“Between me and the ape pacing over there, which one of us is actually thinking about THIS PLAY?” – Geoffrey
For those of you who came to my Slings writing from my Smash recaps, first, thank you so much; the idea of having an audience is immensely flattering, even if there aren’t actually any of you out there and this is directed to imaginary people in my head. As anyone who’s ever delivered a monologue can tell you, sometimes the imagined person is just as valuable as the flesh-and-blood variety.
Secondly, the point: remember how I used to write almost weekly about the wanton lack of professionalism on Smash? I thought about that as I watched “Birnham Wood” and winced in horror at some of Geoffrey and Darren’s actions throughout the episode: Geoffrey’s wild idea to re-stage huge chunks of the show without Henry. Darren scrapping an entire directorial concept during tech. Geoffrey locking Ellen in a closet (!) until her entrance cue. Unrehearsed fight call changes! Ellen PANTSING Henry onstage and essentially offering him a blow-job (though, to be fair, brutally awesome interpretation of the “be the serpent under it” text).
Here’s the difference between what happened this week and our typical episode of Smash, though: this behavior is not exalted. Our heroes do it, sure, and we along with the Romeo and Juliet applaud the scrapping of the awful concept. But Maria is right there, shaking her head, lighting up her cigarette in the booth, reminding us that no, this is NOT how this is all supposed to work. In fact, only her active disdain for diva Ellen makes her go along with Geoffrey’s plan in the first place.
The great thing, though, is that we’re rooting for the characters in the right way here, while at the same time rolling our eyes like Maria. We want what the characters want so much that we don’t mind a little rule-breaking, which is the essence of a lot of great comedy.
Plus, it isn’t hard to root for Henry to get his just desserts served up. He spends this hour in a snarling rage (Geoffrey’s “ape” remark is pretty close to home), and he’s even introduced fastidiously polishing his watch, the technical actor knowing every little tick. We’re ready for him to go on a journey.
(Starting with that Macbeth fight scene. To watch the entire episode, see below.)
And journey he does…I’d venture to say that Macbeth here is even more thrilling than Jack’s Hamlet journey (which is a tall mountain to clear, believe me). Geraint Wyn Davies, Martha Burns, and all the other actors sell us on a viscerally thrilling event taking place, as Henry Breedlove fights for his bearings in the rapidly shifting world around him. Just like Macbeth.
It’s a fitting climax to the second season, with many satisfying call-backs and moments. My particular favorite is the cheer-worthy moment when Jerry gets to actually feed Henry a line from the wing, then perhaps takes too long to die as Young Siward (Henry having to literally slay Jerry is some fun symbolism, too).
For Richard, the best news of all is that people are actually showing up. After a bizarre nightmare at the top of the hour featuring Sanjay enthusiastically leading Richard to his own execution, Richard awakes to discover young people. Lots and lots of young people. They want tickets, and they think the show is selling out. Youthquake works!
Richard’s story makes me consider the arc of Slings and Arrows as a whole. Here we are at the end of Act Two. Act One saw our hero led down a dangerous path to power, tempted by his dreams to destroy something wonderful (the Festival). Here, in Act Two, a mad man essentially tells him to live his dreams to the fullest. Go be a musical theatre actor, says Sanjay! Damn the consequences! This advice, amidst the failure of Richard to sell Macbeth, would have been wisely written off.
However, by some miracle, Youthquake does work, and the Festival is poised for its biggest success yet. Richard escapes the chopping block and is actually offered even MORE power with the chance to be Artistic Director as well.
In this regard, the charming and funny subplot where Cyril and Frank coach Richard for his Pirates of Penzance audition takes on a little bit of a dark quality. I can’t help but hear foreshadowing when Cyril remarks how such an awful man can change so much, but that’s the kind of worrying reserved for the third act of a tragedy. In the meantime, Richard’s singing was great! His dancing…we always forget about the dancing.
Finally, we come to Darren Nichols and his impending Romeo and Juliet. Geoffrey, smart man he is, uses his acting skills to expertly con Darren into changing his whole production, talking about how if he (Geoffrey) had been asked to handle the play, surely his cynicism would ruin it! Surely Darren wouldn’t turn it into an academic exercise or hack-y treatise on gender roles! Geoffrey proceeds to hand Darren a new, youthful, energetic approach to the show, and convince him it was his own idea, thanks to some carefully evoked nostalgia for the time they did Godspell together.
Darren chucks the concept, and immediately convenes a rehearsal to teach the actors…the Belkofsky exercise, to which I say…”Where the heck has THIS been my whole life?” Essentially, in order to restore the missing elements of sensuality and youth, Darren brings the cast together, bathrobe’d, in the dark, hands dipped in neon paint. Out go the lights on Darren’s signal and “have a good grope!” How does the cast respond to this? “AGAIN!”, of course!
So here at journey’s end, where does everyone stand as we approach the final act of the series? Geoffrey has gained confidence in his leadership position, and reconciled with Ellen over a mutual hatred of Romeo and Juliet. Richard, meanwhile, is poised to receive the power Geoffrey has finally accepted, while also gaining more momentum towards pursuing his own dreams. Darren might have just directed a good play, possibly for the first time.
And Oliver? Oliver sits alone in the bar, still tethered to this earthly plane, seeking a purpose. Is there yet more for him to do?
Caitlin Griffin responds,
joined by DC Theatre Artist Megan Reichelt (with a special thought from lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin)
Geoffrey, like a well-intentioned Richard III, emotionally, physically, and mentally manipulates everyone in order for each show to open perfectly, even if it drives everyone crazy.
Meanwhile, the youthquake is descending on the opening night of Macbeth, filling so far that the interns (and Sloan) have to watch from the exit stairs. “I love this juxtaposition,” Megan said here, “all the fancy people and all the people in jeans!” I agree – how often in life have I seen teens in jeans at a nice theatre and mentally both chastised and applauded them. While this audience was drawn in largely by flash marketing, they are returning to see it again and again. They are connecting to something visceral in Geoffrey and Oliver’s Macbeth, and they want to experience it more than once. And, because it’s Geoffrey – the director who doesn’t let go even when it would be in compliance with Equity rules – they totally can.
“What I’m doing has very little to do with you,” Geoffrey says to Henry, who’s pacing the wings like a deranged ape. Geoffrey is forcing him to live from moment to moment – unsure of his footing, turned around, and uncoordinated. A Macbeth on the edge of insanity. Geoffrey even sends Gerry out for his fight scene as Young Siward telling him not to die so easily. “Which is SO dangerous and NOT cool,” says my sword-slinging bestie. Same for making MacDuff pull the final duel onto the thrust right in front of the audience if you never rehearsed there. “They definitely didn’t have a fight call.” Even Ellen allows herself to be drawn into Geoffrey’s machinations, though not without a fight. As Geoffrey says, “Which of us is actually thinking about this play?” And so Ellen pantses her co-star in front of 900 people.
So, Stage Nudity. What does it do? Ostensibly, it bares the actor very vulnerably to the audience, so Geoffrey’s impulse to use it to humanize Macbeth is on the right track. Does it also distract the audience though? That’s Henry Breedlove’s ass! not Macbeth and I are both human beings! How many people saw Equus in order to see Daniel Radcliffe’s elder wand and how many took the intense emotional confusion of that show internalized in that moment and understood it for what it was? Why show us Emilia Clarke’s breasts (and everything else) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s except to titillate? What does nudity tell us, despite what it’s showing us? Even the interns argue about whether it was good or gratuitous. Nonetheless, they have the audience on the edge of their seats. Enraptured by the terror-fueled Macbeth, the crowd of fancy-pants and youths alike are enjoying the story.
And later that week, at the opening for Darren’s softer, more playful Romeo and Juliet, the unexpected audience mixing continues. The season sponsor, an older businessman who inserts an ad for his company into his acceptance speech, goes off on a personal tangent to describe his and his hospitalized wife’s ongoing connection to Romeo and Juliet. They never miss a production together, and to them the play is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Even when things get shaky for them, the power of love represented there teaches them to forgive and move on. They take the story of “two idiots” who fall in love and run themselves into the ground, and turn it into a beautiful lesson in partnership. Of course, this wrecks Ellen. She attempts to cover her feelings by saying that she hates the play. “It’s a fantasy,” no one has that kind of passion in their life, so they’re miserable. “It’s irresponsible.” For Geoffrey, it’s accurate. Love is a kind of chaos.
In art – in theatre, in Shakespeare, in singing, in dancing, in anything in which we find artistic expression – we learn about ourselves and each other by exploring fictitious characters and realities close to our own. We’re unified by these explorations. Older businessmen and teenage girls and everyone in between can see themselves in Romeo and Juliet. If we could just remember that there’s a potential Macbeth, or Siward, or Capulet or Montague inside of each of us, we might be able to relate just a little bit more to each other, despite our differences.
In the end, everyone is happy and paired off as Brian recites from Richard II (2.2): “More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before/ The setting sun, and music at the close,/ At the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,/ Writ in remembrance more than things long past.” Is he saying it to Oliver, who’s trying to get over Geoffrey’s letting go of their partnership? Or is he reminding us, through Shakespeare, that what we know of as the end is not the whole story? We don rose-colored glasses when remembering someone recently departed, and give them, perhaps, more attention than they had from us during their life. Wait – is Brian dead?
PS: It behooves me to say that Maria, the Stage Manager, would be responsible for calling light and sound cues during the show. She would not be responsible for creating the stage lighting. There are specific designers for each of those disciplines. So they would be the ones tearing their hair out for Geoffrey’s last-minute opening night secret changes and they would be the ones murdering Darren for shouting “I want to change everything!” And just a note about the fresnels that Geoffrey references in his “emotional outburst,” my husband had this to say: “No one has ever cried for want of fresnels.”
Watch along with us:
1) Borrow the complete series DVDs from a friend. Trust me; someone you know owns them. If you want to drop the cash, they sell the DVDs in the Shakespeare Theatre Company gift shop and on Amazon, where the whole series is $38.99.
2) Netflix! has the series available on DVD.
3) Amazon Prime. If you’re paying for the year-round two-day shipping ($74.99 a year), you already get it for free as part of their unlimited streaming content.)
4) Amazon Instant. $1.99 per episode, or $8.99 for each whole season.
Stray Thoughts and Quotes:
Sanjay being free from jail is just insane enough to seem real, adding to Richard’s confusion in the dream.
“How do you cry like that?” – Oliver “I think about my grandma.” – Geoffrey, rote-like. Jerking the tears is just another tool of the trade to actor-folk.
“Please come down. Some of them have guitars.” – Anna to Richard, re: Youthquake.
What’s more on-the-nose, Darren’s “chess piece” cage-like costumes, or Stephanie and Patrick kissing beyond their shackles?
“I have a secret.” – Richard “He’s got a secret.” – Frank “I told you, Ducky, I can spot ’em a mile off.” – Cyril, misinterpreting Richard’s desire for a life in musical theatre.
The old crone/witch/subscriber returns to warn Richard of his impending power.
“This is a horrible horrible betrayal of the trust between an actor and director!” – Ellen, rightly, to Geoffrey.
It’s worth noting that Geoffrey’s gambit with Henry probably only works as well as it does because Henry knows that role so well, having done it three times.
“How could you?” – Ellen, to Nahum, who locked her in the closet for Geoffrey. “I must confess, I love drama.” – Nahum
“That was maybe a little Friday the 13th.” “Lose it next time?” “That’d be best.” – Geoffrey and Jerry, on his zombie-like rise.
“Who does he remind me of?” – Frank “My cousin Charlie. The one with Palsy.” – Cyril, while watching Richard’s dance call for Pirates.
“I suppose you’ve heard.” – Richard “Heard about what?” – Geoffrey “My audition.” – Richard “Oh yeah, how’d it go?” – Geoffrey “It went really, really badly.” – Richard
“Yeah. Everyone heard.” – Geoffrey. Yeah, sometimes you just have to fess up.
“It takes more than talent to become an actor. A lack of ambition is absolutely essential.” – Oliver
“Collaboration is a very intimate thing.” – Oliver “It is…and now it’s over.” – Geoffrey, now moving on from Oliver on his own terms.
Lots of choice banter between Ellen and Geoffrey backstage at R&J:
E: “I hate this play.”
E: “You watch and you feel miserable, because you don’t have that kind of passion in your life. It’s irresponsible.”
G: “Two idiots meet, they fall in love, they’re happy briefly, then all hell breaks loose. Happens all the time.”
E: “You’re my only friend, is that pathetic?”
G: “Yeah it is.”
The scene at the bar is a lovely coda to season 2 and the series to this point: Henry is absorbed into the company, in great spirits. Sloan nudges Geoffrey and Ellen back together, before they dash off to ol’ Ironsides. Cyril and Frank sing “Call the Understudy” live, as Brian raises a glass to Geoffrey. Richard is passed out drunk, alone again. Nahum wheels out the ghost light. And finally, Brian recites the Richard II speech Caitlin spoke about, and we think Oliver has found a new connection, but…nope, “I’m gonna go see if David left the taps open.” “Get one for me, would you?”, asks Oliver, futilely.
See you all in season 3, friends!
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