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Comedy, tragedy and life in the dark


It's September, and time once again for theater critics to plunge into the unknown. Sure, I know which shows I'll be seeing this season, and many of them make my pulse quicken: "Timon of Athens," the only Shakespeare play I haven't seen; "Ragtime," one of the most magnificent musicals of the last decade; and, on Broadway, the stage version of my favorite film comedy, "The Producers."

But no matter how thoroughly I've studied "Timon," how frequently I've listened to the CD of "Ragtime," how many times I've watched the video of "The Producers," I can't predict what might happen once the performance begins.

That's the joy and exhilaration of live theater: where a show unfolds before you in real time; where audiences share the same space as the actors and become part of the event.

That point was made for me in February 1985, early in my career as The Sun's theater critic. It was the kind of month that could lead a faint-hearted critic to turn to a quieter beat -- writing obituaries or covering fires, perhaps.

Among the dozen or so shows on my reviewing docket was the Broadway tryout of "The Octette Bridge Club" at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. A play by P.J. Barry about eight sisters, some of whom were up in years, it starred such veteran actresses as Elizabeth Franz, the late Peggy Cass and the late Nancy Marchand. Shortly after the curtain rose, there was a commotion in the balcony. I thought it might be kids carrying on until a woman cried out, "Drop the curtain!"

An elderly theatergoer had had a heart attack so severe that when the paramedics arrived, they worked on him at the theater. Eventually, they took the stricken patron to a hospital, and after a few minutes, the play started up again. But for both cast and audience, the line between pretense and reality was a little harder to erase than before.

Later, I learned the heart attack had proved fatal. The victim, a lifelong theater devotee who had braved an ice storm to get to the Mechanic that night, had died doing something he loved.

A few weeks later, I was attending another Broadway tryout -- "Grind," a $5 million musical directed by Harold Prince at the Lyric Opera House. "Grind," set in a 1930s burlesque house, employed a 7 1/2 -ton set with a three-story turntable as its centerpiece.

A half-hour into the first act, the huge turntable began to rotate slowly in the wrong direction. Once again, the curtain came down; "Grind" had literally ground to a halt. After an anxious pause, Prince came out and announced that there was a mechanical problem. That night's performance was over.

The famed director later told me he'd had performances delayed in the past, but never before in his career had one been unable to continue.

Just one chance

This episode brought home some truths about live theater. Movies and TV can film a special effect over and over until they get it right, but theater has to get it right each and every night. As stagecraft becomes more complex, audiences are increasingly at the mercy of technology, which can be more temperamental than the most demanding diva. And, of course, death might not stop a show, but a faulty hydraulic valve will.

The last in my trio of mishaps was "Hedda Gabler" at Center Stage. Baltimore actress Tana Hicken was playing Ibsen's headstrong protagonist when the smell of smoke began to permeate the theater. The odor was fairly faint, but one by one, then in pairs, then finally in a steady stream, theatergoers headed for the exits. I found their departures were more distracting than the smoke, but as long as the actors continued to perform, I had no intention of leaving. Finally, Hicken broke character, acknowledged the problem and suggested we all find the nearest exit.

Because Center Stage had burned down once before -- in 1974, when it was located on North Avenue -- I feared there might be a recurring theme (we critics are always looking for themes). Fortunately, the cause of the odor was nothing so dramatic. A piece of fireproof fabric had merely brushed against a light.

The evacuated audience stood patiently on the sidewalk until the fire department had conducted a thorough inspection. Then we all filed back in and enjoyed the rest of the play.

It was, I thought, testament to the fact that theater is, for better or worse, a communal experience between the actors and audience. As the great director, Peter Brook, has pointed out, in French one of the words for "audience" is "assistance," as in "to assist the piece." Performers are affected by audience reaction. An audience so involved in the show that it will wait through an involuntary "intermission" can only encourage the actors, as the audience did that night at Center Stage.

Sometimes a theatergoer's "assistance" is far from voluntary. A decade ago I was reviewing a production of "Singin' in the Rain" at Cockpit in Court, the summer theater at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. During a party scene near the start of the show, actresses dressed as cigarette girls began throwing things toward the audience.

I assumed it was confetti -- until a small, hard object hit me smack dab in the right eye. The projectile turned out to be a Hershey's Kiss. Before anyone was blinded, however, this part of the show was discontinued after that performance.

Surprising context

Chance and unforeseen events don't just affect what audiences see on stage. Often, it's events outside the theater that lend resonance to a show or its performers.

In 1992, Center Stage produced "The Baltimore Waltz," Paula Vogel's imaginative, metaphorical account of her brother's struggle with AIDS. In the broadest sense, the play dealt with loss, and as I left the theater, I was nearly overwhelmed by a flood of feelings related to my father's death a year earlier.

Preoccupied with these thoughts and emotions, I returned to the office, where a co-worker told me that tennis star Arthur Ashe had just announced that he had AIDS. Suddenly, there was a highly specific context for a play whose reach was universal.

I experienced a similar confluence of circumstances several years earlier when Center Stage produced "Boesman and Lena," written by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard and directed by his friend and countryman, actor Zakes Mokae.

I traveled to New Haven, Conn., to talk to the two men, arriving just as another, more alarming visitor was expected. Hurricane Gloria was due to hit town the next day, just when I had scheduled the interview. I awoke the next morning to 95 mph winds and a street full of parked cars propped up on their sides.

Fugard and Mokae had been advised not to leave their apartments for any reason. Fugard, however, insisted they had to eat lunch, so why not meet them at the appointed bar as planned? As it happened, the eye of the storm narrowly missed New Haven, but the damage was still severe. The streets and sidewalks were littered with live wires and the upper-story windows were blown out of my hotel.

Amid this chaos, there was an unmistakable resonance to our meeting: Here were two men who had faced the horrors of apartheid and the dangers of opposing it, including a loss of their freedom. For them, this life-threatening situation was also worth risking. Not just for lunch, of course, but for the sake of theater and the resolute belief that talking about it could make a difference.

The life-or-death nature of theater takes a different form in Washington. I have now seen plays attended by three incumbent presidents, not to mention the Secret Service, and even, at times, bomb-sniffing dogs. On these occasions, the entire audience passes through metal detectors (luckily, pens aren't considered lethal weapons).

Of course, there's precedent for concern when a president attends the theater. All you have to do is go to a play at Ford's Theatre. Visible from almost every seat is the box where Abraham Lincoln was shot. A picture of the late president is enshrined inside, looking out at the audience.

It's these recollections and experiences that now accompany me to every performance. I am especially mindful of them at this time of year, when the theater season resumes and I take my seat on the aisle again, delighted by the knowledge that when the lights go down and the curtain comes up, I can't be sure what will happen, either onstage or off.

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