Friday, May 27, 2011

Presenting the Grand Tradition of Meta Theater

By Neena Arndt, Literary Associate

“Pat pat, and here’s a marvelous convenient place for our rehearsal,” declares Peter Quince in Act III of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring house; and we will do it in action as we will do it before the duke.”

Quince plans to present Pyramus and Thisbe to the Duke, but his troupe of rude mechanicals proves less adept at acting than he might hope—they miss their cues and mispronounce words. There are other challenges for the group, too: making sure the characters don’t frighten the audience, finding a way to represent the moon on stage, and constructing a wall costume.

Writing some three centuries later, Anton Chekhov created a character who faces the same kinds of problems: although Konstantin in The Seagull is thrilled with the location of his performance (“An empty space. No scenery. Just the lake and the horizon.”) his leading actress Nina is dubious about his playwriting abilities (“It’s not easy you know, acting in your play. My character’s not real,” she says), and his crew run off for a swim just a few minutes before curtain time. Like Peter Quince and the rude mechanicals, Konstantin and Nina also face significant criticism from their audience. While Peter Quince’s audience tires of the characters (“I am weary of this moon. Would he would change.”), Konstantin’s onlookers ask serpent-tongued questions: “Is this one of those experimental things?” Neither audience waits until the end of the play to voice their opinions.

Theater artists who present A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Seagull sympathize with Quince and Konstantin, because putting up a play is tricky business, whether you’re a tradesman moonlighting as an actor-manager, a wannabe intellectual, or a group of savvy professional artists. And when—as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Seagull—you’re putting up not only a play, but a play-within-a-play, the process may prove doubly complex. And now, adding to the long list of plays that contain plays, Sarah Ruhl’s new comedy, Stage Kiss, playing through June 5 in the Albert Theatre, gives Goodman audiences an off-kilter and self-deprecating glimpse of what we theater folks do. In Stage Kiss, we watch as a director, Adrian Schwalbach (played with bumbling guilelessness by Ross Lehman) puts up a play, from auditions to opening night. Actors He (affably portrayed by Mark Montgomery) and She (the blithely profound Jenny Bacon) are cast in Adrian’s play, and struggle to create great—or at least OK—performances in the humorously mediocre play-within-the-play.

To see the hijinks, hilarity and hiccups that characterize Adrian’s process, you’ll have to book tickets at the Goodman. If you do take in the show, please keep your comments to yourselves until after the performance. And when the characters declare the conclusion of the play—and they make it clear several times by stating “the end”—please “give us your hands, if we be friends.” Because applause, just like the play-within-the-play, is a theatrical convention that never goes out of style.

Top: Nina (Heather Wood) performs in the play-within-the-play in this season's Robert Falls-directed production of The Seagull. Photo by Liz Lauren. Bottom: Stage Kiss's play-within-a-play: He (Mark Montgomery) and She (Jenny Bacon) as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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