Follow the Vodka: Everyday Theatricality!

Robert Estes, theater’s super-tailgater.

White Chapel copy

Ah, the dedication of the night columnist! Late on a Monday night, I’m still diligently laboring at the newest gin joint in the city, White Chapel (600 Polk Street). This place is a fantastical recreation of an abandoned tube station in London; well, except that the station in question, White Chapel is actually still operating. Here, though, the imaginary abandoned station has become a lovingly rendered 1890s gin palace.

When I first looked at White Chapel’s extensive drink menu, I fell in love with the two page listing of twenty-two drinks under the heading “The Martini Family.” Who knows if the dates and descriptions given to all the drinks are academically accurate; I’m not interested in fact-checking the menu, only drink-checking it. So, tonight I began my ginventure by having the first drink on the list, the Pink Gin (dated 1840s), composed of Plymouth Gin and angostura bitters.

I love that the early reviews for this place kept mentioning all the “fake” things about the recreation, such as fake water damage. My theater self couldn’t help but say, it’s not fake, it’s distressed, it’s Theater!

Indeed, it’s fascinating to realize how many bars in the city have become insanely popular by creating an immersive theatrical experience for their drinkers, I mean patrons. An entity called Future Bars now owns nine different local bars, all theatrically presented, ranging from the just opened Pagan Idol tiki bar to the old-standby Bourbon and Branch speakeasy.

It makes me think that so often in theater we wonder how to attract an audience, yet somehow people outside of us, use our rough magic to create very popular events. Even real estate agents know in their bones how important it is to the sale price of a property for it to be properly “staged” at the open house.

On a much greater scale, the mass popularity of sports rests on a ham-handed strict adherence to the principle of dramatic conflict. The “classic matchup” between this team and that one or this player and that one sells all! And franchises encourage theatricality on the part of their fans. One of the joys of going to a sporting event in person is to experience the unconscious theatricality of everyday people as they come to cheer on their team.

I always laugh to myself when I happen to be on a Sunday morning BART train on the day of a Oakland Raiders home game. Raiders fans are legendary for their elaborate costumes, intricate makeup, and outlandish accessories! I would love to compliment them on their detailed and beautiful theatricality, but I also wish to retain my front teeth, so I just smile to myself. But if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend surreptitiously checking out the character-specific costuming choices of the rebel/pirate/Star Wars/Hells’s Angel’s Raider Nation.

And on a smaller, humbler, yet just as faithful way, please notice the down-scale yet touching outfits of the long-suffering A’s fan. They still wear player jerseys from the 1970s. Being the team of my single-digit -year days (oh the love of an 8 -and-a-half-year-old for his team), I still am, on the inside, a fan wearing my Dad’s San Francisco Giants cap inside-out in shame in the bleachers in 1969, when that area was known as Reggie’s Regiment. It was a cold night and my dad would not let me go bare-headed.

Just the other day, after spending the last ten months indoors in rehearsal and performance for five consecutive shows, I happily returned to the Coliseum for a day game. Once again, I couldn’t help but feel the connection in so many ways between baseball and theater. Both are places of memories. There are ghosts on the playing field just as on the playing stage. Looking out at the infield where the shortstop plays, I see Campy Campaneris, Rob Picciolo, Alfredo Griffin, Walt Weiss, just as when I look at various Bay Area stages, I see Tony Amedola, Lorri Holt, John Bellucci, Michelle Morain, Sarah Moser.

I still remember the first that I saw James Carpenter. He was a young man in Otherwise Engaged at the Berkeley Rep in 1984. Like most theatergoers, I’ve seen him so many times since then, all the way from his nervous comic performance in Paint it Red at the Rep to a slithery Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Aurora. It was kind of a shock when he started playing the older, patriarchal “ravenous Earls” in Shakespeare. (Maybe we’ve both gotten older!) Still, it’s been fun to follow his career. Just like it’s been fun to follow my favorite baseball players as a fan.

kind of wish that theater had more of the “true fans” just like baseball. The true fan attends the game even if their team isn’t doing very well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a devoted group of people who rooted for us! Let’s go, PianoFight! Three-peat! Well, maybe PF does have those fans! Seriously, though, as my previous night column touched on, it would be great if we could support theater without it always having to be (allegedly) amazing.

Yet we’re kind of lucky in theater when compared to athletes, because everything we do is subjective. Pity the poor baseball player who’s having a bad year! Could you see your worst review being highlighted every day by the theater company where you perform? In baseball, every team shows the player’s statistics before every at-bat. “Now standing at the plate to deliver To Be or Not to Be, the actor with the .198 batting average for the season!” Shudder.

Perhaps perversely, I admit that I actually enjoy going to baseball games when my team isn’t doing as well. It’s almost like going to an audition as the marginal players engage in a Darwinian struggle to remain alive in the show (major leagues). I remember one actor saying that he thought certain audience members deliberately chose to attend the first preview of every show because they wanted to see a trainwreck. Of course, life-long humiliation is one of darker sides to sports…who will ever forget the name of the Boston Red Sox’s first baseman who let the ground ball go through his legs in a World Series game thirty years ago?

In the make-believe of theater, where every corpse arises for a joyful linking of hands for the curtain call, we all live for another day, I hope without humiliation. Still, it takes bravery for actors to be absolutely vulnerable in front of so many people. The nerves of the athlete under pressure must surely be like the nerves of the actor. And for the fans, it is their personal nerves in watching that bind them to the emotional event of the game or the play.

Personally, baseball has influenced my work in theater. Last summer, I directed an adapted version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 called Falstaff! in which the great rogue was played by six different women. The women would also play other roles and the men changed roles as well, so Prince Hal could be Poins and vice versa. The first performance or two was kind of confusing as we worked out the switches, but as the production moved forward, I was pleased that the show developed a great feeling of generosity as everyone had an equal part in carrying the whole play. By the end it was actually like a baseball game where everyone gets their turn at the plate. And for the audience, it was exciting because they weren’t quite sure who they would see playing what role next.

I’ve often thought that the advantage of sports over theater is that we don’t know what will happen in sports. Why couldn’t we, just one time, with no announcement, alter the ending to one of Shakespeare’s plays? Wouldn’t it be great if Emilia said, “Hey, wait a minute, I gave that handkerchief to my husband”? Could you imagine the gasps from the audience at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival if they did that? There could be riots!

Perhaps the appeal of the Shotgun Players’ current Hamlet (running for the next year!), where everyone in the cast learned the entire show and each actor is assigned their part for a particular performance only 5 minutes before show time, comes from each show being part theater and part sports. You really don’t know what will happen each night. And, being honest, there’s a higher chance of a trainwreck on stage each night, which again, is part of the appeal of sports. I wonder if each show seems to the actors like an athletic game, where nightly success or failure is a more open question than in a conventional production.

But then in baseball, we see success and failure in every game. We also see practice. Yes, go the park two hours before game time and you can see batting practice. I wonder if it would be possible to open our theater houses early and let our fans (oh again, how I would love to have fans) see the vocal warm-ups or fight call. For the true fans that would really make attending theater like attending a baseball game!

Well, how much of all of this found synchronicity between baseball and theater is just fine Plymouth gin speaking? This 1840s-era drink is fiery and it’s numbing my tongue! Now as the bar closes and my rambling thoughts on the connections between baseball and theater grow ever more tenuous, I’ll just say Play Theater!


Creating The Boar’s Head

Stuart Bousel talks about boiling down and weaving together three plays by Shakespeare.

When one is taking three very long, epic Shakespeare plays and has to cut them down to a seventy-five minute drama, one goes through a real struggle to decide what to keep and what to cut. This is particularly true when one is working with Henry IV and Henry V, which when combined is roughly nine hours of material, at least six of which is really, really good, and feels like it’s thoroughly indispensable.

What has always drawn me to these plays is the broad view they offer of English life in the early 15th century. Because the central figure, Hal, is the Crown Prince of Wales, he offers a window into the courtly world of politics, arranged marriages, military campaigns and espionage, but unlike many of Shakespeare’s other royals, Hal moves amongst the common people, passing his time at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, an outer district of medieval London, consorting with all levels of the citizenry of his kingdom. Through Hal we get the rankless aristocrat Ned Poins, whose second brother status has reduced him to a workingman’s prospects, as well as the business-class Mistress Quickly, who may be one of the first examples in English literature of an unmarried, independent businesswoman. More unsavory types also abound- the petty thieves Bardolph and Pistol, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet. Hal, without ever disguising his true rank, mixes amongst these lesser folk with great familiarity: joking with them, drinking with them, and essentially becoming one of the family.

Most important, of course, is his relationship with John Falstaff, the jovial drunkard and penniless knight who acts not only as friend to Hal, but teacher, antagonist, tempter and surrogate father. Not that Hal lacks a father: Henry IV is a formidable presence in the play, looming in the background, always, symbolic of the heavy responsibilities that are an inevitable, inescapable part of Hal’s future. The tension between these two oppositional paternal forces, and the lifestyles they represent, is the source of much of the dramatic conflict in the Henry IV plays and, to me, was the principal arc to preserve when setting about an adaptation.

Because I was adapting these plays for a bar, I knew I wanted to keep the world of the bar as foregrounded as possible and hence the biggest cuts came with the court scenes and by proxy, those episodes which occurred on the battlefields, i.e. the bulk of Henry IV part 2 and Henry V‘s action. Not only did these scenes go, but some of the wars did too. There are three major military conflicts depicted over the course of the three plays, but in ours there is only one: Hal now goes to France as Prince Hal, not King Henry V, and he is crowned after he returns, victorious, to England. My reasons for this were entirely practical: 1) it made for a more easily identifiable enemy- France- and took the threat of war overseas; 2) it allowed me to appropriate the Chorus speeches from Henry V to better covey leaps of time and other narrative gaps. One unforseen bi-product was that it also allowed me to essentially create a new character: Alice.

Alice exists in Henry V as the handmaiden of Princess Katherine, Hal’s nominal love interest. I knew I wanted to keep the scenes involving Kate not just because it would provide us another female role (the women in these plays, though deftly drawn, are not particularly prominent or plentiful), but also because they contain some of the funniest and most charming material in this trilogy. When the decision came to make Kate a Frenchwoman living in England at the time of the war (and thus trapped there), along with it came the fashioning of Alice, first as Kate’s friend, then as a staff member of the Boar’s Head (“Alice!” has the same cadence as “Francis!”, the name of a waiter from the original text with whom Alice was combined), and finally as the narrator who would allow us to bring in the battles that make Prince Hal into King Henry, without having to bring in confusing sub-plots or numerous other characters like Hotspur, Douglas and the King of France. If along the way we suddenly had a female lead to boot, that didn’t hurt matters. A story about men, fathers and sons, kings and commoners, is perhaps even more interesting when told from a woman’s perspective.

With the reduction of the battles another interesting thing happened: Henry IV became, though a smaller role, a more approachable one, if you ask me. His significance as king, while still present, is now better balanced by his significance as a father. From the beginning I knew I wanted to bring him into the bar, at the very least at the end of the famous scene where Falstaff and Hal each take their turn at playing King. I’ve always thought it would be delicious to have Henry see not just what his subjects thought of him, but his son, while also witnessing the antics of the man who is, essentially, competing with him for his place as father. Having the King show up in the bar, unaccompanied, to confront his truant child is chilling in a way that wasn’t possible in the original play because there’s always been a distance between us and the King, and him and every other character in the play. Now, for this instant, in this version, he’s most or less just a man, standing in the room with us, reacting to what he’s seen, not just had reported to him, beyond the safety of his usual stomping ground, unguarded, in the thick of the moment.

The shaping of the text has gone fairly smoothly from there, with lines coming and going in rehearsal, a speech added or a scene moved here and there so that the story could focus and build around Hal’s journey from slumming rich boy to reluctant military hero to dutiful son and finally, responsible grown up able to shoulder the burdens of being king. Along the way I tried to give a moment to each of the supporting characters that flesh out Hal’s world, whether it was the bombast of Pistol, the alienation of Ned Poins, the vulgarity of Doll Tearsheet, or the charm and elegance of Katherine.

The result is something that feels quite modern, though the language still be Shakespeare’s, and though the story is an old one, the play almost feels new. Or perhaps not new, so much as freshly relevant. When Bennett Fisher, who plays Hal, and I first tossed around the idea of doing this I remember him saying, “In the end, it’s about how you can party all you want, but eventually the lights come on and you know you’re going to have to deal with tomorrow, hangover or no hangover” and I think that reading is essentially true, and an essential human experience as well.

We all, at some point or another, seek to escape our lot in life, evade our responsibilities, or just try to have fun without worrying about the repercussions. You don’t have to be a king to understand the weariness of Henry IV as he sits up nights wondering what his son is up to, just as you don’t have to be an errant prince to know what it’s like to disappoint your parents, indluge people you secretly think aren’t worth your time, or take on tasks you’d rather not be bothered with. The same is true of the supporting characters. Each is dealing with something all of us have dealt with: growing past a friend, or being the friend grown past; struggling with an attraction to someone we know we shouldn’t like; looking to get ahead, or get away with something, or just get our job done so we can go home at the end of the day. This is the stuff of life.

Thus, though many particulars of these familiar characters have changed to suit our Boar’s Head (the one exception being Falstaff, whose titanic presence is pretty unreducable even if you do cut half his lines) the spirit of the play remains quintessentially Shakespearean in its panoramic depiction of the humaness of all people regardless of their position in life or destiny. Which is why, as cliche as it is to say it, The Boar’s Head isn’t Henry’s story, or Falstaff’s, or even Hal’s, so much as everybody’s story.

It’s really just another night at the bar.

-Stuart Bousel

THE BOAR’S HEAD performs on May 16, 17, 23, 30 and 31 at 8pm each night in the Cafe Royale Bar (800 Post, at Leavenworth). Admission is free, but arrive early to ensure a seat.