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Surprise!

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Dramatic irony is ridiculously satisfying. Suspense, the theatrical aphrodisiac, builds to a climax as the audience member sees the unsuspecting character heading towards the banana peel center stage. In the theatre we restrain ourselves from calling out for fear of ruining the gag. Or even if we do find ourselves shouting “don’t go down to the basement!” at the movie screen, the characters are set on the fateful path of a predetermined narrative. Although it’s acceptable at the theatre, watching someone head directly for certain doom or embarrassment without saying anything is rather inconsiderate in life. Unless it’s your friend. Then it’s hilarious.

Ben Ducoff never read my blog post on Mike Daisey’s controversial monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs back in September. So when he came in to our rehearsal for Tennessee William’s short play The Case of the Crushed Petunias last night, and started reading an excerpt from Daisey’s monologue I had to put my foot in my mouth. He read a rather lengthy selection, and I watched as Kaylyn, who plays Miss Dorothy Simple in the production, gasped at the mention of suicide nets and cafeterias that fit 10,000. Ben had said in our first rehearsal that when he thinks of this play, he thinks of a cracked iPhone. To him this image reveals the parallel that people today retreat behind their iPhones in the same way Miss Simple “barricaded her house—and her heart—behind that silly little double row of petunias!” Clearly he had been thinking critically about the play, and as the director I appreciate the time he took to do his own research. But I was waiting to pull the rug out from beneath him the whole time he was talking. The moment he finished and looked up expectedly, I took a deep breath and said, “do you know about the controversy around this story?” he said he didn’t. In breaking the news that this is mostly a work of fiction I might as well have slapped Ben in the face. I watched this grueling national scandal play out in a microcosm in a matter of minutes. It was delightfully entertaining on my side, and surprisingly illuminating for Ben.

Surprise is an essential element for theatre. It is crucial for all members of the creative team to keep finding what is new and exciting in the world of the play. A healthy dose of surprise keeps the directors, the actors, and the designers on their toes. After the group recovered from the shock of Daisey’s scandal, we proceeded with table work. Like Ben, I had done my research on the play and found a delicious story to share with the team, but waited for the opportune moment to surprise them with it. To frame the themes of the play, we’re setting The Case of the Crushed Petunias in 1963, the moment before the nation exploded into a full out cultural and sexual revolution. In my research I had come across an article in the Guardian about Wilhelm Reich, the man who coined the phrase “sexual revolution” and invented the Orgone Energy Accumulator, otherwise known as the “Orgasmatron” from Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper.

The Orgone Energy Accumulator as designed by Wilhelm Reich circa 1950

The Orgone Energy Accumulator as designed by Wilhelm Reich circa 1950

Reich believed that a social and political revolution would only be possible once sexual repression was overthrown, so he invented what was in effect an orgasm machine that aligns the user with the life energy of the atmosphere, “Orgone energy,” the likes of which Allen Ginsberg, Sean Connery, JD Salinger, and Norman Mailer swore by. Wilhelm’s theory is entirely in line with the spine of our play, almost eerily so; indeed, I was waiting to share this story the at the moment in the play when the young man tells Miss Simple about the marvelous invention he has made, that fits inside the ear and tells the user to “live, live, live!” I was convinced I had cracked the code! The young man was a mad scientist akin to Reich! When finally I did share the story, everyone was delighted, but only after I had gone off on a diatribe about mad scientists and wacky inventions did Ben point out to me that the young man’s invention is “weightless and transparent…it fits inside the ear.” He said, “it’s a metaphor, Grace. It’s not an actual thing.” The roles had reversed, and there I was, right where Ben had been an hour before, with the world turned upside down. Although our egos and our figurative asses are slightly bruised, as resilient theatre artists Ben and I continue on in search of the next surprise.

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