In the second elephant scene of the Huntington Theatre Company’s The Jungle Book, Colonel Hathi says to his troupe, “Our strategery shall be: the element of surprise!” In immediate response, one member of the elephant ranks looks straight at the audience with a bright smile, pops his foot, and gives his best jazz hands. (I so wish I could find a photo of this – curse you, internets.)
The first few times I saw this hilarious interchange I couldn’t figure out why it was so funny to me. The joke felt so natural, almost like something I would do. Then I realized: director Mary Zimmerman was aiming a very specific joke at the lovers of theatre. I was innately reminded of A Chorus Line and other classic musicals with presentational choreography. Laughing at the joke, I felt like I was, in a way, laughing at myself. And it felt good!
I found this sense of “theatre for theatre people” also reflected in a production I saw last week, Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston’s The Libertine.
Bridge Rep, in partnership with Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company of New York City, presented this play – the first in their inaugural season – at the Virginia Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. A few friends and I went to see the show on a whim, curious about this new theatre company that we had been hearing a lot about. I went away from it satisfied in many ways, dissatisfied in several others, but overall fully intrigued by the way it seemed to speak specifically to me, a theatremaker in the audience.
The Wimberly is the largest theatre at the BCA and quite traditional in its function: a proscenium stage, orchestra, and mezzanine. Therefore my friends and I were slightly perplexed when we were told the performance would be general admission (choose your own seats). We entered the theatre but were directed not into the house, but onto the deck of the stage. (“Everything makes sense now!” I said.) It turns out the production is set literally backstage. The house curtain was in, closing off the space to make it about the size of a blackbox theatre. We were seated on risers in stage right, facing the fly rail on stage left. There was a large amount of visible spike tape on the floor. Lights were hung relatively low, clearly visible by the audience – and a good deal of the lighting design was done with LEDs, which have a particular “exposed” feel to them versus your average Source 4 or Parnel unit. I had a particular moment of excitement when I realized that every element of this backstage space was a design choice – down to the arrangement of the way the linesets were locked on the fly rail.
The play opened with an actor who introduced herself in a thick cockney accent as the stage manager of this production, and gave us the regular theatre low-down on cell phones and emergency exits… except that it wasn’t regular at all. She said matter-of-factly that if we did not proceed by her terms, “I will strike you.” A fellow stage management major and I giggled. “I want to be her,” I said.
The play itself, set in 17th century England, is about makers of theatre: an actress who acts in a more naturalistic style, resulting in great upheaval by the audience and the theatre; a drunken, womanizing famous playwright and theatregoer (the “libertine”) who immediately recognizes the actress’ talents and wishes to coach her in acting; his cohort of rambunctious playwrights and producers; and the various actors and whores that keep them all entertained. Each has a particular perspective on working in the theatre. The young actress is filled with love for her audience, even when they initially hate her acting style. The producers are interested in success and notoriety. The libertine truly loves theatre, but slowly grows jaded as his relationship with the young actress goes awry. He has a beautiful speech when he describes how the world of the theatre is completely unlike the real world (forgive my paraphrasing): in the theatre, you know exactly what you’re going to do from moment to moment, and each one of those moments is critically important. (I will exit left, I will take off this garment, put on that one in two minutes then enter right, etc.) But in the real world, he says, you never know what you should do, or when you should do it. None of that really matters.
The Libertine also features multiple whorehouse sex scenes and a catchy song-and-dance about dildos (yes, you read right). This spirit of fun was one of the most enjoyable parts of the production, particularly as a theatremaker in the audience. It had a sense of, “Screw it, we’re going to sing a well-rehearsed song about dildos. Why take ourselves too seriously?” Because more often than not, theatremakers do take ourselves too seriously. We forget how much fun it can be to laugh at a lewd joke or bawdy choreography.
To be clear, Bridge Rep’s intended goal is not to make theatre for theatre-making audiences. More specifically, the company highlights the connection between audience and actor. “Thank you, Boston, for taking part in THE LIBERTINE – your role as our audience is by far the most important,” they state on their website. Their season announcement states, “All the world’s a stage, and OUR AUDIENCE rules the world.” But as a theatre-maker in the audience, I felt the specific content and design choices of The Libertine did speak directly to me, appealing to what interested and engaged me as a practitioner.
In that sense, I would say that Bridge Rep fully accomplished their goal of connecting directly with the audience. My fellow theatre artists and I went away from the play with plenty to talk about!