It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Moliere- Made to Order “Wile-U-Wait”

Dave Sikula, writing us from the directing chair.

I’m directing again. I enjoy directing. I’m not bad at it and the results are almost always worth the time it all took. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this, but Dirty Work at the Crossroads and Damn Yankees will go unmentioned in these pages. (Though I will give you a full debriefing if you get enough alcohol into me – though there’s not that much alcohol in the world …)

But I digress.

I’m directing, and this time, it’s a unique experience for me because I’m directing my own script. Now, let me clarify that. It’s my script, but it’s neither original nor wholly my own. It’s an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, written in collaboration with, primarily, my long-suffering wife and, secondarily, the cast.

When I toured the theatre at the interview, I knew it was going to be a small-scale production. I could see I wasn’t going to be able to fly in chandeliers or helicopters, and my royalty budget was going to be minimal, so I started thinking of what I could do that would fit the budget and the space. That’s fine. In the last decade, I’ve become more of a minimalist, and do what I can to get by with metaphor and suggestion. I was given carte blanche on what script to select, and after some brief thought, I remembered how two of the funniest productions I’ve ever seen were of Invalid, and that it might be time for me to try some Moliere. And if I was going to do Moliere, well, why not do my own translation? I mean, there would be no royalties at all, so the script would say exactly what I’d want it to, and it could be fun. Regardless, it would push me out of a comfort zone and force my creativity into an unfamiliar direction.

Pushed out of a comfort zone, or off a cliff?

Pushed out of a comfort zone, or off a cliff?

Now, I know I’m not unique in this. Playwrights do it all the time – the proprietor here is a prime example. But there’s a lot to do. It’s not as complicated as acting in a show while directing it, but it’s no walk in the park. We’re three weeks into rehearsal (and I’m already on my third ingenue. Don’t ask …), and it’s a constant battle to watch staging, add business, and course correct while simultaneously wondering if something is phrased correctly, gets the point across, advances the plot, and sounds right. And, most importantly, there’s no writer to blame if any of those script factors are lacking.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do during this process was to give the actors a literal voice; to make sure that not only are their ideas implemented, but that my deathless dialogue feel organic to them. (I can’t really call it Moliere’s deathless dialogue because A) it’s not in 17th century French, B) it’s not in rhyming Alexandrines, and C) I’m pretty sure Moliere never included references to Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, or Taylor Swift.) That’s the beauty part; even though Moliere’s point was that all doctors are quacks and frauds, and that none of them are to be trusted (which is ironic, because this is the play in which he suffered a fatal seizure while performing), we’re able to take his basic characters and situations and make them do whatever we want. (And, of course, since Moliere himself was adapting commedia archetypes and making them say and do whatever he wanted, I feel no qualms about doing that to him.) In my case, it means ribbing both “natural” medicine and hard-core evangelicals, among other targets. Given the time, and a desire to stick to the basic structure of the play, I wasn’t able to take it as far as I wanted to, but I neither wanted to really insult people nor lose the lightness of the original. It’s a dumb comedy about a rich hypochondriac who gets fleeced by con men, and that’s the story I wanted to stay with. All the rest is layering and dressing.

That whirring sound? Moliere spinning in his grave.

That whirring sound? Moliere spinning in his grave.

The thing this whole experience has pointed out to me is how back to basics it all is. It’s not quite “two planks and a passion,” but it’s not lavish. Jeebus knows that none of us do this for the money, but this is an extreme case of that. We’re taking a story and telling it in a fun and light manner. We don’t have much in the way of sets or costumes or props; we’re not skimping, but it’s not a show about the trappings. It’s a show about a company getting together, playing multiple parts, and entertaining an audience, and maybe giving them the slightest of messages to take home with them.

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Not in Moliere's original.

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Not in Moliere’s original.

It’s something I’d recommend to any director. Sure, it’s a privilege to work with big budgets and be able to get anything you want, but it’s truly bracing and challenging to have limited resources and make your creativity work rather than writing a check.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: On Prejudices

Dave Sikula free forms his way into controversy.

I’d been struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s entry, and, frankly, I kept coming up blank.

Some of this was due to having been out of town this last week; some of it was due to dealing with some weird Eustachian tube thing I’ve got (it alternates between plugged-up ears and vertigo; it’s much better now, thank you, but still a nuisance); some of it was due to being in rehearsal.

The result is, this will probably be more free-form and scattered than usual.

So, what’s bugging me? What’s my beef? What’s sticking in my craw?

The first thing that comes to mind is an episode from my recent trip. While driving through the wilds of southern Illinois, I was listening to a podcast featuring an interview with Michael Chiklis. While I’m not particularly a fan of his, I was interested enough to listen to the program. I didn’t watch either “The Commish” or “The Shield” (though I always heard good things about the latter), and my only real exposure to him was through his portrayals of Curly Howard (in a TV biopic of The Three Stooges) and Ben Grimm (in the dismal “Fantastic Four” movies). He’s one of those actors whom I’ve found likeable enough, but who never really made an impression on me.

From the interview (and Wikipedia), I learned he has (surprisingly to me) classical training, having gone to Boston University, but overall, he came off as something of a blowhard and goofball, but in an innocuous way – sort of a “Hey, I’m an LA actor who had a notable TV series” vibe.

I could have left it there, but the interviewer asked him about Shakespeare, and Mr. Chiklis launched into a combination condemnation of Shakespeare and defense of Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, that had steam coming out of my ears. I was literally yelling at and arguing with a two-year-old interview playing on my iPhone

Let me state here my firm status as a Stratfordian. It’s not even a belief. I’ve studied the Shakespeare “authorship” question to a great degree, and there’s not a shred, not a smidgen, not an atom of evidence that anyone but William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote those plays. Not to name call – oh, hell, let me go ahead and name-call: anyone who believes that Oxford, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth – or anyone else – wrote the plays is an ill-informed idiot (though, mind you, I’m not eliminating Shakespeare collaborating with other writers; there’s plenty of evidence for that).

I have no idea why these people so piss me off. It’s not an anti-elitist thing; I’m certainly an elitist in a lot of things. But there’s something about this topic that just pushes my buttons. In a way, it’s kind of how I feel about the Kennedy assassination, although in that case, I’d be willing to listen to conspiracy theories, even if they all fall apart of their own weight. On matters such as these, I side with Occam’s Razor and believe the simplest theory is the right one.

The takeaway from all of this is, if you really want to get my goat, try to bait me on Oxford vs. Shakespeare; I’ll bite every time.

Moving on.

In trying to come up with a topic for today, I asked my long-suffering wife if she had any ideas. She mentioned she’d seen a Facebook post that took a Minneapolis reviewer to task for alleged racism. Personally, I found the review poorly reasoned and written, but far from racist.

My feelings about reviews and reviewers have been expressed here before; basically, I don’t have a lot of use for them. But this case proved interesting to me. The review is of a production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” While the reviewer (I refuse to call him a critic) seems not to understand Moliere’s dramaturgy and style, he begins by criticizing the director’s “highly questionable choices, one being the use of colorblind casting.” A phrase like that can easily act as a red flag to some readers, but beyond objecting to Asian, Latino, and African American actors playing French characters, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail. It seems he’s mostly puzzled why the director would cast actors of color while the Theatre avoids producing plays by writers of color. (though, admittedly, there is a tone of “people should only do shows wherein they’re cast ethnically appropriately”).

I have to admit that I’m torn on some cross-cultural casting. When I direct, I try to do it and have indeed done so more than once. I do have trouble wrapping my brain around casting family units of different ethnicities – and let me speedily add that it’s not a matter of having a problem with interracial relationships; I’m thinking of, say, a “Glass Menagerie” with an Asian American Amanda and a white Tom and Laura, or a “Long Day’s Journey” with a white James, a Latina Mary, and African Americans as Jamie and Edmond. I fully admit that the “problem” is my own; if I can accept that any actor is pretending to be someone up on that stage in the first place, I should be able to blind myself to differences in race. I mean, I’m able to see beyond something like an Irish American actor playing a Swede or a Canadian, so why not stretch my own limitations?

And let me hasten to add again, that this prejudice really only applies itself mostly to “realistic” plays or productions. If I see a farce or a deconstruction or something epic (such as Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”) with an interracial family (whose ethnic differences are incidental to the plot), I have no problem with it – nor do I have a “problem” with cross-casting in general. One of the best things I’ve ever seen at ACT was their production of “Tartuffe” with an almost-exclusively African American cast, and I’ve seen a few productions of Chekhov that used multi-racial casts.

I realize that, in bringing this issue up – let alone admitting to my own limitations – I may be opening a can of worms and opening myself to criticism, but I don’t think I’m alone, and I think it’s a topic worth discussing (or I wouldn’t have spent a few hundred words on it) – though I’d hope it would be an open discussion, without either side shutting down the other for misunderstanding.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my background, maybe it’s my cultural “training.” Whatever it is, though, I’m ready to be educated and enlightened.