Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Shakespeare NOW???"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Friday, 15 December, 2001:
"Shakespeare NOW???"

"I want to spend the rest of my life doing Shakespeare!"
===Linda Lowy

6:00 a m
I hate it when the alarm wakes me when I Thought I was already awake, and for most of my life I've insisted there's only one six-o'clock in a day because I've snored away the other one. But there's a play to catch.......

7:00 a m
The big comfortable boat of a car's waiting at the front door, with a brace of actors in the front seat: Patrick Zeller and Krysta Zeiset (Emerson past and Emerson present). Patrick threads through the harrowing morning-rush Boston traffic, and we talk.
The biggest problem, they say, is often finding the school they're to perform in --- rarely the same one twice. There are directions printed-out, and only once --- probably because of my pumping questions --- do we have to double-back.
"One of our rituals is a Dunkin'Donuts stop," Pat explains. "We've learned that no matter where you are in this whole area, if you throw a stone you'll hit a Dunkin'Donuts. It's just a myth that Starbucks is taking over the world."
"Dunkin'Donuts is The People's Coffee!" Krysta concludes.
I learn a lot about Emerson, where theater-drunk kids it seemed to me went to major in Enthusiasm 101, and periodically boiled out of Emerson to start new companies (The original Lyric Stage. The Image Theatre. The OTHER Theatre).
"I came back to Boston when I found out, on The Coast, that I was doing just about the same level of work, but it was a lot harder to learn where the jobs were. Boston's great for young actors still learning how to live the life."

7:30 a m
Having found Foxborough and Foxborough High School we spend a few fumbling minutes trying to find the entrance, and then there we are at the back of a house with a wide, curving rake of plush seats that must seat hundreds.
"We've certainly had an education in income-distributions! We've gone from performing in inner-city basements one week to regional schools like this the next. It's amazing what people spend, and don't spend on education."
After the show, searching out a bathroom, I walked up a hallway neatly strewn with backpacks and instrument-cases to hear, through an open doorway, a conductor getting a sound out of the high school's full orchestra that Ozawa would envy. Foxborough (whose Orpheum recently rose from the dead) takes the arts seriously.

On the stage is the Company now assembled --- a quartet of them in black tights and leotards already setting up as Pat and Krysta join them. The big, solid stage has a row of looming cream-colored sound-baffles like a modern Stonehenge bringing the action forward, but there's a forestage apron of fuzz-covered panels that give base-drum thumps as the energetic actors leap and caper. Where to do what needs figuring, so the lines can be heard and the action seen without background bumps.
The stage is a-litter with little piles of costumes and props laid out neatly along the back and edges of the playing space.
"We'll need a bell," Linda Lowy is saying to a school functionary. "Our bell's a prop in our 'Midsummer' and I forgot to get it out of storage back in our garage." The obliging go-fer arrives with a whole carillon from the band-room, and they test for which of several possible pipes will summon Duncan to heaven, or to hell.

The busy backstage bustle is an organized chaos of vocalizing warm-ups and body-stretches, tests of bits in the new space, line-runs, leaps and kicks and pirouettes, shouts testing the acoustics, and only here and there a joke or bit of gossip. These are professionals at "play" and each has a different way of working, each a different set of concerns. There are six differing personalities on stage, each one hard at work.

Krysta and Curt Klump are hard at it with foils. The company worked for weeks on a fight-sequence, only to have Curt step in cold, when another actor dropped out, and learn it all over from scratch. They whip through it half a dozen times at least, and each time it looks fine to me: nowhere is it apparent that the object of the game is Not to hurt anyone. The combat looks genuine.

Krysta and Pat run lines. It's been months since their previous performance, and Pat's done other shows and a good money gig in Florida, so the speeches are a little rusty. Gregory Stuart's fine full voice sings a time or two through what may be an English folk-song. He is tall and gauntly commanding, with pencil-thin mustache and goatee outlining the smile of Mephistopheles. Quietly solid is Melissa Sine, with darkly flame-red hair. As the others bounce about, they stalk through the ambiance, centering.

Linda of course is everywhere. "Could we clean something?" she calls, and they run the prologue (from Harry The Fifth, natch) and epilogue (from The Tempest), each fractured into words and phrases for different actors in sequence --- and it's Their Fearless Leader dropping lines! Linda's dancer's supple body, pointed smile and unflagging positivism no matter what is the backbone and the motor of her company, with much too much publicity and administrative responsibility than anyone needs, and none of it ever intruding on performance.

A woman named Heather appears, with a gallon can of water and cups. She's the Theater Department, and announces that the company will be given 10th- and 12th-graders.
The mix, and the sheer size of the audience, is more than the company usually works before. They've done their show for single classes and enjoy the fact that kids don't hold back. Whenever they're bored you can hear the squeaks of seats, the murmurs of comment. But "the younger the better" for live theater --- they empathize more, piece out the performance with their thoughts, and participate vocally when involved.

9:30 a m
On cue the floodgates open at the back of the hall, and amid monitors' shouts of "Right down front, fill in!" the huge proscenium-oriented audience bustles and yammers with young minds. The vanguards choose either to rush down-front or to hang a skirmish-line along the center of the house. Stragglers grudgingly find whatever spaces are left over, until there's hardly an un-filled seat anywhere.
Up on the stage the black-clad actors stand at the apron, replying to almost incomprehensible questions with almost incomprehensible answers in the growing hubbub. The question-time after their shows is the company's favorite part of their work, but with the house filling it's hard to hear this impromptu prelude.
"They gunna dance?" asks a voice behind me "I'll bet it'll be dance!"
Then there's a call for attention, and ... Outta The Hat!

9:37 a m
For a second it looks as though she might be right as, with scampers and a handspring the company bubbles and boils quickly across the stage and "Oh, for a muse of fire..!" tosses the phrases quickly from hand-to-hand. ("Quickly" is the word for the whole first quarter of the show.) "Romeo & Juliet" is announced, and the Two Households stand in two confronting lines, the two couples holding lorgnette-like masks to their faces as Patrick and Krysta (When did they swiftly don their billowy white muslin shirts!) walk blindly through the center of each line fixed only on each other, only to be led away before their adoring bodies can really touch. Linda ("Prologue-like") sketches in enough plot to introduce the Balcony Scene --- performed standing flat on the bare stage, words alone piecing out that imperfection. The two adolescent lovers race through their vows in gawky eagerness. Patrick is all wondering physicalities, bowled over literally by the wonder of it all. As Krysta rushes into a kiss a wave of appreciative catcalls and whistles breaks over them. At the sweet sorrow of their parting Linda narrates again, and then as Pat cuts down Curt's Tybalt she is the Nurse leaving Krista alone on a bed magically assembled of three solid stage-cubes for her drugging and, a sheet stretched over, time in the tomb. Greg hands Pat his poison-vial as he arrives for his sadly distraught death, and then hers.

Love and death, Linda sums up, is the stuff of tragedy --- but so is ambition, and she and Krista and Curt advance in domino-masks to hail Greg "..who shall be king hereafter!" and, in colorful new tunics they are into "Macbeth" with Linda as the Lady bullying her warrior-hubby to screw his courage to a sticking-place. That same dagger Juliet died with comes to Greg's hand held aloft by Krysta, and after the murder there are uneasy crowns, and damned spots, Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and the ironic witch's words of woods coming to Dunsinane, and Curt again as Macduff slays a tyrant and Patrick's Malcolm calls all to see him crowned at Scone.

(After their group-giggle at sex-onstage the kids have quieted. Was it the dying lovers? Was it Greg's tall voice and pausings? or seeing lines come alive they'd only heard or read before? Anyway the words are getting through because the audience has quit their commenting in order to listen to them.)

Again Linda takes the quito, leading them from ambition to politics and, belting on a toga over the blacks and clapping a laurel wreath to her dark curls she is Caesar approaching the Ides. First it's Curt's Cassius conspiring, and here comes Melissa's star turn as Portia demanding of Patrick's Brutus what secret plans have wounded their loving marriage. Then it Is the Ides and circling, skulking senators cut down the mighty Caesar, Patrick (et tu, Brute?) using Juliet's dagger to give the most unkindest cut of all --- and it is oration time over Linda's sheet-strewn body. Kids hear the debate back-to-back, first Patrick's "honorable man" defending assassination, then Greg come to Bury Caesar pulling friends, Romans, countrymen with him into action.

A final shake of the hourglass and we are in Elsinore with Greg, in the dumb-show, pouring poison into Patrick's sleeping ear only to watch him first die the death, then rise to charge Curt's young Hamlet with vengeance, as Greg and Linda, richly robed, don Gertrude's and Claudius' crowns. Vacillating, Curt sits on the downstage apron with Juliet's bare bodkin thinking whether to be or not to be when, soft, the fair Melissa comes to give back his gifts and to be cruelly, madly banished to a nunnery. Claudius' plots of death-tipped sword and poison pearl are explained as Krysta's Laertes and Curt square off for their flashy fencing --- as precise and exciting as I had seen it a dozen times before, but now the intense object of half a thousand eager eyes.

The Prince dead, our revels now were ended with another quick epilogue as, with a bow, that cast of characters melted into air, into thin air.
10:37 a m
One hour to the millisecond! After applause Linda called into the hubbub for questions, but after only one ("What did Claudius pour in King Hamlet's ear, and why?") the school principal called our revels now end-stopped and the tide of noise and bodies dutifully withdrew bound for late morning classrooms.

The costumes fit back into two or three shopping-bags, the hand-props into a box that could be tucked under one arm, and the band of driving players scattered into thin air. Linda Lowy, pleading dyslexia (I haven't even that excuse for my poor sense of direction) elected to drive me home and only once along the way in what I could claim to be a theatrical ritual did we drive several blocks in exactly the wrong direction. But along the way we could talk.

Her objective company-head's clear eye called it "a decent dress-rehearsal" considering how long a lag there'd been between performances. "But it's a rep company now," she assured me, "with everyone committed. Even Patrick, who just turned Equity, will honor this previous commitment to a pittance-paying non-profit." Their new resident director, she explains, is Dev Luthra --- an Englishman who works well with the actors "...and understands the mutability we're trying to work with." She means the fluid ease with which actors flow from one character into another, male and female playing men or women.

She really missed the interplay of questions from the kids. "Someone always asks 'Are you married?' This audience was a little big, and a little old. Twelfth-graders hang back a bit, judge what their friends may think of their questions before asking them. The ones I love are around ten-eleven-twelve, when they can really get into the empathy mode and le their brains run riot."

She threw up a teaching job (and the health coverage that went with it) to plunge headlong into Shakespeare. The teeth-pulling trials of ESL were replaced by managerial headaches and endless p/r campaigning, the struggle to get reviewers' attention and the chill difficulty of enduring their indifferent scorn. She's just begun to try the grantsmanship game, hoping to fund an administrative assistant who can free the actress/artist of mundane matters.

The company tours throughout the school year, bringing their taste of Shakespeare to lively life wherever they can ("We perform for individual classes sometimes --- a Fourth-Grade class once!") and does a full play uncut for grown-up audiences every summer. Last year it was an over-the-top expansion of the "Midsummer" that had toured schools. They're working on "Othello" even now. And Linda's hoping the mutability, the poverty of props and sets, the trust and delight in language, the physicality and mime and the enthusiastic freedom of meeting kids' minds has made for SHAKESPEARE NOW! a rough, tough, exciting style that can entertain and excite in theatres as much as it does in schools.

12:00 noon
Dropped at my door six hours since the alarm rang, My revel now is ended. When was the last time I saw a play before noon?
"Shakespeare N O W???"


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide