Wednesday, May 25, 2016
"But what of the sailor, Not seldom the sort, Of steamer who searches, For every new port."
John Casken was a very interesting Le Chat, whom I probably underestimated. His physical presence was similar to that of dark-haired and moustached Jonathan Harris, Dr. Smith on LOST IN SPACE or Clifton Webb in LAURA or ALL ABOUT EVE. The role was difficult for him, I think, and I probably didn't give him the right help he needed. I apologize for this. I still think he did an admirable job and looking back, I'm quite fond of his interpretation. One critic was dismissive of his performance, but since this fossil of a scribe was pretty much despised because actors and directors feared his tiny comments, his impact was a minor pimple on the butt. I'll tear some new ones about these "experts" later.
Charles Waldron as the Host, Dr. Leon Brownkowski, was a minor revelation. The part was patterned after the old PBS TV series, THE ASCENT OF MAN. This BBC produced documentary was shown on PBS, written and hosted by a Jacob Bronowski, whose long winded monologues inspired my ponderous character parody. I called the show THE DESCENT OF MAN, not realizing at the time that the real program was inspired by the same title, which was Charles Darwin's second book on evolution. As MAD MAGAZINE once said, "Small minds run in the same gutter." Anyway, after watching episodes of the real show on my parents' TV and seeing PBS in Los Angeles present the program, I thought it was the right framing device for my 'historical comedy.' And it would provide the punch line for the play. So Waldon had to be the anchor for the production. He also provided a number of my Dadaist sight gags and drops in and out of alternate universe comic setups. Charles was shaky and undisciplined in the beginning (he once came to rehearsal quite inebriated and unable to work). But after sober reflection, some embarrassment and profuse apologies, he worked as a solid professional and gained critical praise in a field of mixed reviews.
This would probably be as good a place as any to call out one of the reviewers. And in the process, explain the joke that cost me $200. Two anecdotes for the price of none: in the opening of the show, the program began like it was the opening of the PBS parody. THE ASCENT OF MAN. Like all PBS programs at the time, the non-commercial Public Broadcasting Station would attempt to let the viewers know that the show had been made possible by a grant (cash payment) from someone say like Mobil Oil or some other public minded, yet heartless corporation. These soft sell, Orwellian plugs always darkly amused me, and in my satirist's crystal ball, I knew they would ultimately become the blatant commercials they now are on so-called commercial free TV. So in the darkened theatre, I began with the onscreen titles, accompanied by the music of "Pomp and Circumstance." Each title was solo. And slow moving. To build the joke:
"The following program has been made possible by a grant from BORNJUCK."
"Manufacturers of fine Swedish condoms."
"Designed in mind for the two of you (Anything else would be absurd)."
"Delicately ribbed to give a woman gentle, urging sensations."
"Reservoir tipped or lubricated."
"Available in nude latex and assorted colors."
"Try the Black Panther. It's a riot."
"50,000 Swedes couldn't be wrong. Or safer."
"THE DESCENT OF MAN."
"With Dr. Leon Brownkowski."
"Professor of Anthro-Polygamy, Pomona Men's College."
My great tech crew made these titles, photographed and letterboxed on Kodak slide and projected on the theatre screen. Audience recordings made of both opening and closing nights records the laughter, building on each title and proving to me the audience was getting it. That couldn't be exactly said of one department head and one local scribe.
The theatre critic for the Santa Barbara News & Review, Jim Cook, was especially catty. A theatre director in his own right, he thought he had the inside skinny on the show and its motives. He felt the play was obvious and not "subtle, barbarian" in approach. Now his insight was based on his knowledge of my love for English theatre. He flattered my acting skills, I admit, in the review saying my "acting and timing is of the best," in my cameo as Russian Segei Suitenpanz to dancer Isadora Duncan. But the subtlety eluded him when he said these titles were a steal from the play THE RULING CLASS. This revelation was unleashed because he once asked and considered me for a local production of the Peter O' Toole known black comedy. We had discussed it at the Cabaret Theatre, where he had directed THE THREEPENNY OPERA, after I had done DRACULA, A MUSICAL COMEDY. So he assumed I had read the play (I hadn't and still haven't) and assumed I stole the PBS intended satire from that source. Oh, well. *giggles*
The other incident came almost immediately in production from Theatre Department head Dr. Pope Freeman. I don't think he ever actually read the whole play. He got to the first bit, saw the condom joke and wanted it removed. He wasn't mean about it, though Pope and I had some tense moments on later collaborations; tense moments that I never, ever experienced with Max Whittaker. Pope said, "Let's not make this play X-Rated. Let's bring it down to an R." An R? This thing was just barely a GP (PG not the norm yet, maybe, and certainly not a PG-13, yet to come). I wasn't cutting my set up sight gag. We were approaching tech week, and I said, "Well let's test it in previews. If anyone is offended, then I'll remove it."
Now I've told some folks that this joke cost me $200 to keep in (1976 money). When I signed on to do the show, besides my teaching salary, I was promised the obligatory writer's royalty. Like any other show produced on the SBCC stage, a $50 a performance fee was paid (the matinee was gratis, on me), like to Samuel French or Dramatist's Play Service. Well, the joke stayed in. And the Writer's Fee was non-existent. "Sorry," said Pope. "The play didn't make a profit." Tell that to Samuel French. Salo! I didn't push it. I had creative control. The joke was worth every penny. *giggles* times two.
It was not my intention to get waylaid here and not finish discussing the third lead, actress Ann Ringer, She played Madame Blavatsky and she was a charming young lady. As they would say in the Thirties, "she had spunk" (actually a very rude, crude expression). "She's got Moxie!" would perhaps be more appropriate, referring to the soda pop. Like "full of Pep." Anyway, she was quite adorable, young, but enthusiastic. I liked her so much, I didn't even flirt with her. She brought out the Protective Papa Bear in me. Her performance, especially when the gypsy costume came on, was quite transforming. She reminded me of a young Liza Minnelli playing Maria Ouspenskaya in THE WOLF MAN. The local hacks were not kind to her performance and I think I wanted to cuddle her and say, "Job well done." I know looking backward today, I think she was a better actress than say, Lena Dunham in GIRLS. Seriously...The quality in the comparative Big Picture is really going down.
Supporting actors next. And when dealing in a comedy about thefts...they often steal the show.