Last week, I went to my first play of the season. It was a play within a play — “The Understudy” at McCarter Theatre. I got there early since I didn’t have a ticket, beautiful sunny afternoon, a walk around Princeton and a visit to the Labyrinth bookstore — I need to sell some books. Fortunately ticket purchases the day of the performance are half price and my luck continued with a pre-show discussion by the director, Adam Immerwahr. He explained some of the staging. McCarter has a huge stage and in order to make the show more intimate, the stage was actually extended into the audience. A new proscenium was built and much of the action was in front of it. As during a real rehearsal, the stage manager, Roxanne, played by Danielle Skraastad had a small table in the audience. Roxanne frequently was in the audience space. There were only two other characters Harry (Adam Green), the understudy for Jake (JD Taylor). Jake, a recent film star, was actually an understudy for Bruce — a really big film star.
Immerwahr also set set the context for the play within the play — “The Man Who Disappeared” is a fictional screenplay by Franz Kafka. The characters are rehearsing scenes from the play. A lot of the dialogue in both plays have a Kafkaesqe tone — complex, bizarre, irrational, kind of like a Catch 22. In a post-play discussion, the author Theresa Rebeck explained her fascination with Kafka. Another aspect of the pre-show discussion was an explanation of theatrical terms. I had never heard of “finding your light,” an actor stepping into the light, not the light on the floor, but when his/ her face is lit. They had several lights positioned for the audience to find.
I totally enjoyed “The Understudy” and it led me to reflect on my involvement with theatre. I think my first real experience going to plays was in Boston, college days. A friend Ted introduced me to Theatre of the Absurd — Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Albee, Genet. We went to quite a few — “Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame, The Birthday Party, Rhinoceros, A Delicate Balance, Zoo Story.” I have seen a few since then, most recently Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” at the University of Penn. The story line is pretty basic — two couples — the Smiths and the Martins get together. Their conversation is meaningless banter and after the arrival of the Fire Chief who mentions the bald soprano the dialogue becomes totally garbled. The lights go out. When the lights come on the couples have switched roles, the Smith repeat what the Martins said first time around; the Martins take the Smiths dialogue. Fire Chief. Lights Outs. The Penn production went on for 24 hours. Stay as long as you like. And some students did. It was a little like “Groundhog Day” meets “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with people standing up repeating lines. I think Diane and I stayed for 4 rounds. Meaning: well it’s up to you!
Sometime in the 1980s, Diane and I began subscribing to McCarter. I don’t remember many of the specific plays. What we liked was the mix of some classic (Shaw, Shakespeare, Ibsen), more contemporary (Stoppard), comedies and dramas. Not many musicals although I recall going to “Hair.” The friends who went with us were a couple of years older. They just didn’t get it.
For years, when Jenny took dance lessons, we also subscribed to MCCarter dance.
Probably in the mid 80s, as Jenny got a little older, we made some trips to NYC — Broadway. The first production we saw was “Les Miserables.” I remember being blown away. It was fantastic. For the next 10 years, we did an annual trip to New York, usually an overnight with a Broadway show. Lots of classics — “Cats, Miss Siagon, of course, Annie, and Chicago.” A special treat was the Buddy Holly Story. The lead, Paul Hip was the son of one of Diane’s teacher friends. There is always a mystic about actors– wow, we knew the lead. We went to a few off Broadway (but no memory what, didn’t keep stubs or a theatre journal). In more recent years we have gone to fewer shows — South Pacific and Wicked are two that stand out.
Instead of McCarter subscriptions and annual Broadway shows, we began to go to a variety of theaters. The Arden is a favorite and we might go to three plays each season. “Sweeney Todd, A Raison in the Sun, Water by the Spoonful, Clybourne Park, The Whipping Man, Freud’s Last Session.” We have never been disappointed. The Arden also produces some great kids plays. Eli and Viv have joined us for “Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Borrowers, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Sideways Stories from Wayside School.” Eli shows an exceptional interest in theatre, asking questions of the actors after performances and taking after school acting classes sponsored by the Walnut Street Theatre.
We have begun to explore some of Philadelphia’s many small theaters. It’s amazing, there are so many. Now is the time of the year that I like to review the season’s offerings. And commit to a number of productions — McCarter, Arden, Bristol, Walnut Street, Wilma, and the list goes on. Philadelphia (and NYC) has such a great theatre scene.