Friday, May 3, 2013

Measure for Measure - Dateline - San Francisco Circa 1984

As I have mentioned before in these posts, for a period of several months, close to the end of my San Francisco tenure, I worked with a small, semi professional theater group. We performed in Golden Gate Park and later at a San Francisco community college auditorium getting paid an amount which ranged from minuscule to nothing at all. In this company were two actors who were also working on a small black box production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure". The production, which was mounted with a budget of approximately $1.98, featured an all male cast, as Elizabethan productions would have had, and, it being San Francisco in the 1980's, homoerotic undertones.

Produced and directed by a gay man, with a largely gay cast, I found it somewhat ironic that of the 3 friends of mine in the show, 2 were straight. One of these played Claudio, one of the young male leads. He was a good actor with solid training and only one flaw, on occasion he would forget his lines. In a contemporary play, provided the other actors were reasonably adept and familiar enough with the script, this forgetfulness could be taken care of with relative ease. In the case of Shakespeare taking care of a problem of this sort becomes, well, problematic.

During my experiences with him on stage this "forgetfulness" of his occurred on 2 memorable occasions. We were performing "Alice in Wonderland". I portrayed the King of Hearts and he the Mad Hatter. As we moved into the theatre after our run in the park the actor playing the March Hare was unexpectedly called home to Tennessee and had to drop out of the production. Familiar with the role and the lines having heard them numerous times during rehearsal and our park performances, I was called upon to play the March Hare as well as the King. This required a lightning fast costume and makeup change accomplished by myself and a crew of three other cast members. I always arrived at my seat at the tea table slightly out of breath , microseconds prior to the lights coming on and the platform the Tea Party set was on being rolled downstage.

During one performance we had a minor prop malfunction which caused a major meltdown. I, the Hatter and Alice all realized we had no idea where we were in the script. Having only run through the scene 2 or 3 times and playing it in front of an audience a similar number of times I was neither adept or familiar enough to get us back on track. We jumped forward in the script, we moved backward in the script, we moved sideways in the script. Eventually we pulled ourselves out of our theatrical train wreck and the play went forward. Wisely, the preteen girl playing the Dormouse feigned sleep during the entire ordeal, which is essentially what her character did anyway., While we realized that it was the Mat Hatter's tea party scene and that noone would realize what a mess we had created I, for one, was never so glad to have a scene over with in my entire life...until...

In our subsequent production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" the "forgetfull one" was playing Touchstone, in his defense, a demanding role. One evening, in the plays final scene, it once again became apparent he had "lost his way". He was in the middle of a long and complex speech describing a "laundry list" of items regarding human behavior it was obvious he could not recall. My character had the next line, asking him to state, "in order", the list of behaviors. There followed a second lengthy speech reciting the behaviors previously mentioned ticked off in a particular order. My mind raced trying to come up with an alternative to my character's scripted request. I came up empty. As my character asked him to recite in order a list of behaviors he obviously couldn't recall even out of order I felt I should have prefaced my line with "I'm terribly sorry to ask you this but"...This was the performance we were videotaping for prosperity. Although we all thought we were disguising our alarm at the quickly deteriorating situation, there was a glance between myself and another cast member which seemed to say "How is he gonna' get himself out of this one?" Gamely, he made up something on the fly. It being Shakespeare I doubt anyone noticed. No less a thespian than Lawrence Olivier confessed to forgetting his lines in a Shakespeare play. He related how he spouted Elizabethan gibberish for 10 minutes throwing thees and thous about with reckless abandon. He too, assumed that noone noticed.

But back to "Measure for Measure". The production was a heavily edited version of the play. It's running time had been cut by the director/producer, one person held both titles, by over an hour. Still the gist of the play remained. It was the period of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. A number of notable figures in the city's gay community had already succumbed. As the years wore on many more were to follow. The opening scene was a discussion regarding a plague which was affecting a town outside Vienna, the play's setting. The decision was made to portray the plague as AIDS. An actor portraying the representative of the town was made up to appear afflicted with Kaposi's Sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer prevalent, at the time, among people with AIDS. This was done in a rather subtle manner. Had I not been told about it beforehand it might have even been missed by me, and I was well aware and educated about AIDS at the time.

Other parts of the production carried gay, sometimes somewhat erotic, tones that were much easier to identify. A tall, rather campy drag queen portrayed one of the female roles. There were two thickly muscled alpha males who played the guards clad in tight black pants, even tighter black sleeveless shirts, allowing the audience tantalizing views of their powerful, rippling tattooed arms and Doc Martens. They had no lines and served no purpose other than to stand at attention and hold characters down during interrogation. They were essentially set dressing. I for one, had no complaints nor did I ever hear any about their seemingly superfluous stature. There was also a servant to the Executioner, played in a slightly but not overly fey manner by another of my three friends who were in the show, the one gay one. The character was dressed in black leather overall shorts, tee shirt and combat boots and possessed an overly prurient interest in his master.

The Executioner was played by the same actor that played Claudio. This was accomplished by the Executioner wearing a hood, appearing in no scenes with Claudio and by cutting all of the Executioner's lines. A musclesuit was planned to bulk him out and further differentiate the two characters. In one scene the executioner accidentally hangs himself.  This entailed him being hoisted up by a harness. The harness was borrowed from the owner of one of the era's most notorious leather bars. As my friend described the harness to me, "It's greasy and it smells!" When the director gave it to him he informed him "I didn't have time to make the musclesuit so just wear a lot of clothes under it." Holding the foul thing at arm's length by his fingertips he replied "Not to worry!" He began to construct a list of clothing he could wear under it that he would later be able to boil.

Then there was the extended sequence in which an actor, a handsome blond possessing an almost impossibly chiseled physique displayed in the skimpiest of loincloths, flogs his genitals with a Cat of NineTails. Believe it or not this does make some sense within the context of the play. This chiseled actor professed to be straight however took full advantage of any chance which came around to flaunt his eye candy body in front of gay men.

I have always felt that the theatre, when it is at it's finest, is magic. In this production the actor who played Isabella, the female lead, created magic with every movement he made onstage. He was small in stature and dressed as a nun, which perhaps helped the illusion. I found myself forgetting that there was a man underneath the habit. He had a soliloquy at the beginning of the second act that was mesmerizing. It was one of those moments in which I was completely drawn in by an actor, unable to tear my eyes away from the stage.

Theatre can be brave. It can be imaginative and creative. It can have an emotional effect on those who experience it. Sometimes this effect is experienced in a grand house full of history. Other times it is experienced in a black box watching a production that has a budget of $1.98.  


  1. we both adore the theatre, and go often
    I miss living in chicago when every week there were all sorts of theatre from which to choose. what a treasure trove.

  2. With the gay and homo-erotic subtext you should have re-titled your edited version of the play "M4M"... you'd have been ahead your time. I shall remember this post this summer when we see Measure at the Stratford Festival.

    You reminiscence about wandering through the play in Alice put me in mind of a production I was in once of Larry Kramer's play The Destiny of Me; the sequel to The Normal Heart. We did it in an out-door courtyard space on platforms of varying heights. The scene changes were accomplished by having the characters in the next scene enter in the dark and take their position. At the send of the scene the lights would go down on one platform and come up on the next. At some point in Act I, my character enters, in a military uniform no less, in the dark and sits on the edge of a bed. The actors doing the scene that was active at the time jumped from the scene they were in to a similar scene in Act II. Sitting there I realized what had happened and I knew there was nothing I could do. The lights would change and I would be sitting in a bedroom in a uniform in a scene that was now totally out of context.
    It was saved by the actor that was to move from the previous scene into ours. They finished the scene from Act II without even trying to jump back and as the lights started to change he looks out at the audience and ad libbed ; "That reminds me of a conversation I had with my brother about 10 yrs ago......"