Sunday, July 24, 2011

Death sits a few rows back to avoid the splash zone

Now I know why the best seats in a theater aren't right up front, but a few rows back. Actors spit, especially when they sing. It's a little like going to the orca show at Sea World.

My very first autumn in New York--I guess that would be 2008--the BF and I went to a reading of a musical in progress called "Death Takes a Holiday." About a month ago we saw a preview of it, and last Thursday, we went to opening night. "Death Takes a Holiday" is exactly what it sounds like: Death, feeling professionally drained after the slaughter of World War I, decides to kick back at an Italian nobleman's villa and take the weekend off. To quote Futurama, Death does "human stuff. He learns, he laughs, he loves." I suppose you could classify this musical as a romance, but like many works set in the period between the world wars (the show is based on a an Italian play by Alberto Casella from 1929), there's something melancholy and almost hopeless at the heart of the story. The gaiety of the 1920s is a deliberate rejection of the horrors of war, a sort of "No, we're going to have FUN now, damnit!" frolic intended to mask the existential crisis many faced in the aftermath of the years of senseless slaughter and pain. In the show, Death is a handsome, somewhat kooky Russian prince, but beneath that, he is also a stand-in for the nobleman's son Roberto, who died in the war. "Death is in the house," sings the nobleman, speaking of the actual Death vacationing at the villa, but also perhaps alluding to his absent son, dead but still lingering in the memories of the villa's other occupants: mother, father, grandmother, sister, widow, the younger sister of his war buddy. And although the nobleman's daughter Grazia falls in love with the man Death, on a symbolic level Grazia's love of death can be read as a kind of despair. Nothing lasts forever except death, so why not love Death? It's the only constant you'll ever get. The show I saw doesn't play this angle at all--it's a pretty straightforward love story that reads more as an affirmation of life than a rejection of it. "Life's a joy/Life is apples and lemons and lime trees" is pretty far from the ideas I've outlined above. But every American writer worth her salt has spent time in Paris in the 1920s, sucking up the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways and Steins like so much Prohibition champagne. Woody Allen just released a movie about that whole scene, "Midnight in Paris," which addressed the concept of nostalgia without touching much on the deeper fears and anxieties that everyone felt as they tried to return to some kind of normal life after experiencing a war that made literal mincemeat of concepts like "normal." So whenever I experience art from or about that period, I can't help but remember what's going on beneath the joy and the smiles.

Enough of that, though. Life's a joy! It's summer in New York and I got to put on my big-girl shoes and go to the theater!

Here's what I like about theater people: many of the agents, producers, and various creative and financial associates I saw on opening night remembered me from the reading. The reading that happened almost two years ago. How is that even possible? I can barely remember what subway to take to work in the morning. (Just last week I got on the F instead of the G and was 10 minutes late to the office. I was distracted thinking about the unknown creature currently living in my bedroom ceiling.)

We got to go backstage and visit with the cast and crew before the show started. There was a table covered in pastries and cheesecake, but when he saw me looking at it, the BF whispered, "That's not for you." He knows me well. The musical director, it turns out, lives in the BF's neighborhood and is hapa-Hawaiian. The island diaspora. We're everywhere!

My favorite part of the evening was meeting Death's understudy, who was called upon at the last minute to step in and play the lead on opening night. The actual lead had to stay home that night because he lost his voice. As the director said, "Death takes a medical leave of absence." And having seen the lead in the roll in previews, I have to say that I prefer the understudy's Death. "It's straight out of '42nd Street'!" said the BF. "The lead breaks her leg on opening night and the young understudy has to sing her part. 'You're going out there a nobody, but you have to come back a star!'" I don't know if the understudy gets to be a star now, but he definitely deserves to be. His Death was whimsical, unpretentious, and sweet. There was a lightness, a bounciness to him that the regular Death lacked. Understudy Death felt like he was actually on holiday; Regular Death felt like his mind was still back at the office.

Speaking of the office, New York and the surrounding areas are currently in the middle of a heat wave. On Friday, the heat index, which is like wind chill and basically means "what does it FEEL like," was 115 degrees. Today, it's only (ha) 89 with a heat index of 97. I know I really should go downtown to get all happy-weepy at the county clerks office, since today is the first day of New York Plus Gay Marriage, but it's nice and air conditioned in my apartment, and I've got blueberry beer. How would Captain America handle this situation?

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