It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Ashland Round Up

Dave Sikula returns from the wild world of Ashland.

The wife and I recently returned from a trip to Ashland. Now, this does certainly not make us unique. I’d venture to say that a good portion of my constant readers (especially those in the Bay Area) have been there, and more than once. This trip was either my third or fifth (depending on how you count). I’ve seen shows there only three times, but auditioned there twice. (It obviously didn’t take – yet. I’m determined to go back, though.) It’s odd that I’ve been there only a few times. I went to grad school in Eugene, only a couple of hours north. I just never made the effort to see anything.

There was no particular reason for this; I mean, I had no enmity against them. In fact, I had great respect for what they do, even (years and years and years ago – before some of you were even born, I’ll wager) sending them a copy of my translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (getting a very encouraging letter from Jerry Turner, the then-Artistic Director).

My experiences at Ashland have been hit-and-miss. A pretty good Hamlet (with a very good central performance), one of the worst Sea Gulls I’ve ever seen (which makes me kind of glad, in retrospect, that nothing ever came of my own translation. Remind me to talk about my theories about Chekhov sometime.) On this trip, though, we were four-for-four. We saw a very good and touching production of Water by the Spoonful, a fast-paced, lively – and actually funny – Comedy of Errors, the great Jack Willis giving a towering performance as Lyndon Johnson in The Great Society, and – the whole reason for going – a damn-near-perfect production of The Cocoanuts.

Here, watch for yourself.

Anyone who knows me will know how much I love the Marx Brothers. The book I’ve read the most is Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. It’s probably the definitive book on the brothers and their work. In previous installments (if not on the Theatre Pub blog, then certainly on my own blog), I’ve discussed how, prior to the current era of video on demand, moviegoers couldn’t count on ever seeing a film more than once. If it was in the theatre, you went out and saw it. If it was on TV, you made the time to sit and watch; you couldn’t even record it. Many of us combed through the TV Guide (which was essential reading) to check the movie listings and see if anything really good was going to be on. (And if it was, it was almost always at 3:00 in the morning.)

There are six and a half great Marx Brothers movies: the five they made for Paramount (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup), and at MGM the first one (A Night at the Opera) and some of the second one (A Day at the Races). None of the other six are worthless (though The Big Store comes close), but, in Adamson’s words, “they were never in anything as wonderful as they were.” By the early ‘70s, I’d probably seen all of them with two exceptions: Animal Crackers (which was unavailable for legal reasons) and The Cocoanuts. In checking the TV Guide, though, I saw that, after years of waiting, it was finally going to be on. But, as scheduling would have it, it was going to be on in the middle of the afternoon on a school day.

I have no memory of how I did it, but I somehow persuaded my mother to let me come home from school to watch it. I enjoyed the hell out of it (still do), and carry that memory fondly.

By all accounts, the Marxes may have been just about the biggest stars on Broadway in the days when that was the epitome of show business. With a couple of movie-star exceptions (Chaplin and Pickford), you really couldn’t get much bigger. The thing about the brothers was that every performance was apparently barely-controlled chaos and unique from any other: one night Harpo arrived late, forgot to underdress for a quick change and ended up naked on stage; songwriter Harry Ruby marched on stage one night to demand that he be given the bathrobe he’d been promised as a birthday present; ad libs outnumbered actual lines (one night, playwright George S Kaufman was standing backstage and told the person he was talking to “Quiet. I think I just heard one of my original lines”). There was no telling exactly what would happen, but whatever it was would undoubtedly be hysterically funny.

“We’re four of the Three Musketeers”

“We’re four of the Three Musketeers”

The script for both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers have been available for decades (I own them both), but it’s incredibly rare when someone does them – especially the former (most of Irving Berlin’s score was actually lost until the Ashland production). So when I saw they were doing Animal Crackers in Ashland, I figured I had to see it – and I ended up having one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre. It was exactly what I wanted: full of chaos, spontaneity, ad libs, and inspired insanity. It was the next best thing to seeing the actual brothers on stage. And, on top of that, when it was announced that they’d be doing The Cocoanuts this season; well, there was no damn way I was going to miss it.

Because of my commitments to Slaughterhouse Five, we were unable to head north until the end of October. Looking at the schedule, I saw that that would be the last week of the run – and the season – so I decided we had to see the final performance, figuring that, if any performance would go off the rails (in the best way), it’d be this one. It indeed did; it was just one of those performances where I had a big stupid grin on my face for nearly three hours, just drinking in the brilliance of the writing and performances. It was one of those rare times when I went into a show with the highest of expectations and hopes, and not only where they met, but everything went to 11.

“The skies will all be blue/When my dreams come true” – and they did.

The thing I most came away with from that weekend, though, was getting a sense of Ashland. It was the first extended period I’d spent in the town, and I could really see how it’s all focused on the festival (for good reason, but still …). Everything downtown seems to have some relation to what’s going on at the theatres; that the people in town have seen the productions and can talk about them intelligently; that the stores are doing more than selling books and tchotchkes that have a “Ye Olde” vibe. There’s a real sense of pride as to what the Festival means – and does – that I’ve never felt in another city, not even Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a real theatre-based town and economy that made me want to work there and become part of that experience.

Downtown Ashland

Downtown Ashland

It’s something I can’t imagine in another town or city. Theatre is either a minor or nonexistent part of most peoples’ lives in the Bay Area. The people I work with don’t go (they barely go to movies, let alone live non-musical performances), and certainly wouldn’t recognize names like Sarah Ruhl or Theresa Rebeck, let alone Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. (Hell, they barely know movies or television shows that are more than five years old.)

Now, I hasten to add, I don’t think these people are stupid or poorly educated – at least, in areas that don’t relate to the arts. It’s just that so many of our communities ignore the arts – performing and visual – that to say they ignore them is a vast minimization. They don’t know them in the way they don’t know what the best bakery in Montevideo is; it just doesn’t exist for them. That’s what was so exhilarating about being in Ashland. There was a sense that not only is everyone aware of, and pulling for, what’s happening with the Festival; it’s that it matters to them.

And realizing that was simultaneously frustrating, sad – and inspiring.

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.