances here in the past, that the competitive aspect of the festival would disappear. "There's no real comparison of play with play possible, really; all it does is make a lot of good people disappointed when their work isn't appreciated."

Everyone probably had a little more of whatever their choice than they should --- I know I did. At one point a quick summer shower arose, but we all just retreated beneath a tree and continued to talk until the drops moved on ... leaving a small but persistent arc of rainbow which, of course, we took as a sign.

Saturday Evening:
I had never seen Beth Henley's "Crimes of The Heart" but the cutting from it The Burlington Players did couldn't keep me awake. There were a lot of Southern accents, outlandish contempt for a grandfather/patriarch in a coma in a hospital, and even with more characters, more letter-slot blocking.

What woke me up was Tom Stoppard's "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet" --- infinitely superior to any "Compleat Wks (Abridged)" I've ever seen. The Next Door Theatre is an upstart group founded in '84 (The Footlight Club dates back to '77 --- EIGHTEEN-seventy-seven.) but their little send-up featured lush costumes, a sun and a moon bouncing up and down, a set with ramps and romps, and bombast aplenty. It was new to me, and I had a ball.

Then Acme Theatre Productions (whose Best Production last year "Stiff Cuffs" will go on to a National competition in Missouri) did a play that was mostly monologues called "The Wall: A Pilgrimage" in which a family from Texas comes to terms with the twenty-year-old whose name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. It demanded that each in turn stand before the same spot and go over somewhat familiar emotional territory. It was a quiet, thoughtful piece with excellent performances, though I found the play static rather than exciting.

[ In the break between plays I won the Foot-In-Mouth Award for the entire week-end. Dave Sheppard, its director, plumped himself down in the row behind mine and asked "Okay, Larry, what did you think of my play?" and --- remembering he had played God the previous evening --- I said "Well, Dave, it's great stand-up and the performances were excellent, but it's not a play." Right answer; wrong question! I had to seek him out the next day, having read the program at last, and tell him that I didn't much think Jan Stuckey's "The Wall" was a good play, but that Dave and his cast had squeezed every ounce of character and nuance out of it they could, and I thought Jack Sweet's final monologue as the taciturn, cantankerous father was a textbook exercise in perfect line-readings and reluctant emotions. ]

The final presentation, from The Andover Community Theatre was a very crowded musical: Studs Terkel's "Working." There were so many people onstage that all the Director Dana Bissett could do (There was no Choreographer listed) was stretch them in ranks across the stage and treat them like a half-time marching band. I thought they did a decent job, but I didn't see anything special or original done with the material --- and though I love Studs the show itself, with types rather than characters and exposition rather than conflict, seemed to get thinner and thinner as it went along.

And that was another long day. Nancy suggested she wanted to sleep late next day, and I thought that a splendid idea.

Sunday Afternoon:
We arrived with little time to spare before the first presentation. A company had pulled out between the time programs were printed and the opening day. To fill in, Playwright John O'Brien gave a performance of his one-man play "The Man Without A Heart" in which he was a defense attorney rehearsing both his plea to the jury for clemency for a heinous criminal, and what he expected the prosecutor would say in his summation. O'Brien is a forceful, thoughtful actor who took command of that large audience and, whether or not they understood anything he said or where he was going, kept their attention throughout.

Then The Concord Players did most of the first act of Joseph Zamparelli Jr.'s production of A. R. Gurney's "Sylvia", which I had seen before. Someone said of it that Zamparelli hadn't done Gurney's play, he had turned it into a vaudeville act, and my reaction was "Right on, Joe!" Shana Dirik captured the lightning shifts in mood and attention that goes with the high-strung poodle personality, and caught the exuberant physicality of the character as well. Phyllis Walters turned the wife into a major antagonist rather than a dog-hating irrelevancy, and Rik Pierce as the husband was clueless as to his life slipping down the doggy-drain.. I thought it a triumph of a good director over mediocre material.

The final presentation from Waltham's Centre Stage Theatre, Ben Elton's "Popcorn" couldn't make up it's mind whether it was a with-it melodrama, or a serious farce. At least that was the impression I got of a script hampered by inadequate acting and directing. The house of a violence-specialist film director is invaded by a pair of "Mall murderers" who bring real violent death into his dysfunctional family. Somehow, brashly arrogant adolescents pressing --- and sometimes firing --- what sounded like cap-pistols between older people's eyes seemed less menacing than absurd.

Moment of Truth Time
At that point the two Adjudicators for the week-end made their cut, and all but four companies were told they must remove their sets from the building.
After a suspenseful wait the finalists were announced as "M. Butterfly" "Working" "The Wall: A Pilgrimage" and "Sylvia". Stunned into a leaden stoical silence the "Equus" company assembled backstage to disassemble the set and put it back into the truck to be hauled away to the dump.

From then on, for them --- and for me --- everything felt slightly anti-climactic. Nancy Curran Willis probably epitomized her disappointment by saying she had won awards before, for her directing and for productions, and she had been proud of her work on them all, "... But when I bring what I think is my best work --- and the best work of others --- it hurts to see it get no recognition." I remembered Tom Berry's musings on the pernicious effects of competition; but though I voiced my own view of their work to a few people in private, I left the company to deal with their loss, collectively or singly, in their own ways.
The very best performance of "Equus" was nothing but a memory.

Sunday Night & Monday Morning:
The four finalist performances took place before a full house, and the tension added to their performances. I think Tilly Sweet lost her first line in "The Wall" but recovered beautifully, and at the other end of the performance Jack Sweet's was, for me, the most perfectly rendered speech of the entire week-end. "M. Butterfly" was better; "Sylvia" was Much better. And then it was Awards time.

Before I talk about the awards, though, I must say something about the Adjudicators who decided them.
Talking to each company about their work can be a valuably instructive experience; it can also be dangerous. I think I saw the first use of an Adjudicator for this festival back in around 1971, when at least one recipient's acceptance speech ran something like "I accept this out of respect for The Festival, even though we all know it should have gone to someone else!" and the Adjudicator looked in danger of being ridden out of Waltham on a rail. Since then the Festival has gotten smaller --- it used to begin on Wednesday to fit in all the participants --- and in a sense more "professional" in approach. There were only privately aired mumbles of protest this year, instead of the near-riots I might have expected.

Adjudicators must walk a fine line, on the one hand encouraging excellent practitioners to reach higher, on the other accepting the best work of others without insult. Both Lynn Kremer and John Conlon rather blandly began with easy, complimentary comments telling us as audience what we had just seen --- and Conlon rarely went beyond this. (When he commented about "Equus" "...and so all this that we see takes place in the mind of Dysart" Nancy Curran Willis next to me whispered "My God, he's the only one who got it!" with a subtext that many others could have expressed that "It's the only intelligent thing he's said all week-end!")

Each covered the same territory, apparently maintaining objectivity by not listening to one another. This meant that the adjudication speeches were repetitious to the point that audiences were adjudicating the adjudicators, and opting for the lady who actually said some constructive criticisms. (Judy Forgione mentioned in a recent letter to me that "A few years ago they had two men who split the duties. Kent Brown was assigned to acting and direction, and the other man, whose name eludes me, talked about all the technical aspects. The adjudications were mobbed. We all learned so much, even when our show wasn't involved. For example, the technical judge mentioned that a great way to keep footprints from showing on a black painted floor was to put a coat of floor wax on it. Everyone took notes. It was great. I always thought the purpose of adjudications was to learn." That seems to me a great model to imitate.)

The Adjudicators read the scripts before coming, apparently so they can judge how much each company has illuminated what they had to work with. However, I think this tends to load the dice a little. Could it be that they expected such great things from "Equus" that any possible production would seem a let-down? Contrariwise, both admitted that the script for "The Wall" branded it unproducible, so the solid achievement of Dave Sheppard and his cast came as a surprise. (I must admit that, as a reviewer, the only preparation I make before seeing a show is to clean my eyeglasses. But I am a strange old man.) And I must say that the academic backgrounds of both Adjudicators this year lent little practicality to their advice.

But on to the spectacle!
We were promised a multi-media extravaganza of an awards ceremony, and what we got was a combination of slide-show, ballpark-graphics, and light-metal rock-concert. There was a trio of excellent dancers, oppressively loud electrified music, an excellent selection of backstage snapshots with witty captions added, and finally a good display of nominees and winners on the big screen.
But was it theater?
I thought the most telling comment came when the red theater-curtain rising to reveal the multi-media screen --- in a sense the old, traditional theatrical convention handing the evening on to the over-amplified new century --- got stuck. For a while it looked as though the whole light-show extravaganza would be blocked by a faulty counterweight system.

The Awards in general seemed to me accurate and deserved. For my money Dave Sheppard, Celia Couture, Joseph Zamparelli Jr. and Nancy Curran Willis were, each one, the Best Director" for their shows, and Jack Sweet was the only name unfairly absent from recognition. And in a final note, JulieAnn Govang and Jennifer Howard introduced each session with unfailingly engaging repetitions of what could have been boring information, and the sandwiches sold by Acme Theatre Productions kept me alive all week-end.

After the show Anna Brown (Mrs. Strang in "Equus") drove me right to my door, and I learned that she, like me, is From New Jersey (many intelligent people are FROM New Jersey!) and, like me, spent some time self-exiled in Iowa. And D.J. in the rear seat turned out to be an ex Wharf-Rat who had crewed shows I fondly remembered for them out in Salem. It was a delightful ride home, after a delight-filled week-end talking with a whole bunch of people who love theater. Although I participated in only one of the fourteen or more dramas played out backstage at Spingold Theatre this year, I had a ball!


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide