Dave Sikula draws a line between two shows you probably wouldn’t have thought to compare.
I didn’t have a pressing topic this week, but, in trying to come up with a topic, was suddenly struck by a similarity that my current show, “Speakeasy,” has with Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” By the way, from what I learned tonight, we’re apparently a sensation and virtually sold out through March. (I know some potential patrons have balked at the price, but I do think it’s one of those things where you really get your money’s worth – and watching the audiences every night, they seem to really get into it; though there’s always the chance that it’s just the alcohol …)
Anyway, we’ve had just one weekend of performances so far, and as I expected, I still have no idea what to expect during the performances. (I can only imagine what audience are expected or come away with.) Being that many of the audience members spend the first part of the evening in the bar space (and as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, it is a bar and we do serve alcohol) in close quarters with the actors, it’s hard for some of them to know who’s an actor and who’s a patron. (Ticket holders are encouraged to come, if not in costume, as least dressed in a non-inappropriate fashion – and most of them have.) My character spends the entire evening parked at the bar, and at the first preview (we’re officially in previews until the 24th), someone tried to engage me in conversation. He asked me if I came to this bar often, and I answered, gruffly but in character, that I was here pretty much every night. I’m sure this answer (not to mention my general terseness and lameness at ad-libbing in character) confused him, and he soon moved on, much to my relief.
The unique difficulty for me in the show is that, as far as I know, I’m the only character who really interacts with the customers. (I haven’t seen the portions of the show that take place in other areas of the space.) I think others have some interaction, but not to the extent that I do. Most of the other scenes are intended to be eavesdropped-upon or be observed. Most of my stuff is like that, too, but I also have a couple of monologues that are addressed directly to “real” people, rather than to other characters. (I have one speech about Henry Ford and the Model T automobile, which I’m free to address to anyone I chose. I picked a couple of women in their 20s on Friday night and, as I began the speech, they asked what a Model T was. I had to incorporate instructional information into the speech so they understood what I was talking about, which threw everything off. Did I mention I hate ad-libbing in character?)
Because I spend the evening planted at the bar (where people are constantly coming to order fresh drinks) and have certainly one of the most interactive characters, I’m faced all evening with simultaneously trying to be friendly while giving off “please don’t talk to me” vibes. It’s exhausting. (Seriously; I never would have thought that sitting on a bar stool all night would be so tiring.)
While I find the whole experience enjoyable, one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing my character is that he starts off one way, giving the audience certain expectations, but gradually, those expectations are overturned through a series of speeches that give a whole new (and utterly period-appropriate) angle on him. (I don’t want to give anything away.) Given the way the show is structured, though, some patrons could miss the setups and get just the payoffs, which I’d find unfortunate, given the character’s arc. I mean, if you just see me at the end of the play, you won’t be able to put those speeches and actions into their full context. He’s just one-dimensional rather than well-rounded.
Things like that are some of my favorite things in theatre. I saw “Major Barbara” at ACT Tuesday night, and loved it. I thought it was a very entertaining production of one of my favorite Shaw plays. One of the things I most about the show is that the character (Andrew Undershaft) I should most despise is one of the most admirable. There’s no doubt where Shaw’s beliefs lie in this play, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his writing. He forces his audience, whom I’m guessing he presumes will share his sentiments, to confront and defend their preconceptions by giving the most reprehensible motivations to a charming, witty, and articulate character. Shaw dares you to debate the character in your head. Unlike some writers (*cough*David Mamet*cough*), he doesn’t set up straw men and award audiences for having their prejudices confirmed. He gives the best lines and speeches to the “wrong” characters, virtually daring the audience to agree with them. It’s bracing theatre and makes you work.
Now I’m not saying that my guy in “Speakeasy” is anywhere on the level of a Shaw character. He’s just not complex enough – and let me speedily add that that’s not a flaw in the writing; the point of the evening isn’t to paint a full portrait of my guy. He’s simply a man of the 1920s spending yet another evening drinking illegal alcohol in speakeasy, and that’s all he’s intended ot be.
But I will say that it’s always fun to play someone that the audience is asked to have sympathy for in spite of their best intentions, and then to watch them react – and I really can watch them, in this case – as a guy they thought was one thing turns out to be quite another. It’s like when someone’s beloved elderly relative says something really offensive. You want to be outraged but need to contextualize the action. It’s easy to be outraged when a racial bigot or homophobe or rapacious capitalist whom we don’t know says or does something with which we disagree: “How dare they?!” It’s quite another when someone we’ve come to like or respect suddenly says or does something we find reprehensible. And, for me, it’s a pleasure to see or play a character who forces me to come to terms with my own actions and beliefs. I’d ask you to come see the show and talk it out with me afterwards, but there are no curtain calls in this one, and once I leave the bar (which is before the show ends), I’m on my way to the dressing room and home. I don’t stick around.