May 2010

The first time I went to the Chinese embassy in New York to apply for a visa, I gave my profession as ‘writer’. A hopeful move on my part probably influenced by some pop metaphysician – one of the ones that tell you to announce your intentions to the universe and then watch happily as the stars line up – the lady behind the glass paused.

‘What kind writer? Politcal?’

It crossed my mind to quip as follows: ‘Political!? No way. I don’t even vote.’

This was another one on the long list of witty things I could have said but didn’t. Perhaps it was for the best this time as a protest non vote cuts little ice with someone from a country where voting is not widely practised.

So far so good, but immersed as I am in a fascinating volume called ‘When China Rules The World’, and noting a well-observed article in the New York Times commenting on the increasing compliance of anyone with any profile when pronouncing publically on China, I will use more restraint than I’d like but less than is prudent when talking about the man at the end of this month’s entry here.

What has caught my interest this May is the complex question of presence onstage. I began rehearsal three days ago for a play called Servant of two Masters by Goldini. When I tell people this, sometimes they say ‘Ah Commedia dell’arte isn’t it.’

And I say, ‘yes.’

And usually in the above exchange there is a tacit agreement that we actually know what that means.

My fellow cast members on this one are a delightful, gifted, and above all comically talented group. There is as much humourous ability per square inch of actor in this cast than in any I’ve shared a stage with these thirty years – with the possible exception of British actor Martin Chamberlain who could draw a laugh from a dead man – digression here; on the second preview of The Constant Wife in the last season at the old Guthrie in Minneapolis, one of the audience members did actually pass on in about the middle of the performance. His family graciously assured the theatre that for this gentleman, a life-long theatre going enthusiast, there could not have been a better way to go, and as that play was a comedy, one hopes that he died laughing.

So I’m delighted that the cast is made up of funny people. Our director is an enthusiast and has studied Commedia formally. But do any of us actually know what the form demands? Not so much. Stock characters abound everywhere in life of course. I happen to play a doctor in the piece, and given the current vogue in television advertising for male enhancement or readiness or whatever they call the hard-on drugs they peddle these days, I guess my best move is to prepare a list of asides based on making the crucial phone call at 4 hours of tumnescence precisely. Not 3.59 because should one subside in the final crucial minute, and call out the medics unnecessarily surely (and even after healthcare reform) you could be letting yourself in for a lot of deductible. Not 4.01 neither, because then a clever lawyer could litigate on the basis on irresponsible delay. No, 4 hours is the decreed exact threshold. With Servant of two Masters if comic ability meets viable comic mode, we’ll have a show, but if the forms are too esoteric, not the funniest people in the world will raise laughter.

I took in a performance of the little-known-here French farce (ish) play, Dr. Knock, produced off-Braodway at The Mint. Written 7 or 8 decades ago, still a perennial in France and a money maker when managements are looking to pack them in, this too, surely a play for our times. If I was a psychologist (which I’m not), I might say that in the closing days of Western Patriality, folk cling like ivy to oak, to the idea that the animus authority figures of the professions can show the way. Madison Avenue understands this thoroughly and three words are uttered in paid-for public airspace more frequently than any others: doctor, your, ask. Not necessarily in that order.

The Mint theatre in Manhattan N.Y. has the most fabulous policy of producing the lessor known works of the cannon, and there is often some undiscovered gem on offer there. Jenny Harmon gave a quintessential concierge in act three, the star of act one was the motor car, and fine ensemble comedy throughout.

Favourable review for Dr. Knock in the kingmaker New York Times, but a love letter of a review for Gabriel at the Atlantic – a production I have watched from the sidelines because of my affiliation with the actress playing Mrs Lake – result: instant sellout. I have seen excellent productions closed or clobbered by poor adverse, so it’s nice to witness a positive effect. But is it really sensible that the fate of many months’ work from skilled professionals, and multiple six or seven figure investment, hangs in the balance and is subject to the mood of one man? Maybe it would work if that man were the Dalai Lama, who played to a packed house at Radio City Music Hall this month.

His Holiness pottered on to the stage and did a few details of outrageous schtick; pretending to be surprised the audience was there, pretending to forget his homage to the Buddha, and at the lunchtime break waving a dismissing hand at the crowd. He got laughs each time. I’ve been a fan for 40 years and this was the first time I had seen him. The body of the show was a technical discourse on an ancient text. Challenging for some of us to follow(I admit to dropping off for a few minutes).

The 14th Dalai Lama is a living testament to grace under pressure. To forbearance under abuse. To patience in adversity and strength in loss. And the healing power of laughter. If I ever get into some challenge that seems overwhelming I try to remember him. But apart from everything else that is incredible about him, the man knows the human Commedia and he knows what he is doing on a stage.

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