Monday, January 31, 2011

Hatless in Ra'anana. Ruddigore Act 2

I just know that this sort of situation has happened to you too. You start a project, any kind of a project, and you have sooooooooo much time to get it done. Then you wake up one day and the time has flown by and, whether you feel the urge to panic or not, D-day is almost upon you………

We started rehearsing Ruddigore the end of September; the performances were scheduled starting December 28 – enough time to fall in love, start a career, lose or gain twenty pounds, watch a full season of American football games (not counting the post-season), the list is almost endless. We started rehearsing comfortably enough, singing while sitting on our fannies, holding our scores in our laps for dear life. As December crept upon us, we were trying our best to learn Arlene Chertoff’s dance routines and trying on parts of our costumes as we got them. Every rehearsal, Rob Binder would show up with more stuff that somebody could wear and hand it out. Most of the women in the chorus had only one outfit; the younger ones were outfitted as 1920’s flappers with wigs and dresses sewn for the occasion. For the gentlemen (I use the term loosely), it was a lot more complicated because we played different roles in each act.

You have already been introduced to Cedric (Bilgie) Bilgewater, my Act I persona. It turned out that a close approximation of Bilgie’s country apparel could be found in my own aron: a not-as-well-tailored seersucker jacket, a replica of a good straw hat (which I wear to shul on a summer Shabbat morning), and a perfect pair of white trousers. Almost perfect. Bilgie, being a few decades younger than me, is a little trimmer around the mid-section. The trousers would fit him just fine, but they were a little snug on me. Could I jettison, say, five pounds in a month? Or could I exercise away a half an inch or more in the same time? The answer was, sadly, no. No matter how much Shabbat dessert I eschewed and sit-ups I performed on a morning, the white cotton trousers remained resolutely snug. A compromise would have to be effected: a pair of blues that didn’t quite catch the spirit of the occasion; but, as I reminded Rob, breathing is good. All that was missing was an appropriate cravat. Bilgie, when he was away from his haunts at the Drones Club in London, was partial to bow-ties, which he wore despite the disparaging remarks of his ‘man’ Groves. Trouble was, I didn’t have one, either the real kind that you would need assistance to put on or the pre-made fake ones so prevalent in today’s more casual world. Fortunately, Rob had a few extra ones – the real kind – which Arlene conscientiously affixed before each performance – in Groves’ absence, of course.

Act II was another matter. Like everyone else in the men’s chorus, I would be playing the specter of an ancestor to the current baronet, in my case, the late Sir Frederick Murgatroyd, the fourth Baronet of Ruddigore. Nothing I owned remotely resembled what the British minor nobility of his time would have worn. However, by one of those amazing coincidences that seem almost impossible to fathom, an outfit was located for him that seemed an exact replica of what the Pirate King had worn in ‘Penzance.’ I received it a piece at a time over a several week period: the breeches, fastened by an eye-hook and antique Velcro on the right side; a gold-colored vest, fastened with about twelve snaps; a black coat with gold trim; a white shirt and sash; a pair of leggings that would serve as boots. There was no hat; a brown wig that had seen better days would have to do – but then the character was himself dead for about four hundred years. I imagine that with Groves’ help, I could have arrived on stage after the intermission fully changed in less than fifteen minute, but unaided…………

‘A piece at a time.’ Everything about the production was coming together, one item, one piece at a time – not just the costumes. Every Friday morning when I went to help with the sets, I could see what had been accomplished. The strange things I had cut or glued began to be an integral part of the scenery, in a way I could never had imagined. The only conclusion one could draw was that the lady in charge of designing the sets, Roxanne, had an imagination and a talent to take note of. As we got closer and closer to the actual performances, more and more people made themselves available, literally backstage: people to help with the sets, with the props, with makeup. All manner of curious family and friends were showing up for our rehearsals. Even an orchestra! From the very first rehearsal, our sole source of accompaniment had been Paul Salter and his keyboard. About a week and a half before we were set to open, about fifteen musicians showed up, this year’s version of ‘The New Savoy Orchestra’: a few native-born Israelis, a few originally from the British Isles, and the rest from – where else? – somewhere near the Volga. Collectively, they were…………awful, at least in the beginning. We sat there and scratched our collective heads and wondered what would be. What was Paul going to do? Well, one thing Paul was not going to do was get nonplussed (it would take a lot to get Paul nonplussed). Somehow, he got them ready so that the N.S.O. actually sounded pretty credible by the first performance. Not only that, he did it the hard way, because he never had exactly the same group of musicians from one evening to the next. Somebody always had another gig and sent in his place a cousin who also played the viola – someone who thought that G & S stood for Alexander Glazunov and Georgy Sviridov.

A piece at a time; a day at a time. Each of my days seemed more and more to be devoted to some aspect of the show. People were needed to man a ‘hot line,’ to help out would-be customers who were, for whatever reason, unable themselves either to call the Hirsch theater box office or go on-line to the Encore website and order their own tickets. At first, it meant simply being home on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 to 3 and getting an occasional phone call. But as we got closer to ‘show-time,’ more and more very polite British voices kept getting on my phone, to the point that I couldn’t get anything else done.

And I did have other things to get done. In the middle of November, I received an e-mail from a Jewish publishing outfit in The States. I had edited the commentary for a haggadah for them a few months before, and now they wanted me to “tweak” something else. It seemed like a lot of work (180 pages of actual text), but they would be paying me and I have a healthy regard for money. No problem; I should be able to finish the job by the end of the secular year. Except now, all these very polite people were inundating my phone line in the few free hours I thought I had.

It was easy to feel that one’s life was being swallowed up in a Ruddigorian black hole. We were no longer doing one or two rehearsals a week, each ending at a civilized 10PM – so that, thanks to Sara and her ride to the bus station, I could get off the bus in Ma’ale Adumim at around 11; we were now doing run-through’s of the entire show. All of us understood that there was no other way to get the job done, but I was crawling into bed at midnight, and there were others (maybe younger and more resilient) who had farther to travel than I.

The Monday before we opened, was a day designed to tax my limited supply of energy. The crew helping with the sets was needed at ‘The Mercaz’ at about 7:30AM. Fortunately, I got a ride from Ma’ale Adumum, otherwise I would have been riding the buses at the crack of dawn – not my favorite part of the day. We had to load all the scenery onto a truck and bring it over to the Hirsch Theater, maybe a mile away, and unload everything onto a docking station right by the stage. That’s how I happened to be standing on that empty stage, looking out towards the rows of unfilled seats, each one identically upholstered in lavender. Sooner than I could imagine, most of them (we hoped) would be filled with an enthusiastic audience member looking up at the stage. Everyone around me was busy doing something, but I just stood there and looked out.

The difference between looking down from the stage at an audience and looking up at the performance from the auditorium is not a matter of 180 degrees – just as the difference between the surgeon and the patient on the operating table is more than which one is holding the scalpel. It has to do with different worlds of expectation and experience; I started to prepare myself emotionally for what it would be like, being in a real performance on a stage in front of a real audience, but the hustle and bustle around me cut short my reverie. Getting the sets for Acts I and II in place would require a lot of work, and some of the people would be there all day doing it. I had to go. The way I had it figured, if I left the theater by 9:30ish, I could get back to Ma’ale Adumim in time for a one hour nap, giving me enough time to get back on a bus to Hebrew U. in time to grab a coffee and a croissant and be ready at 1PM for the first of the three students I would be tutoring. If I finished at 4:30, that would give me plenty time to pick up a light dinner and get to the theater (near the David Citadel Hotel) by 5:30 for our one and only final run-through.

There was one bit which none of the cast had seen, and Rob was anxious that we do – for it was his baby. He had conceived a production that was updated to the 1920’s (Ruddigore was written as a spoof of Victorian melodrama). In keeping with this concept, a short film had been prepared, designed to be shown while the overture was being played: first giving a synopsis of the plot (!), and then imagining how the show would have worked as a silent film. The film clip that was inserted I had seen before and is fairly well-known in certain circles; but that leaves out most of the world. The villain, for some unexplained reason, ties the heroine (a young Gloria Swanson) to a railroad track, leaving her dog to find a way to rescue her. The pooch alerts the hero and several other people and leads them back, over a bridge, through woods and meadows, to the scene of the villainy – getting there just in time to warn the crew of the oncoming train to stop it in the nick of time. Needless to say, this canine then chases the villain up a tree where he is captured. What is so fascinating is that the overture to this 1887 operetta works perfectly with the rapid cutting of the 1920’s film. Would the audience get it? Or not?

There would be only one way to find out. It’s called opening night. That’s when the directors, the cast, and crew see if what they have been working on for months and months – the songs we memorized, the dances the men stumbled through, the gestures we spent so much time learning, the comic bits that we thought were so funny, the sets and costumes that had been so carefully wrought would pay off or not. Some things you can’t even be sure about until you get into the theater. I know that on Tuesday, while I was placing ticket orders for very polite customers, Rob and the stage crew were working hard to revise and refine the sound system and the lighting effects because certain preconceived notions wouldn’t work. All the cast had to do was show up a few hours before show time and get into our costumes and, for the first time, get fussed over by the makeup crew. Then we would watch and wait to go on stage.

It’s a funny thing. We began rehearsing individual scenes of the play and watched as everything coalesced into a unified production, and now everything was being reduced back to the scenes we are in and the scenes immediately before – the cue to get ready. The various members of the cast would hang out back stage, talking, nibbling snacks, reading, knitting, but essentially waiting for their turn. The men’s chorus wouldn’t go on until pretty late in the first act. As soon as we heard ‘Mad Margaret’s’ entrance, that was it: assemble at the proper place off-stage, remove eyeglasses, watches, and jewelry, pick up our props (in Bilgie’s case, a croquet mallet) and wait for that magical moment to walk on stage, announcing to one and all, “When thoroughly tired of being admired……”

Sara, the woman whom I could count on for a lift to the bus station and a veteran cast member, had said that the two weeks of performances would pass by in the twinkling of an eye. But I wouldn’t say that it was a blur. Each evening, each performance had its own dynamic. In what passed for our dressing room, a corridor between the lobby and backstage, we could hear if the audience was ‘getting it’ when the silent film was being shown. We could hear the level of applause as the curtain went up and as each musical number was completed. Opening night, for example, was almost sold out, but the audience was, in a word, polite. Wednesday evening the crowd was smaller, but they were much more enthusiastic. Thursday was the real marathon: two performances, and then we had to knock down the sets and load them on the truck. Why? Because on Sunday, we were doing one performance, just one, in Ra’anana. So instead of having one more day of ‘leisure,’ we were on the bus at 2PM, the idea being to give us an extra margin of time to prepare. What it gave us, in fact, was time for most of us to go shopping on the very affluent main drag right by the theater. A good thing, too. There I was, an hour to go on, in my Act I costume, all made up, when I realized I had left my straw hat on the shelf, in the closet, in our bedroom, in our apartment, back in Ma’ale Adumim. Other members of the chorus had forgotten parts of their wardrobe, but it wasn’t any big deal to have somebody bring a pair of shoes to the theater in Jerusalem. But there I was, hatless in Ra’anana, a fate almost worse than death. The rule is, you don’t go on stage sans part of your costume. I consulted with the hevra; what to do? Sammy, who portrayed a bishop in Act II, saved my skin. He remembered passing a number of clothing stores on his earlier jaunt and would be happy to run out and find me some kind of topper to wear. And he did. An ersatz straw, more like an elderly Semitic gentleman would wear, but it would pass muster from a distance. After we finished, I would toss it into a prop box for a future production. If the Encore Company ever does a musical with ‘Miami’ in the title, the hat will be perfect.

The scoop of Ra’anana is, the theater is second rate, the audience wonderful. Finish the show, knock down the sets, get back on the bus, head back to Jerusalem. Given the anticipated late hour of our arrival, I had arranged to take advantage of Jeff and June’s kind offer of hospitality and spend the night with them in Ir Hakodesh. Back to Ma’ale Adumim the next morning; back to Hebrew U. in the afternoon for my three eager students.

Four more performances to go. Three more performances to go. Two more performances, another double header on Thursday; and then…. All our earlier worries about this and that had vanished, to be replaced by a very different anxiety. The ‘OMG, it’s almost over’ feeling, the kind you would get the last week of summer camp. The people you formed a bond with, the experiences you shared; soon to be gone with the proverbial wind, one more memory to be stored away.

Nine times the performance would come to an end. Nine times the cast would return to the stage to take a bow in the order and the manner we had rehearsed: first the village women, then the men’s chorus in our ancestors’ costumes, next the bridesmaids, then the principals: Old Adam, Zorah and Richard Dauntless, Sir Roderick and Dame Hannah, Sir Despard and Mad Margaret, finally the leads, Robin and Rose Maybud. Applause and rhythmic clapping as everyone of us walked from the wings to center stage and then, on cue from Arlene, took our bow. No matter how small your part, you get your turn and you feel grand. I have to think that W.S. Gilbert had it all wrong: the theatrical person is never tired of being admired. The secret is revealed. Consider it a RuddiLeak.

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