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Only in the Theater

Filichia revels in the sort of magical moments that can only happen in a live performance situation. logo

Jan Maxwell spends some time in the
House before moving on to the Garden
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Saw House--well, Garden and House, really, on successive Saturdays--and had a grand time. More at House than Garden, for House is the better play. House tore down the house, in fact, at the curtain calls which, I'll admit, was my favorite part of each play.

If that sounds like scant praise for Alan Ayckbourn's playwriting, I don't mean it to be. Writing one comedy is difficult enough, but imagine writing two that are performed simultaneously at adjacent theaters so that, when one character walks off the stage of one, he goes on to the stage of the other. That's something. But you don't get the full effect of what these performers are doing until they take their bows, quickly straighten up, and dash off to the other space--only to be replaced by performers who try not to look winded after dashing in from the other space. And why did this make such an impression on me, even more than the plays? Because it's something you can only get while watching a live production in a theater.

I love anything that's sui generis, and that's not just restricted to theater. My favorite Woody Allen movie might be Zelig because this fictional documentary just had to be a movie; it could be nothing else. The choppy pseudo-archival footage that Allen invented both mocked and homaged all those archival strips of films we've seen in so many documentaries. Zelig couldn't be a play or novel. Similarly, though I've never seen an episode of such TV reality shows as Survivor or Big Brother, I certainly like the idea of them because they have to be TV series.

But of course, I'm partial to the stage, so the theatrical moment that could not work in any other medium is the one that thrills me the most. Such as Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, which I saw 12 times during the first eight weeks of its run in the winter 1988. How I loved breaking bread with Uncle Luigi, dancing with Aunt Rose, and schmoozing with all the various Nunzios and Vitales. I couldn't have done that at a movie or TV show.

A year before that, there was Tamara, which couldn't have been a movie, either--but it did advertise itself as "the living movie." I was at the show's dress rehearsal at the Park Avenue Armory, where our host began the show by saying that we'd all be following various characters from room to room. When he finished his discourse and I began following him, I half-expected him to turn around and roar, "What are you doing? Where are you going? Stay there!" But that didn't happen, so I knew I was about to experience a wonderful theatrical adventure.

The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks by Romulus Linney (Laura's daddy) only played five performances on Broadway in 1972, but this courtroom drama was one of the most thrilling theatrical events I ever saw when I caught it two years later at Boston University. I know I wouldn't have felt that way had I seen the original production at the ANTA (now the Virginia), for what noted director Alan (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Schneider did at B.U. was stage the play not in a theater but in a room that he turned into a courtroom. So whenever a witness said something inadvertently amusing and we in the "courtroom" laughed, court officers glared admonishingly at us while the judge banged his gavel and made it clear that he wouldn't tolerate any levity. Not only could we not get that at a movie or TV show, we couldn't even have gotten it at the Virginia, where the proscenium would have made it a mere play.

When I recently introduced Estelle Parsons at the Theatre World Awards, I told about attending her workshop of a new play called Miss Margarida's Way at the Public Theatre in 1977. I was invited by a pal and had no idea what I was going to see; I didn't even figure it out when I saw that the set was a schoolroom with blackboard and teacher's desk. But when the play started and Parsons came on, we the audience gave her entrance applause--causing her to whirl around and roar, "Don't try to butter me up!" We were all startled but soon figured out that Miss Margarida would lecture us as her students. I was so energized by this show that I returned four more times (well, tickets were free), once with a friend from Boston to whom I whispered, "What if someone threw a paper airplane at her?" What happened after that couldn't have happened at a TV show or a movie, as she called my pal on stage and made him write "I won't throw paper airplanes" 100 times on the blackboard.

One mean Sister:
Maripat Donovan in Late Nite Catechism
Miss Margarida is no longer with us, but Sister Mary is thanks to Late-Nite Catechism, in which we're taught the dogma of the Roman Catholic faith. I didn't much need it, given that I spent 12 solid years of grammar and high school sitting in front of nuns. But what I found fascinating is how so many Catholics reacted while watching the show. There were several men and women who were thrusting their arms almost out of their sockets to get their hands up to answer questions, yelling "Ssst! Sssst!" in hopes of being chosen so they could show how they hadn't forgotten their catechism. "Brown-noses!" I muttered as I sat there, arms folded, giving Sister Mary a look that said, "If you call on me, you'll be sorry, sister!" (And I mean that "sister" with a small "s.") Maripat Donovan didn't mess with me, somehow sensing I'd tell her off the way I never had the nerve to answer back Sister Marillac or Sister Marie De Lourdes at Arlington Catholic High School. Still, I appreciated this unique theatrical event.

While Michael Bennett did dazzling work throughout in directing Dreamgirls, the cherry-on-the-top-of-the-sundae for me was the montage sequence where The Dreams were going through their rainbow tour. They were performing in front of a tinseled curtain in one city and then they disappeared behind it as an announcer told us they were now in another city. Then, although only split-seconds had passed, out came The Dreams in completely new outfits. How the audience gasped at this every time I saw the show; obviously, they wouldn't have had any reason to be impressed if the same thing had happened in a movie or a TV show.

On July 12, 1977, I was at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre Center seeing Andre Serban's brilliant production of The Cherry Orchard--when all of a sudden I wasn't seeing it. All I could think was, "Gee, this show just won the Tony for best lighting but that was an awful sloppy effect," unaware that New York was experiencing its second blackout in 12 years. Once we were told the reality, we stayed in our seats. Finally, candles were lit around the set and the show continued to its conclusion. Now you know that couldn't have happened at a movie or a TV show--for, with the electricity out, you wouldn't even have had a movie or a TV show!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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