Under Studious Conditions


This week I expected to be writing about my experience participating in a (paying!) reading of a play adaptation by Adrienne Thompson of Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter, but something came up that took precedence. Namely, a fellow actor whom I consider to be a friend got news of an illness in his family, and had to leave town unexpectedly. This shouldn't normally affect my life terribly directly; we're not close or constant friends. However, this same actor was appearing in a show in this year's Fringe Festival, a show based in commedia dell'arte traditions. So I was contacted to understudy the role. He left town last Friday, and the show, La Vigilia, opened yesterday.

I didn't go on. Actually, I should say I haven't gone on. My friend came back Sunday, and is going to be around for shows through Friday. Thereafter, it remains a question. He could be fine to perform in every showing throughout the Fringe's erratic scheduling, and I could get the call that I'm needed at any time between Friday and the 23rd. This is the first time I've ever understudied anything, and it's with very short notice. My only advantages have been my experience with commedia tropes, and having read the play about a year ago when the writer emailed it to me in the hopes of collaborating on it. I'm not complaining, mind: these are good advantages. Still and all, it is a new experience, and frankly pretty stressful -- like inviting an actor's nightmare upon myself. I ran through it once with the cast, without proper blocking notes, and that's about it for my practice. The rest is up to me. Perhaps it's needless to say that I'm attending every performance.

It's a unique experience in more ways than one. First there are the little ways. My (friend's) character sings a serenade betwixt acts two and three, which brings to the forefront with a slightly creepy synchronicity my recent musings on my relationship to song. There's also a strange spirit of reminiscence to all this for me, being that I'm unexpectedly reminded of my experiences participating in the Fringe last year, but in a much more detached way. Finally, on the side of smaller, there's a weird feeling of being someone the cast and crew need, but not someone they want. Not that they hold anything against me in any way! I represent the possibility of some unwelcome tidings, though, and on top of that I'm not allowed to help. I can, of course, jump in here and there to lend a hand, but there's some question as to how much I'm actually helping. Take for example the extremely quick set-up and tear-down that has to happen for the Fringe; it all has to happen in fifteen minutes to keep the space on schedule for the following shows. Therefore it would seem natural I should dig in and help, except that if I ever have to act in the show, that'll be one less hand that night and nobody wants to get used to the extra help leading up to that. So some bat me away when I lend a hand, and others wonder at why I'm just sitting there, and I can't blame either faction. It's confusing.

The larger ways in which it's unique have to do with approaching a familiar form with unfamiliar people and, well, approaches. La Vigilia is a very fine, neo-classical script, in my opinion. I like it a lot. Though clearly based in commedia dell'arte tropes, I don't perceive it to be traditional commedia dell'arte because, in my experience, the traditional sort is semi-improvised and contains rather baser character types. The characters in La Vigilia are nobler by far than the archetypes we know best from commedia dell'arte, but this serves the story well and I imagine helps to keep the sympathies of a contemporary American audience more immediate in the theatre (although the recent spate of Apatow comedies prove a lot of success with ignoble characters, at that). Perhaps because of this, the approach of the producing team seems to have been to put the emphasis on the language more than any broad physical characterization or lazzi. The zanni have their moments, of course, but even they are emblematic of this "departure." The male servant is pretty classically Arlecchino, but the zanna seems to be an interesting blend of Francescina and Colombina types, with just a dash of Isabella to smooth the flavor.

In that the script is never departed from, I find myself fascinated with the narrative complexities of the piece, though few outside of my own experience would likely describe the plot as especially complex. Had I directed the play, I would have approached it from a completely different angle, and I'm not convinced this would have been for the good of the final product. Still, I can't help but wonder how my production would have been different. Certainly it would have focused more on the physical images created, and broadened their scope. I think also I would have aimed for a certain Fellini "surreality," similar to what informed Zuppa del Giorno's first show, Noble Aspirations. (Incidentally, in my experience of Fellini and Italy thus far I find absolutely nothing surreal about what the man was portraying. That's just Italy.) This is part of why I believe it may be just as well that I didn't direct this piece. It's quite lyrical, and set in the 1950s -- though I would like to have seen those two things subjected to a bit more absurdity and raw appetite, they may be best left unmolested.

So this week has been largely spent reading (and rereading, and rereading, and rereading) the script and sitting in the audience as this cast tries to pull together the final elements of their production. I sit, in a strange state of anxious relaxation, wondering if I have anything to be worried about after all. Yesterday, the day the show premiered, I caught myself unwillingly entering a familiar state of mind and emotion. It was the same feeling I have all day before an opening that I am acting in, an unpredictable blend of trepidation and enthusiasm in which it is extremely difficult to stay focused on what's in front of me. Inside, I keep wandering toward the theatre, wondering if any time has passed since I last wondered if any time had passed.

Of course, now all I'm wondering is if I'll get off-book and, if I do, whether or not anyone will ever know it.
 
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