It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Garbageman Cometh

Dave Sikula continues to wallow in garbage.

When I left off last time, I was explaining the origins and derivations of Garbage Theatre. In Part Two, I go into the specifics of its execution.

Our stage manager, Ralph Eastman, was in the lighting booth in the back of the house, watching us screw around and getting more and more furious. Ralph was a teacher and director, and generally pretty easygoing. But this was a special day. He may have told us to knock it off once or twice, but regardless, he suddenly went berserk, literally screaming at us for being the unprofessional group he’d ever worked with, and generally chewing us all out. He then turned off the stage lights, slammed the window of the booth closed (so hard that I was sure he’d shattered the glass), and stormed out, slamming the door so hard I thought that would break. I have no memory of what happened after that, but he must have been eventually persuaded to come back, and we must have toned it down a little, but not too much. (I do remember going on in the opening number closing night, even though I’d never been blocked into it. I was proud that I stumbled into all the choreography correctly, not missing a step.)

Before I go on, the thing I want to emphasize here is that, for all the screwing around we did onstage (and it was significant), we were having fun, and that’s what made the production work; the palpable sense of something fun going on. It must be something like what audience who saw The Marx Brothers in the 20s experienced. (There’s the famous story of George S Kaufman, who wrote the book of “Animal Crackers,” coming to see a performance, and hushing the person he was talking to: “Quiet! I think I heard one of the original lines!”) I’m not saying we were that good by any means, but I think it was the sense of barely-controlled chaos that made thing enjoyable.

I will say, though, that if a cast tried this kind of crap on me today, I’d probably make Ralph Eastman look like Gandhi. There was an actor who did something much milder in a show I directed a while back, and it infuriated me to the point where I’ll never cast that actor again.

But back to “Paint Your Wagon.”

At the beginning of Act Two, the show finally gets some women on stage when the dancing girls arrive at the saloon. They did a number that involved a series of jumprope challenges. I tried to revive the “Bottle Dancer” pool from “Fiddler,” betting on which of them might trip on the rope, but I don’t recall a lot of interest in it. (According to one of them on Facebook today, she doesn’t think they were ever flawless; I think they were once or twice, at least.)

The high point of the run, though, was the challenge to make me break. Now, one of the things I pride myself on is that, no matter what happens while I’m on stage, I won’t break character or laugh. I may ad lib or otherwise react, but it’s always in the moment and in character and prompted by an actual need to get things back on track. In a production of “Anything Goes,” we were in the middle of a scene set on the ship in the mid-Atlantic, when a dog suddenly appeared on the stage. I turned to the guy I was doing the scene with and said, “Must be one of them sea dogs.” We got rid of the dog, “asked” the audience where we were, went a couple of lines back, and finished the scene.

Anyway, when I mentioned this non-breaking trait of mine, it became the goal of everyone to get me to crack up during the final Saturday performance.

I think I had only one scene (in the aforementioned saloon), but it started with Mark Meyers (him again!) greeting me with an inflated condom on his nose. I just looked at him with a “Really?” look. The main part of the scene involved my negotiating a deal to buy one of the Mormon wives, I was given a contract to sign. Instead of the usual contract, though, Dave Jones (The Actor Claude File’s best friend) who was playing Ben Rumson, gave me the single grossest and most disgusting beaver shot I’ve ever seen (to this day). I just looked at him. He then handed me a pen with which to sign the contract. I took off the cap and the explosive device inside turned out to be a dud. I gave Dave another look and shook my head.

After that, I believe there was another musical number – it might have been the jumprope thing – but, regardless, my stuff wasn’t the focus of the scene. Claude came up to me while I was standing in the middle of the stage, though, and got me in a wrestling hold and headlock. He was doing all he could to get me to turn my head upstage. He literally mashed his hand against the right side of my face and was pushing it to my left. I took this as an attempt to get me to not look downstage, because that’s where I figured they were preparing something, so I fought back equally hard to not turn my head.

I found out when we came off stage that what he was trying to do was to get me to look behind the bar. One of the stagehands was lying behind the bar – probably visible to the folks in the balcony. He was wearing a gorilla mask and long underwear with the crotch cut out. When the moment was right, he smashed a cream pie against his groin. I never saw it – I was probably the only person in the theatre who didn’t – but always wished I had. Not only would I have gotten a kick out of it, but I’d like to know if I actually would have broken. I’ll never know …

Anyway, that’s how Garbage Theatre was born and how it hit its early peaks. I’ve never been involved with a show since that approached that level. I’ve seen some – and some performances – that have been miracles of garbage, but never one that was nothing but garbage from beginning to end. It’s sort of my holy grail.

They were crazy days, but we were young, stupid, and fearless. A few years ago, I went down to Cal State Fullerton to see what was then the brand-new theatre complex. I spent more time in my youth than I should have in the CSUF greenroom, and I wanted to get a look at it. In the years since I left, that greenroom’s been converted back into a classroom, and a new, much smaller greenroom was established down the hall. I looked in and saw a group of undergrads excitedly talking about something that meant nothing to me but was of great import to them. I was suddenly struck by how young they were, and did the mental math that they weren’t much older than the men and women who were the real old-timers and vets when I was there as a student. “We were really ever that young?” I mean, before all the idealism and hope had been beaten out of us, to be replaced by realism and cynicism.

And I had to admit that, yeah, we were.