Tuesday, March 24, 2015

PIPPIN! and MAN OF LA MANCHA: Semi-Full-Frontal Intellectual Theatre (23 June 2013)

       One advantage of academic theatre (my colleagues used "theater" for the building and the British "–re" for play-presenting and their field of work) — one advantage of academic theatre, though a double-edged one, is that practitioners are a little freer than commercial operations to mess around.

       Theatre seasons at universities, however, also have to make a bit of money or at least not lose much, so their summer presentations are often either Shakespearean or lightweight, or both, and usually include a musical. (On Shakespeare: Don't be impressed with the gutsiness of your local theatre troupe if they do a Shakespeare play. Unless it's a very avant-garde production — let's say Macbeth in Gaelic set in Arkansas with midgets — it's probably their moneymaker for the season. Old Will can still put butts into seats.)

       A couple summers, though, Miami University Theatre earned its keep intellectually as well as monetarily by doing sort of back-to-back a romantic, idealistic Man of La Mancha (1965) and a strongly anti-romantic, anti-idealist Pippin (1972).

       Man of La Mancha is inherently ambivalent about romantic idealism since the Man of La Mancha was Don Quixote, and Don Quixote, you know was, as we say in high-power literary criticism, bat-shit crazy. In the play we're told explicitly, sensibly, and very truly, it's good to have dreams, "But if you build your life on dreams / It’s prudent to recall / A man with moonlight in his hands / Has nothing there at all."

       And more than prudence is involved here: The ability to tell world-time from dream-time is intrinsic to sanity.

       Ah, but yet ….

       But yet whatever Cervantes may've intended, many readers have had a justifiable soft spot in our hearts and less justifiable soft spot in our heads for Don Quixote, and his lovable, quixotic form of madness.

       And when I saw and heard Man of La Mancha in Chicago during the riots after Martin Luther King was murdered, I took the play to mean that "To dream the impossible dream" is a pretty good thing. And I'm no sentimentalist: obviously, arguably not even a decent human being; I took the occasion of a horrific assassination and riots to get a hard-to-get theatre ticket.

       As produced at Miami U and in the conception of Bob Fosse, the original director, Pippin is more than unsentimental: it's an attack on sentimentality, romantic theatre, and romantic idealism. Which is a good thing: we too often use "idealist" as an unambiguous compliment. It shouldn't be; literal idealism — in an Inquisitor or fervent Nazi or one of Mao's dream-intoxicated thugs in the Cultural Revolution — literal idealism is dangerous.

       So three cheers for the Miami University Theatre Department and whoever the director was (which I'm not going to look up for reasons that will become clear in a moment).

       Or maybe 2.5 or two cheers.

       The reduction in cheers is because it wasn't enough to do an edgy, controversial play for the summer musical; they needed THAT SOMETHING EXTRA to wow the crowd. So, since a Gaelic Razorback Macbeth, in the nude with midgets, had probably already been done in San Francisco, they did Pippin in body stockings. The time-setting of Pippin is somewhat ambiguous, but the historical Pippin was the son of King Charles the Great, so the earliest it would make sense to set the play is the time of "Charlemagne," about 800 C.E., a long time after the invention of clothing, but a good deal before body stockings. So there was a good chance no one had thought of body stockings before and this production would have not only THAT SOMETHING EXTRA but also SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

       They messed around, and oh, it was different, all right.

       I attended opening night to a packed house: not only summer school Theatre students required to go but families and friends and maybe the standard bussed-in kiddie groups.

       At intermission, the men's room was even more silent than usual. Then one guy at a urinal said to a friend or no one in particular — violating the commandment, "Thou shalt not speak to strangers in the men's room": "Well, would you tell him?"

       Continued silence for a couple or three "beats." Then, "Tough call."

       The "him" here was the star: a sophomore in his first leading role. For whatever reasons, he'd forgotten to put on his "dance belt" under his body stocking. He'd also not worn a jock strap or just his underwear. He'd gone "commando," and from my seat well back in the auditorium I could see that he was, to modify slightly a line from King Lear, "every inch a prince."

       His parents, family, and friends sitting down-front center would get the point made more explicitly.

       I received, by the way, within a few weeks, the answer to The Question at the Urinals: it came from a student of mine who was a professional wardrobe mistress, and it was "Good God, No!" I.e., you don't tell the leading man opening night halfway through his first big performance that he …, well that he failed to do what he failed to do. What she would do is next performance and thereafter lay out the star's costume herself, with the dance belt on top — and she'd tell the other guys in the dressing room to make goddamn sure Pippin wore the belt, whatever his ideas might be on genital comfort.

       I'm sure that after a year or so the star's friends got him drunk and got out their Polaroid shots of him in costume and let him know about his opening-night costume problem; to the best of my knowledge, no one mentioned it to him for the run of the play.

       The point here, beyond a cruelly funny story and the moral, "Don't walk out on stage without having someone you trust check out how you look" is that just about no one in the Theatre or English Departments discussed the insightful juxtaposition of Man of La Mancha and Pippin and the profound issues that contrast raised about romanticism and idealism and the role of the arts generally and theatre in particular in reinforcing potentially dangerous Quixotic idealism on the one hand or emotionally enervating rejection of ideals.

       People talked, of course, about the poor dumb-schmuck actor and his up-front and center dong.

       Hey, man — body stockings! For that extra pizzazz!

       There is much to be said for academic theatre and experimental theatre messing around and going for the New! Improved!! On the other hand, sometimes something has "never been done that way" because doing it that way is stupid.

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