RIP, PDQ

With apologies to the Terminator, Peter Schickele won’t be Bach. Not anymore, anyway.

The name might not ring a bell – but it should at least play a kazoo or two. You see, Schickele was better known to the world as P.D.Q. Bach, a “forgotten” final son of Bach whose existence was mostly an excuse to turn classical music into uproarious comedy.

If you’ve not discovered Bach the Extremely Lesser yet, you have an interesting musical journey ahead of you. This was, after all, the man whose classical pieces included parts for the bagpipe, the slide whistle and  the “tromboon” (trombone with a bassoon reed). In a given performance, you might catch dozens of musical references, ranging from The William Tell Overture to Shave and a Haircut. Trying to perform pieces like “Oedipus Tex” or “The Seasonings” with a straight face is difficult in the extreme; hearing them without cracking up is downright impossible.

And the best part? It’s a laughter that opens doors instead of drawing weapons.

Perhaps I should explain.

A lot of comedy calls for a victim – a deserving target who has earned absurd retribution. And the more deserving, the better. When John Cleese co-created “Fawlty Towers,” he made hotel manager Basil Fawlty utterly despicable … because if he were at all sympathetic, Cleese said, the series would become a tragedy.

At times, that can be priceless. Well-crafted humor can deflate the pompous, expose the cruel, or even depose the tyrannical. The concept is an ancient one; Thomas Moore once wrote that “the devil … cannot endure to be mocked.”

But too often, people shoot lower.

When that happens,  it makes comedy about the pain instead of the target. Someone gets hurt and it’s funny because it’s not happening to you. Any empathy involved is on the level of “Oooh, I felt that!” but mostly we just laugh at how the universe has it in for someone. (“America’s Funniest Home Videos,” anyone?)

And as we laugh at someone else’s pain, it coarsens us a little.

And that’s where I think PDQ was a downright genius.

His main target was the reverential aura that often surrounds classical music and makes it seem unapproachable. By injecting a heavy dose of silliness, Schickele not only made it approachable but fun. Anyone could laugh and enjoy … and better yet, if you had any experience with classical music, you’d laugh even harder from all the inside jokes he smuggled in. The more you knew, the funnier it got.

In short, he welcomed everyone. Entertained them. And maybe even educated them a little.

How much better can you get?

Schickele has left the stage now, gone at the age of 88. But the laughs live on. And whenever someone replays one of his off-kilter arias or ridiculous concert pieces, the doors will reopen and the wonderful insanity will resume.

That’s a heck of a legacy. And a great example to follow. Not just to laugh, but to laugh well in a way that brings us together.

All you have to do is sit Bach and enjoy.

Living Upside-Down

Some things just have to be mentioned in the same breath. Like Beethoven and the Ninth Symphony. Or Sean Connery and James Bond. Or John Elway and “The Drive.”

So now that my friend Brie Timms has taken her final bows, it’s only right that someone brings up “Noises Off.”

If you don’t know the show, “Noises Off” takes every nightmare an actor’s ever had about the stage and blends it into a smoothie. It’s a comedy – no, an outright farce – where backstage jealousies lead to onstage chaos, with stalled entrances, sabotaged props, and an increasingly bedraggled cast. It’s also a notoriously difficult show to do, including a stretch where the story has NO dialogue for several minutes, relying on perfectly-timed action to get the laughs.

Brie came back to that show again. And again. And again.

No surprise. It fit her so well.

Let me back up: I’m not calling her a soap opera on wheels. Quite the opposite. Brie didn’t have time for unnecessary drama. Anything that distracted from the show didn’t belong. It’s the kind of focus that made her such a terrifying Nurse Ratched – a role quite opposite her real-life personality – and that built fantastic loyalty in her casts whenever she directed.

But she understood the paradox behind the best comedies. It’s an upside-down world where the golden rules are as follows:

  1. Silly is funniest when it’s taken seriously.
  2. It takes great acting to portray “bad acting.”
  3. Division onstage requires tight teamwork backstage.
  4. And most of all, if you want chaos, you have to plan for it.

Brie loved that. Especially the last one. And because of it, whenever she took on “Noises Off,” it ran like a Swiss watch. But a lot funnier.

And now that she’s gone, it feels like a gear in the watch is missing.

But even as the show goes on without her, I think there’s still something to be said for living an upside-down life.

Unlike comedies, life doesn’t give most of us the luxury of planning our chaos, which may explain why it’s often more tiring than funny. But it does tend to send us situations that work best when we flip the script. Where paradoxes make sense.

And the biggest one is that in a world ruled by isolation, we need each other more than ever.

Over nearly two years, we’ve all learned the pandemic litany. Cover your face. Wash your hands. Get your shots. And keep your distance. But we don’t always talk about the why. Maybe it just seems too obvious – in virus times, a person’s got to protect themselves, right?

But it’s not about each of us. It’s about each other. It’s about making ourselves living breakpoints so that the virus doesn’t wreak further havoc among all of us, especially among the old, the sick and the vulnerable.

When we think of our neighbors first, we win.

Teamwork matters. In comedy. In disasters. In life. And when it’s a teamwork born of compassion, one where we each give a little of our strength to help another, that makes all of us stronger.

I wish the team still had Brie in it. We need her. We need all our loving storytellers. But if we keep up that best paradox of all – to help yourself, help another – then I think we’ve kept one of the best parts of her, too.

And that’s a showstopper even “Noises Off” can’t beat.

Meeting in the ‘Moonlight’

“Hi, guys!”

It could have been any other virtual meeting, any other day. We all know those, right? Check your cameras, hit the link, grumble at forgetting to turn on the microphone again.

But here in Chez Rochat, Monday evenings aren’t just any virtual meeting. They’re a chance to get some real insanity back again, of the best  kind.

Mondays are when we take the stage.

***

“You went into production without a screenplay?”

“I thought I HAD a screenplay! I’ve been working on it for three years!”

—  Ron Hutchinson, “Moonlight and Magnolias”

 

Some of you may remember that back in February, I went over to the dark side. Dramatically speaking, anyway. This long-time actor became the new assistant director of “Moonlight and Magnolias,” getting a ringside seat to the screwball madness. And madness is exactly what you get when three characters are trying to bang out the script to “Gone With The Wind” in five days, with a faithful secretary guarding the door.

It’s a story with everything. High-speed dialogue. Studio gossip. And WAY too many peanuts and bananas for one’s sanity. It couldn’t miss.

And then, midway through rehearsals, COVID-19 arrived. And our can’t-miss comedy suddenly found itself without a chance to pull the trigger.

***

“I need this, guys. I need it. You have no idea how badly I need it.”

– Ron Hutchinson, “Moonlight and Magnolias”

 

The virus closed the stages. Unsurprising, really. When mass gatherings can spread a disease, crowding into a darkened room with strangers for two hours or so is the last thing any health department would advise. We had reached Shakespearean heights: closed by the plagues.

But like the hero of “The Princess Bride,” we were only mostly dead.

Moon Theatre didn’t cancel “Moonlight.” It put it on hold. The Rialto gave us new performance dates in the fall, hoping that by then, they’d have found a way to safely reopen.

Our show had survived, but our weeks-long rehearsal process had become months-long – with no way to rehearse physically.

That’s where the magic of Mondays began, turning rehearsals into a new “virtual meeting.” Hop online. Work the lines. Work the characters. Keep the story alive, the feeling alive, the company together. Keep the show breathing, waiting for its chance to once again come out in the open.

I wonder what Shakespeare’s bandwidth was like?

***

“So what do we want our specks of light to be? This time? When we’re sitting in a movie palace and the lights go down …and the theatre disappears and the magic starts to happen?”

– Ron Hutchinson, “Moonlight and Magnolias”

 

There’s an irony here. Our show is about three men locked in a room with limited supplies, asked to do the seemingly impossible, with anxiety growing at every turn. The temptation is huge to just quit. But if they do, everything falls apart.

We’re living that. Every single day.

And it’s the same kind of single-minded focus that will get us all through this together.

We all want normal. We all want a world where isolation isn’t a need, where we can visit friends, browse a library, stop by a baseball field that has people on it. Maybe even go to a theatre now and then, heaven forbid.

But to get to “normal,” we have to pass through “safe.” It’s hard. Especially since viruses aren’t kind enough to set deadlines, letting us know how long we have to be careful. It’s like walking blind through a room where the floor’s been covered in thumbtacks and Legos … slow, careful steps trying to feel a path through, with no certainty of how far we have left to go.

If we stay focused, if we help each other, if we find ways to adapt and support and comfort and care, we’ll make it. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But we will see the door unlock, taking as many of us through it as we can.

And when that door opens, even the most ordinary things in the world will seem pretty magical.

Maybe even as magical as a Monday.

Facing Out in Joy

With every night and each new adventure, Missy giggled and smiled. Getting stuck in a rabbit hole. Marching to the North Pole by lunch time. And of course, laying a devious trap for the horrible Heffalumps.

There was no doubt about it. “Winnie the Pooh” was a hit.

When I added the stories to our bedtime reading, it had been a long time since I’d journeyed through the Hundred-Acre Wood. But it soon felt like yesterday. As we encountered the irascible Rabbit and pompous Owl, Piglet the Very Small Animal, and of course, Pooh Bear himself (of Very Little Brain), it was a reunion with old friends and long-missed neighbors with delightful stories to share.

It also seemed familiar. And it took me a moment to realize why.

Regular readers will remember that in my spare time, I’m an amateur actor. And this Friday, my latest show opens at the Rialto Theatre in Loveland – “You Can’t Take It With You,” an unforgettable comedy from the 1930s. If you haven’t seen it before,  or the movie with Jimmy Stewart, it spends its time with the pleasantly off-balance Sycamore family, a clan that can charitably be called unique. Dad tests fireworks in the cellar, Grandpa raises snakes in the living room, and Mom alternates between unfinished plays and incomplete art works, while welcoming anyone into the home – sometimes for a years-long stay.

The comedy, of course, comes from the collision between the Sycamores’ carefree lifestyle and the expectations of a more rigorous world. And that is where I began hearing the humming of That Sort of Bear … and a whisper or two of a joy that our own world sometimes forgets.

Namely, the simple act of being happy without apology.

Pooh is who he is. He seems foolish and silly at times. Heck, he is foolish and silly at times. (“Silly old Bear!”) But he hurts no one, he enjoys his songs and his honey and his friends, and in his relaxed happiness, he often sees things that others miss.

The Sycamores are who they are. The outside world thinks they’re mad, and it’s not always wrong. But they hurt no one, they enjoy their thousand and one odd pastimes and friends, and in their relaxed happiness, they remember some simple things that a more hurried humanity has forgotten.

And then there’s us.

We spend a lot of time  trimming ourselves to fit the world’s expectations. Some of that’s a necessary consequence of living with other human beings – neither the Sycamores nor Pooh Bear disdain common courtesy, after all. But all too often, it’s a little more toxic.

All too often, it turns into hiding.

Maybe it’s the child who got bullied in school. A lot. Even if the victim makes it out the other side, the lesson has been learned: Don’t be too different, or you will regret it.

Maybe it’s the person with a chronic illness who’s run into “compassion fatigue,” the friends and family who don’t know how to handle a condition that isn’t fatal but won’t go away. Over time, the lesson is learned: Better to exhaust yourself acting “normal” on the surface than to encounter a world that constantly says “This again?”

Often, it’s something less dramatic, but no less discouraging. We choose one of a thousand masks to make the world more comfortable with us, even if it means we aren’t that comfortable with ourselves.

Or – we can let go.

We can acknowledge who we are. Face the world without hunched shoulders and a wary look. And even love the silly things that hurt no one, and make us happy.

No, it’s not easy. It’s risky, in a lot of ways. The world can be harsh to the different and the honest.

But it’s also the only way to truly live, not just exist. And in that living, to see the world and yourself with fresh eyes.

That’s something even a Bear of Very Little Brain can appreciate.

***

(Psst! If you want to catch the show, “You Can’t Take It With You” runs the weekends of April 12-14 and 19-20 at the Rialto. See you there!)

Dress Rehearsal

One of the best parts of being married to an actor, Heather sometimes says, is that both of us know what it’s like to endure makeup and hose.

Now we can add heels to the list, too.

No, this isn’t a “coming out” column. It’s just fair warning that I’m in another farce with the Longmont Theatre Company and that the show, “Leading Ladies,” requires me to disguise myself as a woman for at least half my time on stage.  What could be more normal than that?

Mind you, “normal” and “farce” don’t exactly belong in the same sentence. After all, this is the comedy of decisions made with high speed and little judgment, where gags fly fast and the actors fly faster, and where everything ultimately descends into complete madness … only to somehow rebuild itself into some semblance of order and justice with five minutes to go.

Compared to that, rocketing across the stage in a wig and heels IS perfectly normal – at least, by the laws of the comic universe.

If I sound a little too familiar with all this – well, yes and no. It’s been about 25 years since I played a man playing a woman, rendering a deliberately clumsy rendition of Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with tresses like a windblown haystack and a voice like an off-key piccolo.  (How high? Let’s just say that the applause probably included commentary from every dog within three blocks.)

Farce, on the other hand, is an old friend. From Neil Simon to Woody Allen, and from “Noises Off” to the offerings of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, something in me seems to respond to a riotous state of utter chaos and confusion.

Yes, yes, I used to be a newspaper reporter. Besides that.

Actually, the more I think about it (and thinking about farce is dangerous), the more sense it makes. In many ways, this sort of high-powered ridiculousness is the best life lesson of all.

Farce always has a layer of pretense. The motives are straightforward, but the methods never are. Need to impress a girl even though you’re bottom rung at the embassy? Make like you’re the top dog, despite a complete lack of diplomatic skill. The host of your party has keeled over five minutes before the other guests arrive? Weave together a “reasonable explanation” that changes every time someone new comes over.

Gee, this already sounds like the last election, doesn’t it?

Why pretend? Fear, mostly. Fear of getting embarrassed, fear of getting arrested, fear of getting booed off the stage. The personal stakes are high, and the fear of what might happen, could happen, surely will happen, terrifies people into becoming something they’re not.

And then something happens. Actually, a lot of somethings happen. Excuses start to be torn away. Disguises start to fall apart. And in the process of it all, the pretender usually discovers something true in himself or herself – something that will let them get what they really want, if they can just get past all the fantasies they’ve created.

Fear. Self-discovery. Overcoming past mistakes of our own making, and growing from it.  If that’s not relevant to most of us today, what is?  (The fact that it’s bundled into a package of slamming doors and hilariously awkward situations is just a bonus.)

Intrigued? Come on down to the theatre on the weekend of Jan. 13 or Jan. 20 and we’ll give you a crash course. (Details of “Leading Ladies” are online at www.longmonttheatre.org.) If nothing else, you’ll get the chance to see if Scott can really run in high heels without twisting his ankle.

It’ll be a riot. And a total drag.

Exit, Left

There’s been a Marian-sized hole in my heart this week.

Those of you who read this paper regularly understand. Not long ago, the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of its stalwarts, Marian Bennett. On and offstage, she touched more lives than a workaholic chiropractor. She could communicate volumes about a character with one perfectly timed gleam in her eye and make you breathless with suspense or helpless with laughter.

I want to say she’s irreplaceable. She’d laugh at that and deflate the notion with her familiar Texas twang. And maybe she’d be right. All of us are … and none of us are. We all bring something unique that goes quiet when we leave. And barring a dramatic change in the history of the world, all of us are going to leave. Life is hazardous to your health, and the rest of us have to be ready to carry on when time brings another of us into the majority.

Easy to say. Hard to feel, to acknowledge, to own.

Especially when it’s someone close.

Doubly so when it’s someone who so undeniably lived.

 

Fill  to me the parting glass,

And drink a health whate’er befalls,

Then gently rise and softly call,

Goodnight and joy be to you all.

– The Parting Glass, traditional

 

The phrase “grande dame” can be easily misconstrued. It can suggest someone on a pedestal at best, a prima donna at the worst. But it literally means the great lady. Marian herself was charmed by the title until she looked it up in a dictionary and found that one of the definitions was “a highly respected elderly or middle-aged woman.”

“That (title) made me feel pretty good until I realized they were saying I was old,” she told me with one of her stage grimaces.

But Marian really did fill a room. Some of it was physical – she was a tall woman who naturally drew attention. A lot of it was that she did her best to reach out to everyone nearby. She wanted to talk, to chat, to hug – but you didn’t feel smothered. You kind of felt like your next-door neighbor had just come over to catch up.

On stage, that translated into the most perfect sense of timing I’ve seen in an actress. She could discard her dignity entirely to cross the stage in roller skates, or gather it around her to become King Lear himself, but she was always who she needed to be, where she needed to be.

Part of that was because backstage she worked like a fiend. (She and I often drilled lines on opening night, just to be absolutely sure.) Part of it was confidence, the same confidence that led her to travel, to speak her mind, to welcome a friend on one meeting. A lot of it may have been her willingness to look cockeyed at the world, and enjoy it when others did, too.

She could be nervous or anxious, like any actor. But I never saw her afraid. You can’t be if you go on stage. You have to be able to look inside yourself and then share it with the world.

Come to think of it, that’s true off stage, too. Life is more fun, more alive, if you can live it without fear. Not without common sense (Mar had plenty of that) but without drawing back from what you might find.

Even that makes her sound like a lesson. Granted, we all are to each other. But we’re all so much more, too. We’re friends and family and teachers and neighbors, connected by more than we can see.

And when that connection is broken, it hurts. For a long time. It never quite heals the same way … and it shouldn’t. You’ve loved them, cared for them, taken on some of their memories. Of course, they’re not going to vanish from your mind and soul like an overdue library book.

They’ve touched you – and you bear their fingerprints.

Goodbye, my friend. It was a pleasure to know you, an honor to work with you.

Take your bow with pride.

I’ll see you after the show.

The Impossible Dreams

It’s been rabbit season for a while now. And I’m loving it.

More specifically, it’s been “Harvey” season. And after a year’s break from theatre, I’m very fortunate to have been caught by the world’s kindest man and his giant invisible friend with the pointy ears. A friend of mine was once in a similar state of theatre withdrawal and wound up agreeing, sight unseen, to direct the first show that came his way – which happened to be “Oliver!”

“Oliver,” he said in a daze after hanging up the phone. “That’s the one with 50 kids in it, isn’t it?”

Theatre withdrawal. It’s a terrible and awesome thing.

Truth to tell, this is a show I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. (And a good thing, too, considering it involved two months of rehearsal with a little time off for Christmas.) There is a short list of scripts that I consider “drop everything” plays, where nothing short of blizzard, flood or alien invasion could keep me from trying out. At the top of that list are “Harvey” and “Man of La Mancha,” the musical about Don Quixote.

That’s not an accident.

In a way, both plays are the same story viewed from a slightly different angle. Both are about a man who walked away from mundane reality and embraced a dream. His world doesn’t understand. His family thinks he’s crazy. But his own life is an infinitely richer, more appealing place because of it – so appealing that it even threatens to draw others in despite themselves.

“I’ve wrestled with reality for over 40 years,” Elwood P. Dowd tells a bewildered doctor, “and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it.”

“Too much sanity may be madness,” Don Quixote’s alter ego muses at one point. “And maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

That’s something that’s inherently appealing to an actor. After all, we spend a fair amount of time walking in dreams ourselves, treating fiction as true and living with people who never were. We create entire families – cast, crew, audience – from the sheer power of that dream. And if we’re lucky, we carry a piece of it with us long after the curtain goes down.

Crazy? I’m sure many of our friends and family think so, especially after weeks of late nights and hastily grabbed dinners. But essential, too.

To paraphrase another “Harvey” character, it’s our dreams that make us who we are.

Oh, it’s possible to live without dreams. Look around. The daily news seems filled with the consequences of the oh-so-practical people more concerned with being right than doing right, where winning justifies anything, where grand visions matter less than seizing a small advantage today. Politics, sports, business – in some ways, it’s a world more hostile to the Elwoods and Quixotes of society than ever.

But once in a while, something lifts us higher.

Once in a while, we gape as a spacecraft lands on a comet or a rover explores Mars. Or we marvel together at the adventures of a boy wizard with the power to make children read 800 pages without stopping. Or we … well, do anything that lifts us beyond survival and self, and into the imagination.

Beyond that line is where hope is born. The power to dream of something better. The desire to make it be.

The madness that can transform all of mundane reality in its wake.

OK, that’s heady stuff from a crazy knight and a guy with a six-foot rabbit. But when you find joy in the middle of an angry world, it can be a little overpowering. Mad? Maybe. It’s the end of a withdrawal from dreams, and that always has powerful consequences.

Though if those consequences involve 50 singing children, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

See you on stage.

 

(PS – Want to join the madness? Show times and tickets are at www.longmonttheatre.org. Tell ’em Harvey sent you. )

No Laughing Matter

Picture a driver whose wrists are handcuffed to the steering wheel. A short chain, at that, so no hand-over-hand turns. The gear shift is barely reachable, with the fingertips.

Now send that driver on a trip from Limon to Grand Junction. How much of a miracle will it be to make it? If and when the inevitable happens, how many will blame the driver? How many will see that the driver was largely a prisoner of his own car?

In the end, I think that’s where Robin Williams was. Careening off a mountain road in a vehicle he could not control.

The crash has left echoes in all our ears.

There’s been a lot said and written about Robin these days. Not surprising. For many of us, the brilliant comic and actor was one of the constant presences, always there, always doing something new, always on the move, like a lightning storm that had been distilled into a human body. Too much energy to be contained.

My own personal memory is of a performance he gave in London in the 1980s, part of a royal gala for Prince Charles and Princess Di. My family and I taped the show on TV and darned near wore it out, as we watched his hurricane of stand-up over and over again. The effects of playing rugby without pads. The difference between New York and London cab drivers. The sharks watching airline crash survivors bobbing on seat cushions. (“Oh, look, Tom, isn’t that nice? Canapés!”)

At one point, white-hot, he broke off his routine. Running beneath the royal box, he pointed upward, looked to the rest of the audience and stage-whispered “Are they laughing?”

Everyone broke up. Charles included.

But now I wonder. How much of that question lay at the heart of Robin’s own life? Are they laughing? Do they really like me or just the face I show? Does any of this matter?

Those can be uncomfortable questions even without a poisonous brain chemistry. But that is exactly what Robin Williams had.

I don’t have depression myself. Too many of my friends do, including some of the oldest friends I have in the world. From them and from a number of acquaintances, I have at least a second-hand idea, like a reporter in a war zone watching people in the line of fire.

And that’s what it is. A silent war against your own mind.

“Your brain is literally lying to you,” one online acquaintance said. Even when you realize that, he added, it’s still your brain and you still want to believe it.

That’s a terrifying thing to consider.

Mind you, I’m used to the idea that your own brain can ambush you. I’m epileptic. If someday my medication fails or it gets missed for too long, I can have a literal brainstorm. But that’s a sometimes thing, a sneak attack out of the bushes.

This is more insidious. This is the command center taken over by the enemy. When you can’t trust your own mind, your own perceptions and impulses, what do you do?

There are more tools than there used to be. I have friends who use medicine to fight the chemistry, who use cognitive-behavioral therapy to find a path through the labyrinth, who reach for reasons to even get out of bed in the morning: family, faith, pets.

“Unless brain transplants become a thing, I will always require medication,” one dear friend said. “But I’ll always need glasses, too, and that’s the context I try to keep it in.”

But among these tools, we also have one other thing. A society that doesn’t fully understand. A place where the glasses and the pills aren’t seen the same way, where people see depression as a personal failing instead of a mental illness.

Where it’s the driver’s fault for not sawing through the handcuffs in time.

Like many, I wish Robin Williams were still with us. But also like many, I hope his death gives more of us a chance to understand, to see, to ask questions and really listen to the answers. And by listening, to lift some of the stigma so that more people can get more help.

It takes all of us. Together, in understanding.

And that’s no joke.