Invalidpost 1: comedy is hard

I have left Susan and the kids in Chatham and am back home alone to begin rehearsing The Imaginary Invalid at People’s Light. Being alone is very tricky for me. I hate it. Lots of old buttons get pushed and it’s just me and my shadow. I am working very consciously to make affirming choices. It’s like my friend Jack said in The Rooms on the Cape: “I don’t love no one inna wohld mowah den me. An if you awl felt a same way, theyad be no mowah whoa-ah.” So I’m trying to love myself . . . a lot. No more cigarettes. Going to the gym. Eating right and getting some rest. And telling my shadow to fuck off.

KP, who played my wife in July 7th, 1994 will take over for Sooz as Beline. Peter, from both Jason and Crucible will play Bonnefoi and Beralde. Also from Crucible are Steve (Argan) and Tom (Diafoirus and Purgon). From Jason, MB as Toinette and Joey as Angelique. A newcomer named Jud is playing Cleante. That leaves Thomas, Louise (a nine year old girl), Fleaurant and The President for me. I call a job like this Screaming Cameos – a series of small outrageous roles – I love it. My task will be to convince the audience that more than one actor is playing my four roles. The truth is Thomas and Louise are more than cameos – they are over-the top comic supporting roles. Combined with Katherine in Shrew next spring, it will be the year of cross-gender classical roles for me. What next? Medea?

Lillian, our director, was born and raised in Argentina with German-Italian parents . . . I think. In any case, she is quintessentially European and has a bit of the grande dame about her. But she’s also goofy, and reminds me of the commedia Signora: lusty, authoritative and experienced, but able to execute a Lucy pratfall at a moment’s notice. She’s like your smarty-pants older sister, who got straight As without trying, but taught you how to roll a joint and told you the filthiest jokes. She has a reputation as a task-master (Sooz had the lead in Lillian’s play Midons a few years ago which Lillian directed herself, and was telling me affectionate and descriptive stories on the Cape), but after two days of rehearsal, I suspect we will get on just fine. I had to write her a difficult email, almost begging her to allow me to be excused to teach in the afternoons at UArts Tuesday and Friday of preview week. Abbey said she’d have a fit, but she wrote back the sweetest email saying she’d work around it, and by the way, would you please play Louise because you were too funny in auditions.

She has suffered a real pratfall of late, and arrived a half an hour into the design presentation with stitches in her upper lip and soft cast on her right leg. It seems she fell while returning home from caring for her mother. So we have that in common too – care for our frail elders. The set for the play is a two story, enclosed semi-circle with a balcony that runs around the wall half way up. There are doors above and below, giving it the feel of an enclosed, interior piazza. Marla presented her zany-but-beautiful period sketches, and I realized how important her sketches are to me as I begin a play. Her drawings are my first solid visual building-block for the characters I am playing.

Lillian began by saying that there is great truth in comedy, even when it is absurd as it is in Invalid. She said she was excited to do this play at People’s Light because we have a great company of clowns, and she meant it as a high compliment, which was how I took it. We are losing respect for the art of clowning, she said, and in the USA humor is being poisoned by TV. A great deal of her work on the play will be informed by commedia dell’Arte, which, of course, was Moliere’s chief source of inspiration. There will be masks (briefly), music, choreography and lazzi, lazzi, lazzi. She pointed out that Argan is a direct descendent of Pantalone. I thought of Fava, his book, the workshop and felt both the recognition of the divine sequence at work in my life, working with someone who shares the name of my suicidal grandmother, the frustrated actress. But I also fret about Fava’s admonition that we never “dilute” commedia.

Later, we read through and laughed and laughed, Lillian having to hold her upper lip in place so she didn’t pull her stitches out. Our translator is my Yale Drama School classmate James who has done a great job at creating a script which sounds American but holds on to just enough classicism so that the play stays in its period.

On the second day, Lillian led us in a discussion about “attitude”. She spoke about how she loathes the American tendency to play “attitude”, rather than getting right to the thing at hand, what she calls “coming from zero.” She said it is especially prevalent in youthful movie and TV acting, and I offered that it is a kind of detachment born of fear of the vulnerability one feels when living genuinely in a real moment with another human being. Again I was reminded of Fava, who writes about the comic actor’s tendency to resort to parody or satire when he can’t commit to the comic moment on its own terms.

“It’s tough rehearsing a comedy.” Lillian said. “We discover something and laugh, then the laughter wears off because we know the joke, but we have to keep rehearsing it, keep refining it, keep discovering it as if it’s new, but without the payoff of laughter. Then we have our first preview and we begin to learn a few things.”