monday morning theatrics starring Wilton Barnhardt

This is Superfriend Bond Girl poking my head up on Monday morning with a surprise for Ed.

Last year, Mr. Bond Girl received Wilton Barnhardt’s novel Emma Who Saved My Life for Christmas and I immediately snatched it and read it in big gulps. I read it again. Then we went out and bought Wilton’s other books — the Biblical thriller Gospel (DFW wishes he footnoted like this!) and the brutally hilarious satire on D.C. and L.A. Show World. Wilton is one of those writers who offers something different but brilliant in each of his books and I order you to seek out his work. He’s currently teaching at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and you can read more about his background here (this was the most detailed bio I could find, but is obvs. not current).

Anyway, Emma Who Saved My Life (which is so beloved around here that it usually just gets referred to as “Emma”) is at the top of at least three of my lists — best novels about New York, best novels period and, most relevant today, best novels about theater. It’s funny and wise. In honor of Ed’s new play Wrestling an Alligator, I wrote Wilton and asked if he’d reflect on his most memorable theater experiences. Here’s what he said, and I’m not italicizing in order to make it easier to read. Everything below is not me:

The best in theater is not very exicting in retelling: I was there, you weren’t, nyeh nyeh nyeh. Angela Lansbury in a Broadway revival of Mame when I was in elementary school. Christopher Plummer and Rosemary Harris in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Angels in America. The 1980’s all day version of Nicholas Nickleby. John Wood as Salieri in Amadeus. Jennifer Holliday’s big blowout number in Dreamgirls. Eh, but excellence is not nearly as interesting secondhand as flop-city.

The worst I ever saw was a version of The Tempest in which every aspect of the production was askew or flat-out awful. They decided to stage it in a planetarium. What made it so good was that a lot of the cast was talented so there was the added amazement of seeing good people humiliated by the poverty of the production. Oh, it was good for about two minutes there at the beginning. All right, the sky dims to violet, then the stars come out–so far so good–and someone on a mike begins the prologue… but the mike wasn’t booked up right and squeaked and fedback all through the show. Otherwise the acoustics were predictably abominable. The actors, on a spindly jerry-rigged platform which wobbled and tantalized the audience with whether the actors were going to fall forward into the seats, screamed to be heard but enunciation was useless. The Prospero was drunk, drunk, drunk, in the manner of Foster Brooks, hiccupping and flubbing lines right and left. Miranda had a Georgette Engel little-girl-up-way-high voice that did achieve audiblity, alas. She kept gamely feeding Prospero his lines:

“We are… [hiccup] we are…”
“Such things, Prospero?”
“Such things… [belch] as uh…”
“Dreams, beautiful dreams–”
“Dreams are made on!”

It wasn’t just drunkenness; his Prospero was stentorian old-school faux-Brit-hammery plus drunkenness. I’m sure the character of Tucker K. Broome in my first novel (set in the theater), Emma Who Saved My Life, owed more than a little to that actor. The director felt, apparently, that the male actors had to be further humiliated by wearing speedos and thongs and next to nothing, shipwrecked as they were. Ordinarily, I am pro-skimpy-attire/nudity in theater but maybe not with these guys. The whole Caliban buffoonery was played for high phsyical slapstick and the guys (sweating like pigs–the air had mysterious stopped circulating in the planetarium) all were choreographed to fall into each other’s ass-cracks and crotches, and rather than any laughter, there was horror and profound unease as if a gay porn film would break out at any moment (and the guys were femme enough to convince you it might). Well, you say, what about those fabulous special effects only a planetarium can achieve? And I say, WHAT special effects? A planetarium can do stars and project slides on the ceiling, maybe make a laser dance in one place, and that’s about it. A teetering Prospero summons forth a banquet… and a slide, a picture cut out from Good Housekeeping and blurrily photographed (this is all pre-digital), miraculously appears on the ceiling (in a defined slide-rectangle) to hoots of derision from the audience, particulary as the cast goes on to praise such magic, such wonder! It was horrendous from start to finish and NO ONE left at intermission; everyone stayed to see how they would mess up the second half–it was that good! There was open laughter and catcalling by the end. Whatever sympathy we all had for the actors had evaporated–hours of our lives had been sacrificed to this production and there was a hint of lynch-mob in the air…

I once met the legendary critic (and guy who picked the Tony nominations for years) Jay Carr of the Detroit News and Boston Globe, a witty, wonderful man who knew/knows more about theater than most acting companies put together. He told me the alltime best fiasco ever witnessed. It was a local company (Buffalo, I think) attempting a Wagner opera–always wrong, always ill advised–in which at the end, a hundred trained pigeons had been purchased, put in cages above the stage, and were to be released as a spectacle as the final act concluded (the birds were supposed to fly to pens up in the unused highest balcony). All production long (which was mediocre and wearisome for the audience–the perfect set up), the birds shat liberally on the singers. Jay said people noticed but weren’t sure what was going on; occasionally, a feather would float down. A blue feather. Yes, they PAINTED the pigeons so they would seem like bluebirds of happiness. Painting animals (again, not a promising idea) had its drawbacks: by act three, blue paint was melting in the heat and hot lights along the catwalks and blue paintdrops were appearing on the cast. At this point, the audience was laughing, having more or less figured out that birds were up above the stage dripping and shitting and molting. Nothing the cast did from this point on mattered–everything was a hoot. Overweight local opera would-be stars were splattered in mid-aria, and in wiping away the blue paint, it smeared and didn’t come off. Then the finale.

A demoralized cast sang the final notes, the birds were released… and all one hundred painted pigeons, long dead from being cooked to death in the lights, fell to the stage, plop plop plop, while the chorus dodged the assault. Jay Carr reported that he had never seen the “rolling in the aisles” cliche until this incident; people were doubled-over with laughter, they could not breathe, they staggered to the aisles in hysterics and helplessness. Nothing, in American theater, I’m fairly sure, has been seen on that scale before or since. Indeed, I wonder if it actually happened; perhaps it’s a theatrical urban legend. Maybe your readers can clear this up.

One Comment

  1. Keep it simple stupid. Yup, that’s what we’ve been trying to do, even when the visions are damn ambitious. But animals and gratuitous “shock value” without meaning or purpose (read: most performance art) is always a bad idea. Pop quiz, hotshot: Alienating your audience for the sake of alienating your audience is going to…guess what, alienate your audience more effectively than anything else.

    Thanks for the post, Bondgirl.

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