Friday, June 11, 2010

Bringing the House Down

Wherever I go, I try to see at least one local performance. I don't particularly care what it is. I love music and the theater, and I never cease to be amazed at how different it is in every town. The musical I saw in Tetravania was Conrad Owle's "Obfuscation." It's about the Doff of Gelfizzy, the ruler of a small country, who is searching for something and fleeing from someone else. What and who depends on which performance you see. The Doff is played by a different actor or actress in every scene; he or she is identified by his or her hat.

Like most Tetravanian theater, the script is debatable. The basic plot and a given actor's favorite lines can generally be relied on, but there are no set entrances or exits. People go on or off stage, start or stop singing, whenever they feel like it. The rest are expected to improvise accordingly.* As a result, the story and music are different at every performance.

The costumes are done in a similar way. The cast members add or subtract bits and pieces whenever they want. On one night, one of the Troglodyte Duchesses in act two came onstage wearing a massive horsetail wig, in a shocking shade of blue, that hung down to her knees. Something about it delighted the live cicadas that were onstage for musical accompaniment in that scene. Fifteen of them ended up on her head by the end of the number.

The only absolute rule, as far as I can tell, is that no one is allowed to steal someone else's lines; if you want to do something outside the script, you have to make it up yourself. Other than that, many productions end up being theatrical free-for-alls. Most playwrights in Tetravania don't even bother to specify a main character. The stars are the ones who can upstage everyone else.

I never got to see the end of the play. "Obfuscation" does have an official main character, but that doesn't keep all the others from trying to steal every scene. Halfway through the last act, the Dowager Waitress came out in a four-foot pompadour wig that she had set on fire. The somewhat panicked improvisations that followed from the rest of the cast were some of the best parts of the entire musical. Unfortunately, the Dowager Waitress's wig then set the curtain on fire, at which the theater was quickly evacuated while the stagehands rushed to douse the flames with snuffer squids.

The musical closed a few days later. It seems to be generally accepted in Tetravania that when the actors start setting the stage on fire, the play has run long enough.

*The success of this method varies depending on the skill and quick thinking of the actors. The less skilled actors in Tetravania, unable to think quite as well on their feet as the rest, generally cultivate an expression of dumbfounded astonishment to give themselves time to think while the audience laughs. Lower-quality Tetravanian theater companies can sometimes double the length of a play with the sheer number of astonished pauses. Naturally, someone has taken advantage of this situation; "The Somnambulist," a play by the multitalented Rhem S. Trupelo, consists entirely of astonished pauses as various cast members enter the stage in increasingly ridiculous outfits. The play has no dialogue whatsoever.

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