Play, interrupted: Theater in the round

May 31, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 31, 2017

Continued from my previous post.

The fourth act of The Seagull takes place four years after the first three segmhs. The schoolteacher and the groundskeeper’s daughter have married, unhappily, and now have a young child. Both Kostya and Nina have had some success in the theater. But as the still passionate young man tells us, her personal life has been a disaster: She bore a child out of wedlock, and after the baby died in infancy, she seemed to lose a certain quality that had made her performances not only believable but in fact celebrated. As it happens, Nina has returned to the island, but she refuses to see anyone.

The scene unfolded on the sheltered porch of a pool house. I sat on the lawn taking in the play with the rest of the audience. The sun had sank beneath the horizon, and most of the natural light had faded. Every so often, I felt a gentle tap somewhere on my body. Rainclouds were moving in.

I tried to ignore the spotting, as I call the first irregular drops of rain. I hoped that the clouds would move off, but the drops began falling more and more rapidly. I donned my sweatshirt for comfort and hoped that the precipitation would grow no heavier.

At one point, the groundskeeper led a group of other characters onto the porch. As he did so, the director stood and announced, “Silence! Silence!”

The groundskeeper didn’t immediately recognize what was happening and kept speaking his lines. “Silence! Silence! Silence!” the director kept calling. As the groundskeeper continued, the director was forced to address him directly, saying the name of the character: “Shamrayev! Shamrayev!” (Although the pronunciation is more like sha-MOY-ev.) I was amused by the actor’s insistence on conveying his lines, regardless of any intrusion from the real world.

Having brought the action to a halt, the director said that this was a good point to pause the show on account of rain. He asked the cast to retire to its green room and invited the audienrowde to take shelter on the pool house porch. While we did so, he ran to the main house to check the weather forecast.

A few minutes later, the director returned and said that while the predictions differed, he was pessimistic about the prospects of the rain ending anytime soon. We settled in for a short while to see if we could wait it out. In the interim, the director offered water bottles to anyone who wanted.

The characters in the last act of The Seagull consume a great deal of wine, and the on-set table where a few of the audience members sat had a few glasses containing that fermented fluid. Two Russian women were among the spectators, and one reached for a wine glass, at which point the director waved her off. “That’s for the cast, not the audience,” he said. (The theater company’s insurance banned alcohol consumption by customers, which we’d been reminded of before the show.) That was good for a chuckle.

Meanwhile, the rain only intensified; soon, everyone resigned themselves to a washout. The woman who had thanked the director for the good weather apologized to the crowd for bringing bad meteorological juju onto the performance.

The director told us that we could return to see the show the following weekend — a rain date for June 3 had previously been scheduled. Alternatively, he suggested that the audience watch the remainder of the play from the porch as the cast performed inside the pool house.

I have plans for the rain date, so the former option held no appeal to me. I wasn’t sure how good a view any of us could get inside the pool house from the porch, but I was willing to try it. However, almost immediately, someone proposed that the show be performed in the round: The audience would station itself on the periphery of the porch as the cast went on with the show in the space we surrounded.

Most everyone embraced this idea enthusiastically. (I’m told that one couple departed.) The seats and the on-set furniture were repositioned to accommodate this arrangement. The cast resumed their positions, the startup line was cued, and after a rain delay of 20 or so minutes, the show was back on.

As the scene got underway, I sat in a folding chair just off the porch. But this didn’t protect me adequately from the elements, so I folded up my chair and stood just behind the seated spectators. A little later on, something motivated me to get onto the porch — I must have grown tired of craning my head to see around a pillar — so I slipped between the pillar and an outdoor heater and took a position along the perimeter.

In traditional theater, the audience and the performers are separated — they are on a lit stage, while we watch from rows of seats in a dark chamber. With this kind of performance, however, I could often reach out and touch the actors. Whenever the thespians stood near me, I had to make a conscious effort not to fidget. Keep your hands in one place, I told myself. Don’t scratch your cheek! Don’t rub your nose! OK, you can fold your arms, but now keep them folded! It was certainly a different way to experience dramaturgy.

The show ended with a wash of red illumination before the lights went down and then came back up in full. The cast assembled in the middle of the porch, linked hands and bowed toward where the audience (or at least most of it) would normally be sitting. Then, smiling, they pivoted and bowed toward the other side of the stage, where I and those around me were standing and applauding.

I exchanged greetings with my friend but mostly kept to myself as the cast and the crowd chattered with one another. At one point, however, Jim O’Brien, who plays Sorin, the estate owner, walked right past me, so I murmured something about how much I’d enjoyed the performance.

My pal and I agreed to go out for a drink after he changed his clothes. As I waited, I tried to make myself useful, taking some folding chairs in a covered spot and moving Sorin’s wheelchair out of the rain.

Shortly before we left, O’Brien called out to my friend. “The money?” he prompted. My pal went to get it.

I was once again standing near O’Brien. He turned to me and said that the props Arkadina had pulled from his pocket were real dollar bills — moreover, his real dollar bills. My friend later told me that the production had attempted to get prop money from a Raleigh theater company, but it hadn’t worked out, and they didn’t want to break the suspension of reality by wielding obviously fake-looking bills.

In the latter part of the act, a distraught Nina sneaks onto the estate to meet Kostya, despite having spurned him, and everyone else, over the previous week. There was a puzzling bit early on in their conversation where she insists that Kostya lock the door to prevent his mother from barging in on them. I’d been confused by this, but my friend later explained that that scene had initially been performed inside the pool house, as opposed to on the porch, and so securing the door had seemed more logical.

At any rate, I think I learned something valuable from this evening of culture. When the rain is holding off at an outdoor theater show, don’t jinx it by mentioning that the rain is holding off.

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