Monday, October 31, 2005

Mischief Night

A few weeks ago I went to a play at one of the smaller, local theaters in the city. I didn't know anything about the show or cast beforehand, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a former classmate of mine from law school listed in the program as one of the performers. She was excellent that night, and while we didn't get the chance to talk in person after the show, I finally got a hold of her by phone this weekend and told her how good she was and how much I enjoyed her performance. We also talked about our days together onstage as leads in a musical during our third year in law school, and we reminisced about the night of our final performance in particular.

The Court Jesters was a student organization made up entirely of law students and faculty who were looking for a creative outlet to help balance the monotony of pouring through legal textbooks all day. They put on one show a year, and always chose from among the many Gilbert & Sullivan operas for their selection. Gilbert (who wrote the dialogue) had been an attorney early in life, so a lot of his scripts featured lawyers, judges, and other legal characters. The plots often hinged on some farcical legal twist that helped lead to the required happy ending. So it was kind of a natural fit for a bunch of legal extroverts looking for any excuse to avoid studying to perform a Gilbert & Sullivan musical--as opposed to, say, a production of "Cats".

In my second year of law school I had gone to the Court Jesters' performance of "The Pirates of Penzance" and was amazed by their talent, and was attracted to the genuine fun they seemed to be experiencing onstage. I was also attracted to several very cute women in the female chorus and thought that evenings spent at rehearsal with them would beat the hell out of toiling away in the solitude of the law library. So in my third year I showed up for the auditions, and much to my surprise was cast as the male lead. Lest you get too impressed, keep in mind that this was an amateur theater group at a regional law school, so I harbored no illusions that the only reason that I got the part was because I was a not-so-big fish in a very small pond.

The show we would be performing that year was "Ruddigore", one of Gilbert & Sullivan's lesser known shows. The plot was somewhat convoluted but basically was about Robin, a shy young man (my character) who was pining away for Rose, the most beautiful girl in his village. She had been raised as an orphan with only a book of etiquette as a strict guide, which tended to interfere with any of the local boys being able to properly court her. The men put off asking any of the other girls in the village to marry them until someone was successful with Rose, so the women formed a band of professional bridesmaids to help Rose pick a groom.

It turned out that there was more to Robin than met the eye. His family had been living under a curse placed by a witch condemned by one of his ancestors (a judge, naturally). Every oldest male in his family had to commit one crime per day, or else perish in unspeakable agony. Robin had been leading a double life--committing one small, trivial crime each morning to get it out of the way, and then leading an exemplary life for the rest of the day to make up for it. Just before Robin and Rose were to be married at the end of the first act, his jealous best friend spills the beans, Rose rejects him, and he goes off to live in the family's deserted cursed castle.

The second act begins with him, in his grief, failing miserably in his attempts to be a "bad baron". One of the coolest scenes in the show was a musical number where the portraits of some of his more infamous ancestors come to life and the ghosts step down out of their frames, warning him that he's not being bad enough. Eventually someone finds a legal loophole to the curse, so Robin becomes good full-time again, Rose accepts his proposal, and it all ends with everyone pairing up and getting married (even some of the ghosts.)

It was a fun show, and was impressive to see how so much of Gilbert's dialogue still held up now despite having been written over a hundred years ago. The show had originally been meant as a satire about the over-the-top melodramas which were popular at that time in the late 1800's, but the scenes have a kind of universal theme about how taking on a false personality can get in the way of finding happiness with another person. The duties of directing the show were split between two people: David was the musical director and primarily focused on making sure we sounded okay, even for law students. Mark was the stage director, and all along insisted on a slavish devotion to the original text and scene blocking that had been outlined in the script. The two of them often clashed over details large and small, and as we got closer to the performance, the cast got together and worked out many of the issues ourselves.

The first two performances went pretty well. There had been a dropped line here or there, and a bit of a technical snafu when the portraits were supposed to come to life, but overall the audience laughed where they were supposed to laugh and the music sounded on key and in tune. But I had gotten the feeling that the show could have been even better. A couple of the lines of original dialogue were very specific to English society, and while very clever in that context, went right over the heads of an unfamiliar American audience. A couple of times over the months of rehearsals, I had off-handedly tried to suggest updating the show with some modern day references and more comical blocking, but was shot down emphatically by the director each time. Since we only had one more show remaining, I decided to take matters into my own hands. At the cast party on the evening before our last show, I quietly approached my castmates and carefully felt them out to see if they would be up for a little onstage coup during our final performance. Everybody was up for it, so we got together on our own the next day several hours before the show and rehearsed all of the new changes in secret.

One of my favorite Marx Brothers comedies is "A Night at the Opera", which is about Groucho, Chico, and Harpo trying to con their way into high society, and it ends with them completely disrupting an opera with their antics both onstage and out in the theater itself. I used that finale as my inspiration for ramping up things in the second act of our show. We rechoreographed one of the musical numbers by lifting some of Groucho's trademark moves right out of the movie. I rewrote some of the more obscure English references to become a little more culturally relevent-- I'm pretty sure I worked the line "I've fallen and I can't get up" from that MedAlert commercial with the old lady into one of my scenes. At another point, I was supposed to get into a sword fight with the female leader of the professional bridesmaids, who was pissed that I had ruined her efforts to marry off Rose, which would have cleared the way for the rest of the women in the town to get married. Instead of handing me one of the two full-sized broad swords that we had dueled with the previous nights, she pulled out a tiny little pocketknife from under her dress, and tossed it to me. I held it in a way that blatantly implied my suddenly diminished manhood, and instead of just circling around onstage, we had worked it out so that she would chase me in and out of the wings and down through the audience. Stealing another scene from the Marx Brothers, I ran into the orchestra pit at one point and tried to impersonate one of the musicians, frantically banging out 'Chopsticks' on the piano trying to throw off my pursuer. Shortly after that I was supposed to run up to the portrait of my uncle and beg for help. Normally that had just involved drawing back a curtain so that he could step out onstage, but since his dialogue had implied that he had been a bit of a player in his day, we came up with the idea of having one of the young bridesmaids sitting in his lap apparently making out with him when I threw back the curtain that night. I think that one sight gag got the biggest laugh of the evening.

I know that it was alot of fun for us onstage, and as things continued to spiral more and more out of control, the show took on a kinetic energy that hadn't been present the previous two nights. The audience ate it up, and the laughs kept coming in waves with each new farcical twist. I was more than a little concerned about the reaction from the directors who had watched their show get hijacked out from under them right before their eyes, and I went up to them at the final wrap party and let them know that it had been my idea and not to hold the rest of the cast responsible. The musical director was fine with it, once he had gotten over the shock of me pushing him aside on the piano bench for my impromptu concerto. The artistic director was a different story on the other hand, and wouldn't even look at me at all that night. He softened up somewhat from all of the positive feedback that he later received about Saturday night's show, and since most of the audience had never seen the other two performances, they credited him for all of the comic touches that we had added.

A few months later we all graduated and went off to our separate legal careers. As fun as that experience was, we all realized that there were woefully few job postings that sought "experience drafting legal motions and pleadings; top 10% academic standing; tenor or soprano vocal range." We exchanged our capes and Victorian dresses for sober ties and severe, dark pantsuits. Now that I think about it, every single one of the leads in that cast is out working in some area of trial litigation, with the main responsibility involving some work in a courtroom. In a way, we're still performing in front of an audience before the judge and jury. For me, I just have to remind myself every now and then that sometimes going off of the script can be a risk, but can lead to some pretty spectacular results. Maybe I'll try to work a little song and dance number into my next closing argument...