Fresh Eyes on EARNEST, 3rd Installation

Brennan Randel & Anthony Hudson, FRESH EYES on EARNEST

Brennan Randel & Anthony Hudson, Fresh Eyes on EARNEST

Detail, details, it's all in the details! The third week of any rehearsal is all about the details: drilling into the play, moment by moment, to make sure that intentions are clear, movements are clean, and tone is correctly modulated. More than most plays, The Importance of Being Earnest is filigreed with detail. Wilde's language is lacy and quick, demanding word-perfect precision, and it is matched by staging that has to crisply snap! for the comedy to land as it should. Brennan and Anthony each attended different rehearsals this week, and share their observations here.

ANTHONY HUDSON

"I hate to seem inquisitive, but will you kindly inform me who I am?"

It's week three but only my second session providing Fresh Eyes to the Earnest crew. This is because I'm terrible and predictable, much as I already stated in my first post, except this time I'm the terrible and predictable person in rehearsal with pink hair instead of blonde. I've just returned from LA, where I reacquainted my respiratory tract with the city's signature garbage air, and promptly unacquainted my voice from my throat. Not only terrible, predictable, and pink, I am now also the jerk with laryngitis hacking my way through rehearsal, my throat being the elephant - or, more precisely, the Typhoid Mary - in the room.

The actors and crew are on lunch. Michael, the director, is devouring a chicken (cooked and prepared, of course) and remarking on how he needs 3,000 calories a day to survive. "I could eat this entire chicken," he says. Theatre takes energy, and I'm about to see that energy put to use.

"We're back ladies, and Michael," Carol Ann says, summoning everyone back to the rehearsal set. Today they're rehearsing Act Three, the finale, and lines are somewhat memorized - almost nobody is entirely off book, perhaps due to the complexity of Wilde's ornamental dialogue and the fact that blocking is still being locked in, and, as I'm about to see, entirely reworked.

The women of the cast - those playing women, at least - rehearse in practice petticoats and corsets and character shoes, while those playing men rehearse in blue jeans and patent leather shoes. I do drag for a living so perhaps my perception is already skewed, but it's amazing how quickly my understanding of the actors' genders vanishes through these simple touches of costume and bits of characterization beginning to take hold.

Michael takes on the role of a conductor while the actors work through the scene, assuming position behind a music stand and flipping each page of the script with a grand swipe. Occasionally he stops and steps into the scene, observing the blocking and tableaus from multiple angles, feeling for the pulse of the scene from all directions. Something is brewing in the air, though. There is a question of who is meant to cross when, and where, and why is this character standing when previously she was sitting and so on - the confused dance around who sits and stands and crosses by nearly every actor as they run the scene plays like a very bizarre Catholic sit/stand/kneel ritual. It's been a hot second since this section was run last, and Michael is completely revamping the blocking as he goes. This appears arduous for some of the actors, but ultimately it will pay off.

Michael is a very organic director. Having served time on Fresh Eyes for Feathers and Teeth, I remember that Dámaso locked in the blocking very early and it barely changed from its conception. That blocking, while flowing naturally in the end, was created in a very technical, established method. Michael, however, constantly rebuilds the scene as he discovers more about the characters, their motivation, and the comedy of it all, and everything changes to accommodate these new and updated visions as he receives them.

The drama lover in me (of the interpersonal sort, not just the theatrical kind) is enrapt, watching as bits of rebellion at this process begins to disseminate among the actors. What are they whispering to each other each time something is adjusted? Are they frustrated? Will there be a fight? If so, do I get to watch? At one point an actor turns to Carol Ann and says quietly, "I don't know any of the blocking in this scene. It's not that I don't remember it, it's that we don't have the information." Oh, snap, I think, furiously jotting down notes in my iPhone like the creep I am.

And yet, after two hours, once the whispers and the glances and the actors' cautionary trust has taken its course, the magic happens - transmogrification! Just at the height of the play, when truth is revealed and the conflict resolved, the actors and Michael - having worked through a whole new physical interpretation of a scene they've been working on for two weeks - achieve a moment in which everything comes together in full force. All the sits, stands, and crosses have been building an intricate web of movement, leading to a simple but enormously hilarious moment of physical comedy just at the moment of revelation. The entire crew screams and claps when it happens. The actors break scene laughing and smiling. Michael cheers and jumps up and down with his arms in the air, the victorious artist turned ecstatic child delighted by his creation.

"OK, now let's run it again from the top," Carol Ann says.

We're going to need more chicken.

 

BRENNAN RANDEL

This play is smart. It asks the audience to do a good bit of the work in creating the theatre world in which we are immersed. Much of the comical portion of this play is hidden by the non-use of words and is instead located in the pauses and glances by the characters. This week in Fresh Eyes I saw each part of an act develop much like the individual parts in a musical symphony. More layers were added into the production as work on gestures, prop positioning, and timing seemed to all be of high importance 

This week was all about subtlety. "A face can do all the work and, with never a word spoken, the audience will find the humor and take the running commentary." Tiny gestures of an actor’s head shaking ‘No, I don’t want to do that’ when serving loaded items at tea... to a larger gestured ‘Breakfast is over now… moving on…’ between Jack and the Vicar as they go from mourning to ‘the next subject’ of christening in a single breath. The director has an interesting task of deciding pace, tone, and phrasing for each scene and in this rehearsal I got to watch the delivery of one scene go from a much more spirited/ high pitched delivery to a paced questioning tone, flat answer, indignant tone, flat answer. These changes provided a musicality to the conversation, and it certainly entices the audience member to listen in so as not to miss a single detail. The use of words as weapons played heavily both in choreography of individual scenes and in developing the power play between characters, so in this conversational singsong delivery I was able to feel the impact of an actual mourning monotone answering to a lively birdsong questioning. Another interesting tidbit was watching the teatime hen fight choreography unfold as the two actors danced around the space and worked on landing footsteps timed with the impact of syllables. I think it could almost be described as a verbal/intellectual Pasodoble (I personally can't wait to see the dress flourishes fly in this scene). On the other side of the Pasodoble coin I find myself intrigued with the use of personal distance in a conversation showing an attitude of judgment. As two characters learn of another's death, the Vicar moves in closer and shows empathy for the loss; whereas, the tutor’s character stays distant and issues some rather harsh judgments. (It might be quite interesting to audience-watch at this point, because seeing which audience members empathize and which lean towards judgment could certainly explain the moods of the room at a given performance).

I'm looking forward to seeing the change in the Butler's carriage between city and country settings. There are some true comical gems here, and I'm interested to see if any of the audience members pick up on them.

One of the most interesting aspects of rehearsal this week was watching the practice continue as an absent actor’s lines were read by the stage manager. Watching a one-sided conversation unfold on the stage was almost like eavesdropping on a phone conversation. I do look forward to seeing how the gestures between the two actors unfold when everyone is present, but being allowed to see practice by visualization was remarkable. Even the ability to shake hands and further interact with a ghost character shows there has been a great deal of thought and preparation in every movement on stage. I'm sure that when the ghost scene is complete, it will be quite humorous to see the tense interaction between the two actors as the scene unfolds.

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