Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Night at the Theater

Last weekend, my girlfriend's pal Anne was in town, so we all went to the Classic Stage Company's production of Death and the Ploughman -- as part of the typical you-are-in-New-York-you-must-do-cultural-stuff tourist situation. The production was pretty good (considering that Ploughman's a fifteenth century, three character play, with lots of didactic speechifying) with a spartan theater-in-the-square set and no props except two benches, a suitcase, and an umbrella.

As we were leaving, La Chiquita -- a onetime German major -- commented on the fact that Goethe's UrFaust was playing at the CSC on Monday, so I got tickets as kind of a surprise. UrFaust is basically the first draft version of Faust that Goethe made, a story he would rewrite over and over for the rest of his career. The performance we saw on Monday night wasn't a full staged production, but rather a reading with all the actors in their street clothes, reading from scripts they rested on a series of lecterns at the front of the stage.

The production featured two "name" actors: F. Murray Abraham and Michael Cumpsty. Abraham, who played the role of Mephisto, was a particular draw for me, since he was the lead in one of my favorite movies, Amadeus. Cumpsty, who played Faust, is a British stage actor with a deep, booming voice, who's had a number of small movie and TV roles.

[SIDE NOTE: I have a favorite embarassing resume item for each of the above actors. For Abraham, it's a 1991 fencing film called By The Sword, co-starring Eric Roberts, which is one of the great unintentional comedies of our time. For Cumpsty, it's the 1993 spoof movie Fatal Instinct, where he's the spoof version of the husband in Sleeping with the Enemy. I wish they'd had a Q&A after the reading, just so I could ask the guys about these films that they've probably forgotten ever having made.]

The reading was a gas. With the rich voices provided by Abraham and Cumpsty, at first it felt like watching a radio play. The young actors they had for the remaining parts did excellent work, also, and as they went along, the players seemed to get deeper into the spirit of the thing, acting their parts out more and more, rather than just reading them. Things remained somewhat informal, with Abraham at one point casting an aside to the audience at one of the more awkward line readings, "That's supposed to be a big laugh line. I don't get it, either."

Now, by itself, none of this is all that noteworthy (or blogworthy, as it were). Except that towards the end of the piece, in a scene where Gretchen (the young woman Faust seduces with the help of the Devil) is being tortured by evil spirits, a young man entered the theater by the main entrance, and stood just off-stage, as if waiting to make his appearance. The guy -- tall, blond, pretty fit -- was completely, full-monty naked, except for his shoes and socks.

It says a lot for my experience of off-Broadway theater that my only immediate reaction was "That's peculiar. No one else is in costume."

After a few seconds, F. Murray Abraham (and only F. Murray Abraham) gets up from his seat and says, in his stage voice, "Hey! We're doing a play, here!" And prodding Naked Guy with the edge of his script binder, Abraham pushes the guy back out the main entrance. Shortly, the Creative Director of the CSC follows Abraham out the door.

The actors keep on playing. The ones that are seated exchange looks between them. After a couple of beats, the actress playing Gretchen (who's on her knees because she's supposed to be praying in that scene) says, "Can we take this from the last line?" And everyone in the theater, actors and audience, broke up laughing.

After the laughing was over, the play went on. After everyone took their final bows, I kept expecting for someone to make an announcement about Naked Guy -- who he was, why he showed up, or even just apologizing for the disruption. Nothing. Naked Guy remains a total mystery.

As they say, only in New York.

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