Panache-post 2: the Thornbird

Phacellodomus rufifrons, or The Thornbird

During a conversation about the various kinds of sadness, Aaron brought up the Thornbird. Legend has it that, from the day it is born, it searches for a thorn bush that is just right. When it finds the one, it settles there, and presses its breast against a thorn. In the throes of pain, it sings an exquisite song.

Jessica Cummings as Roxane

“There goes someone who is sadder then I” says Roxane, upon the final exit of my character, the Comte de Guiche. So it has been a meditation on sadness for me thus far, in particular, romantic sadness. This is a kind of sadness most often described in unrequited love, and that is certainly at the center of my Antoine’s sadness. But it also contains a kind of glorification of itself, and a dramatic announcement: hear me world, hear my sad song, born of the wound I gave myself, a wound that will never entirely heal.

I have had to suspend my judgment about this kind of sadness as being either vain or self-indulgent. It’s never helpful to wallow in negative judgments of the characters you play, even if their actions are deplorable. An actor is called to be an advocate for their character, to find any kind of empathy available to them, so that the performance created has truth in it. Cyrano the play is an ornate celebration of romantic sadness, and my character’s share of it is not the greatest in the play.

Cyrano set, design by Don Conway

The truth is, I have fallen in love with Antoine de Gramont, Compte de Guiche. I am a person with, shall we say, an intimate relationship with sadness. I think, if you asked people about me, asked them to describe me in detail, many would refer to a lurking sadness, wistfulness or melancholy. It’s a trait which makes me quiet, shy, an outsider. It’s born out of a primal sadness rooted in childhood; there is no sadness as great nor as lasting as the heartbreak of the child. And it is this quality which I carry around in spite of myself that is engaged with de Guiche. It is a sadness that leads him to make a fool of himself, to exact vengeance on others and then, to live his remaining years in a kind of penitential exile, much like Roxane’s. Except that his “convent” is the court of France, and the vast and sterile chateau he inhabits with his equally sad and barren wife.

Lights designed by Thom Weaver

We are in tech now. The set terrifies me. It’s full of hard to see edges, and I spend a good deal of time on the balcony nine feet off the stage. My other complaint is that my back hurts from the heels of my boots. I have never been able to wear heels comfortably, they sway my lower back forward in a way that makes it bark. But everything looks and sounds beautiful, and is suitably grand. We are in that “space station” time – when we spend so much time indoors in an alternate reality that the outside world diminishes. I just wish the rest of my life would stop demanding my attention with such fervor.

Aaron is pre-occupied with an assortment of technical and design challenges. I have been witnessing a remarkable directorial collaboration between him and Matt Pfiefer, our “Associate Director” and a stage director of some note in Philadelphia in his own right (I loved his production of American Buffalo a couple of years ago). It’s a remarkable partnership. There’s no question that Aaron is in charge, but the way he relies on Matt, and the way Matt works with us and with him, speaks to the lack of ego they share.

Sadness on stage is tricky. Too much and it tilts to maudlin. Too little and it seems contrived. I look forward to finding my bush of thorns in the days come, and pressing myself gently against it, to see what kind of song I sing.

Click here to listen to Phacellodomus rufifrons  – the Thornbird’s actual song (Aaron’s story is, in fact, just that – a story).