Historical Fiction about Great Theatrical Figures
Billed as a “new Steampunk mystery/comedy/thriller, an original script, by Louis Broome and John Longenbaugh, Fatal Footlights opened at Theater Schmeater on Friday. Steampunk, the internet told me, has to do with 19th century historical fiction and technology. Fatal Footlights concerns murder and intrigue in an 1885’s theatre in London. Apparently, two of the characters are members of the Brass family and the play was part of a series about them, so the Artistic Director communicated to me the next day.
Basically the “play” is a film script, with very short scenes, a large cast comprised of several late 19th century theatrical characters: Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, who worked as an assistant to Henry Irving, one of the great actor-managers of his day, Dame Ellen Terry, the most acclaimed Shakespearean actor of her day, George Bernard Shaw, famous nowadays as a playwright, but in those days acclaimed as a music and theatre critic as well as a political writer, plus Oscar Wilde, before The Importance of Being Earnest. Added to this mix of famous people are two unknown actors, a brother and sister named Gwendolyn and Cyril, three female Cockney street pick-pockets, a phantom who lives in the bowels of the theatre and a few other actors.
The setting is the backstage of a London theatre, presumably the Lyceum, during rehearsals of one of Wilde’s first plays, the unsuccessful melodrama Vera, or the Nihilists, which bears a suspicious resemblance to one of Shaw’s one-act’s Annushka, the Bolshevik Empress. George Bernard Shaw, played on the night I saw it by the director, John Longenbaugh, narrates in between the scenes.
There are a few too many rather unconnected sub-plots, in this difficult to follow show. The three Cockney wenches, are hired to steal Ellen Terry’s necklace for an “agent.” Two unknown actors are hired to prevent a murder. Oscar Wilde has hissy fits, Ellen Terry argues about electrical lighting (a new innovation in theatre ) as they rehearse Vera. Characters, never previously introduced, drop dead, we are supposed to be shocked about pretty male actors being seduced by older gay men. In short, the script had a lot of random odds and ends.
The set, and how the director blocked the show, created a lot of difficulties. The “stage” at Schmeater is not large, and the set was supposed to be the backstage of a theatre; however, only the front four feet of the “stage” was used, so all the actors kept lining up on a long narrow ribbon-like space. As a result, the entrances and exits did not seem natural and getting so many people on and off such a confined space, slowed down the scene changes.
Another bad choice was that many of the scenes took place in the dark, presumably because backstage areas are often unlit in real life; however, sitting in the back row, I literally could not see what was going on, when the actors were on the floor. For example, in the first scene, it was sometime before I realized that there were two actors on stage instead of just one. Frankly, it was sleep-inducing at 8 pm at night to sit in a dark room for that long.
The biggest mistake was that all the actors played everything for laughs, which is the surest way to make comedy fall flat. If there is no acknowledgement of the essential tragedy in a situation, there is no comedy. All the greatest humorist speak profound truth in their comedy, yet these attempts at comedy were based on superficial in-jokes about theatre history shared among the cognoscenti.
Theater Schmeater, I have noticed, does not have the best acoustics, so about 10 % of the lines were incomprehensible, due to the actor’s bad diction and stumbling. Although many of the British accents were reasonably well done, most of the actors tended to concentrate, laboriously on “pronouncing” the words, without incorporating British intonation and vocal placement. Without the elliptical rhythm, much of the wit was lost. American intonation punches the operative words, making what we say direct and forceful; British intonation uses lyrical rhythms, making their elliptical witticisms indirect and understated.
Perhaps the best performance was by John Longenbaugh as George Bernard Shaw, who was a last minute replacement, and had to read his lines from a book. He didn’t stumble any more than the rest of the cast and had a spontaneity and ease with his lines which none of the other actors did. He was the only one who didn’t seem under rehearsed.
There wasn’t a bad actor on the stage, some of them are highly skilled and extremely talented, so initially I was rather excited to see so many of them together in one show. Needless to say, they needed a better script and even this script needed better direction.
This “play” needs to go back to the drawing board, as it were. However, one person in the front row laughed, but perhaps he laughed at something he could actually see. I noticed some people were given 3-D glasses, but I wasn’t. I do not know if that would have made a difference. Fatal Footlights is part of a series; however, it was presented as a “stand-alone” play. If there was vital information in previous performances, which could have increased my understanding, that should have been presented.
If you like a lot of stilted jokes about Shaw’s evolution as a playwright and his collaboration with Ellen Terry you might find Fatal Footlights interesting, IF you get a seat in the front row.
Fatal Footlights. Co-produced by Battleground Productions and Theater Schmeater. At Theater Schmeater, 2125 3rd Ave. Seattle, WA 98121, Belltown (Take the bus!!! Or pay an arm and a leg for Parking) Thurs, Fri, Sat 8:00 pm thru April 30th. Tickets www.schmeater.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2479931 or call 1-(800) 838-300