FROM THE ARCHIVES: “Person 1 was one of the most amazing theatrical things to happen in St. Louis ever, I think, but it was also one of the most fucked-up theatrical things ever to happen in St. Louis.”
The climactic scene of Hydeware Theatre’s performance of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story last year was surely one of the freakiest moments in the history of local theatre.
The Zoo Story is typical Albee: verbal jousting that doesn’t sound quite realistic—in this case, between two men who meet in New York City’s Central Park—in the name of pointing up human complacency and hypocrisy.
The play is supposed to end with an act of manslaughter—the suicidal character impales himself on a knife held by the other.
Well, Hydeware’s John Shepherd and Brian Hyde did the bit with a stage knife, with a retractable blade. Fake blood poured from a “packet” taped to Shepherd’s belly. This in itself was unusual—for most onstage murders, the audience simply imagines the mortal wound, without Hollywood-style special effects. Shepherd then indulged in the great fantasy coveted by every actor from Rudolph Valentino to Jon “Baudelaire” Lovitz—a melodramatic death scene. Shepherd collapsed onto a patch of sod, corn-syrup blood leaking from his midsection, and grew still.
And then, the freakiness began. Shepherd remained on the ground. He didn’t stand up and smile and bow—he stayed there, lying on the floor before a silenced audience. The seconds grew into minutes. Audience members looked at one another in amused befuddlement—was it time to leave? Should they clap? Was this really the end, or, like a “bonus” scene at the end of a movie’s credits, was there some final “coda” to the drama that dedicated audience members might experience if they stuck around?
There was no coda. Shepherd had been instructed to lie on the ground and play dead until the stage manager told him that the last audience member had left. A tube continuously fed two gallons of fake blood from another room to a spot under the actor’s prone body. At the end of each night’s show, the audience had no idea what to do. They watched the fake blood continue to pool around the actor, looked at each other in bewilderment, and eventually figured out that it was time to exit.
Except for the night when That Uppity Theatre’s Joan Lipkin happened to be in the crowd. Immediately taking up the challenge of this uppity update to the drama, she stood and announced to the audience, “It’s up to us to end the play,” recalls Shepherd. “She came up on stage, and had people help turn me over. I asked myself, ‘How far am I going to let this go?’ and I decided as far as it can go without anything too crazy happening. They opened my shirt, and put some clothing under my head as a pillow. Then they decided they were going to lift me and take me out of the theater and into the elevator. I decided to break character if they got me out of the room, and I did. I was bloody from head to toe and I woke up and said, ‘You guys are the best audience ever!’” So Hydeware managed to take Albee’s existential dithering, add a touch of gore, and at the very end, toss in a wildly inappropriate stunt that turned the moralizing stamp of the drama into mildly irritating performance art, and, in at least one case, gleeful interaction with the crowd.
Fucking with the audience. Twisting around a playwright’s message. Keeping you guessing. In almost five years on the St. Louis theater scene, Hydeware has made these sorts of tricks their specialty. In the hands of a less clever crew, their antics might seem like gimmickry. But when you list all their accomplishments—an Othello that managed to bitch out the CIA for giving Osama bin Laden carte blanche in Afghanistan 20 years ago; an original comedy on par with a complex Andy Kaufman gag; an Oleanna that forcibly segregated audiences by gender; etc.—you have to hand it to them. They have really made their audiences think—and if a theater troupe can do that, it doesn’t matter how shitty the intermission coffee is: they’ve done something rare and honorable.
This month, Hydeware engages the challenge of Phyro-Giants!, a play best known for being adapted into the film Melvin Goes to Dinner. (The movie was directed by one half of the genius-duo behind HBO’s late, great Mr. Show, Bob Odenkirk.) The story offers four people who don’t know each other all that well talking after dinner at a restaurant (see the November ’03 interview with Odenkirk and playwright Michael Blieden). “The characters talk about sex, ghosts—actually, sex is a big part of what they discuss, sex from a single perspective, from a marriage perspective, sex while you’re dating,” says Shepherd, who also serves as Hydeware’s artistic co-director. “It’s completely a dialogue play, with very little movement, so the dialogue really crackles, because it has to.”
At first, audiences may think this smart, absorbing play is about the kind of true confessions that strangers can somehow share more easily than friends can. Painfully blunt admissions about porn and anal sex certainly will get folks’ attention.
But it’s the big surprise at the drama’s end that will make audiences re-think everything they’ve just seen.
So, in Hollywood-speak, think My Dinner With Andre meets The Sixth Sense. No; don’t think that. Bad idea.
Anyway, Hydeware doesn’t have to put a funky spin on this one, because the material is sufficiently unusual.
That was the case with their last bunch of efforts, too. The group sponsored a performance by Kathryn Blume, creator of the Lysistrata Project. You may remember that blip on the cultural radar screen about a year ago, just before the latest Gulf War got underway. Blume, a New York actress, organized the simultaneous worldwide performance of more than 1,000 versions of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata to protest the Bush administration’s warmongering. Two months ago, Blume ended her national tour of The Accidental Activist, a monologue about her sudden celebrity and impotent cause celebre, in St. Louis, at the Soulard Theatre.
Before that, Hydeware staged Ariel Dorfman’s intense Death and the Maiden, the tale of a torture victim who confronts her supposed former torturer in one long and bloody night. (You may recall the film version featuring Sigorney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.) The troupe posted displays about political torture in the lobby, and welcomed Amnesty International–types for informal chats after each show.
Looking further back, you’ll find the stranger gems in Hydeware’s crooked tiara.
“Person 1 was one of the most amazing theatrical things to happen in St. Louis ever, I think, but it was also one of the most fucked-up theatrical things ever to happen in St. Louis,” Shepherd notes with careful diplomacy.
An ill-conceived, unrehearsed marriage of music and drama, Person 1 took place at the former Crowe T. Brooks gallery in March 2002. The “Everywhen” collective of six noise-rock and aggro bands would each perform one semi-improvisational song as Hydeware actors tried to get through six purposefully vague scenes penned by one of the musicians. Predictably, the noisy “anarchy,” as Shepherd puts it, failed to gel for the performers as well as the audience. The moment that nearly drove him over the edge, though, was when some punk in the crowd struck him with a mic stand as he struggled to perform one of the mindless, Dada-esque scene/songs.
That failed experiment offers a contrast for “Jabberwocky,” a risk that paid off in February of last year. A brilliant satire of the mores of theatergoing, Shepherd’s original one-act was written in the tradition of such deconstructive playwrights as Luigi Pirandello. Actors took the stage and pretended to be audience members, facing the actual audience. The real audience was then immediately put in the position of becoming the entertainment. This was accomplished when Hydeware co-founder Richard Strelinger held up signs that the real audience was instructed to read aloud, in unison. Thus the “play” was a series of dumb phrases read by theatergoers, matched by trite responses from the jaded, weary, fake onstage audience; for anyone who’s ever been to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, it was delicious. At one point, an actor planted in the audience ran screaming down the aisle.
The same evening featured “The Most Massive Woman Wins,” a mishmash of feminist fare that culminated in three women stripping down to their bras and undies and gamboling across the stage. Their less-than-ideal figures demonstrated the point of the one-act drama on the perils of female self-image—it was the brave ending to an uninspiring piece.
Hydeware spiced up a production of David Mamet’s drama on sexual harassment, Oleanna, by splitting up couples as they walked in the door. Men were seated on one side of the elongated stage; women faced them from the other side. At various points in the topical play, male and female audience members typically had different reactions; the genders got to watch one another squirm as the uncomfortable fare played out between them.
Splitting up groups as they entered the theater created “an immediate sense of discomfort and pissed some people off,” recalls Shepherd. At any rate, the aggressive ushering tactic surely managed to liven up that otherworldly Mametian dialogue.
Other memorable Hydeware gags have included a performance of Macbeth in Oak Knoll Park which featured three actors in 24 roles, and a bloody re-enactment of several Jack-the-Ripper murders during a Halloween-time goth-rock concert at the former Berzerker Studios.
Richard Strelinger is the guy with the Shakespeare fetish. He’s the eager beaver behind Hydeware’s annual forays into Shakespeare-in-the-park, and he spent more than a year behind a computer screen adapting The Tempest into a stylized statement on slavery in America. When Hydeware finally performed it in 2001, it wound up as playful as it was grave.
That’s because the play’s opening thunderstorm was accomplished by having the actors shoot huge fluorescent Super Soaker water guns and throw water balloons high into the air, while others banged on percussion instruments. That’s the sort of mix of the thought-provoking and the unpredictable that we’ve come to expect from Hydeware. Now that they’ve found a permanent home in the Soulard Theatre, we wish them many more years of pranks, oddities, controversies and breaks in the fourth wall.
Hydeware Theatre performs Phyro-Giants! at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 13; and at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, May 14-22; at the Soulard Theatre, 1921 South Ninth Street. Tickets, which include dinner, are $15. Call 314-368-7306 or visit www.hydewaretheatre.com for more information.
First Run Theatre was conceived by Dr. Donald Weiss as a breeding ground for new and upcoming unpublished local authors and playwrights. Focusing on the diversity of talent in the St. Louis area, a semi-annual competition is held in which plays are selected for the next season, and the show is built from scratch using the collective input of writers, directors, actors, and even audiences and critics. Its vision to become an internationally known institution is lofty, but very possible with this type of strategy that encourages the community to support their local artisans. First Run finds its home at the state-of-the-art theater in De Smet Jesuit High School in Creve Coeur, and its upcoming Capacity—to debut in June—was written by St. Louis native John Williams. www.firstruntheatre.com (TB)
HotHouse Theatre brings contemporary, professional, thought-provoking theatre to St. Louis audiences. And who can argue with offerings such as the cutting-edge Omnium Gatherum, a show about a dinner party and dealing with post-9/11 events, and In a Little World of Our Own, the American premier of a play set in tumultuous Northern Ireland? As a benefit, Hot House once staged a reading of the musical 1776—with an all-female cast. Donna Parrone, managing director, promises, “ big changes are coming down the pipes at HotHouse.” Get on the HotHouse mailing list to be among the first to learn about “the next big happening in the St Louis Theatre scene.” www.hothousetheatre.org (AE)
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, possibly St. Louis’s goofiest theatre company, has brought fun shows to St. Louis theatre audiences starting with Ed Wood’s classic Glen or Glenda? and continuing through last year with The One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: LIVE! The next offering from Monkey is this summer’s “The Challenge of the Superfriends: Live.” As is “traditional” with Monkey shows, there will be a film trailer before the show—this time it’s Speed Racer: The Mammoth Car. www.stlshakespeare.org/monkey (AE)
Muddy Waters Theatre, another new professional company, has picked for their first season three plays by one playwright, Canadian George F. Walker. Walker is a contemporary playwright whose works fit Muddy Water’s goal (as stated on their Web site) of using theatre as a “tool of entertainment but also recognizing the power of theatre to promote societal and personal change by educating and emotionally connecting to audiences.” Their first show, Escape From Happiness, certainly met this criteria, and there are two more promising shows over the summer: Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline and Adult Entertainment. www.muddywaterstheatre.com (AE)
New Line Theatre bills itself as “the bad boy of musical theatre,” and few could argue with shows like Batboy, a rock musical about a boy born in a cave, Sunday in the Park With George, which took place largely within a painting (just try to picture that if you missed the show), and the upcoming Reefer Madness, based on the 1930s scare-film of the same name, a show that, according to the New Line website, “is guaranteed to offend someone.” Whether you’re laughing, thinking, or baffled when you leave, New Line shows are not easily forgettable. www.newlinetheatre.com (AE)
Every Thursday at the Hi-Pointe Café, The Nonprophets bring “sketch comedy” to the stage with their signature show, The Militant Propaganda Bingo Machine. Incorporating a bingo game to determine the order in which the sketches are performed, this show demands audience participation, and with new shows every week, it is never boring. If you want proof, ask one of their many fans who never miss a show. www.nonprophets.com (AE)
Spotlight Theater is a relative newcomer to the St. Louis theater scene. Founded in January 2001 by Pamela Reckamp, this not-for-profit company was created for the sole purpose of providing St. Louis with a sorely needed outlet for competent local actors and crew. Each season, Spotlight focuses on a specific circumstance, topic, or idea that allows the company to explore differing viewpoints and differing genres of the theater world. This season’s theme is Hell, and the first production was last winter’s take on Will Kern’s Hellcab. The second show to be produced this season will be the upcoming No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. This bizarre existentialist piece focuses on three people locked in one small room in hell, whose eternal torture is having their souls bared to one another. www.spotlighttheatrestlonline.org (TB)
If you like to sing along to all your favorite showtunes, Stages in Kirkwood is the place for you. Successfully singing since 1987, Stages produces three musicals every summer, and this year they are classics guaranteed to take your mind off the coming heat. In June, there’s Gypsy, the thoroughly entertaining show biz story of a mother and daughter. The season continues with The Sound of Music, “the dramatic and inspirational true story of a young girl,” and finishes up with the magnificent Camelot which is, according to the Stages Web site, “perfectly designed for happily ever-aftering.” www.stagesstlouis.com (AE)
Artistic director Gary F. Bell founded Stray Dog Theatre a little over one year ago. This non-profit company is devoted to encouraging new interpretations of classic plays, both traditional and contemporary. The major objective is to reflect humanity in diverse, dynamic, and significant works of theater. Stray Dog Theatre derives its name from Brodyachaya Sobaka (Stray Dog), a legendary Russian bohemian café frequented by the St. Petersburg area’s most cutting-edge artists. Every evening during the early 1900s, diverse audiences gathered to enjoy an evening of eclectic entertainment as the café played host to an array of actors, directors, playwrights, artists, and poets. In recognition of the café’s legacy, SDT seeks to encourage a collaborative approach to theater. Its current season has included The Glass Menagerie and . Its upcoming show, Angels in America: MillSix Degrees of Separationennium Approaches, a very challenging and controversial play by Tony Kushner, will be presented starting June10. www.straydogtheatre.org (TB)
Tin Ceiling is “dedicated to providing alternative entertainment…by showcasing the works of local talent,” according their Web site. Their 2004 season includes the challenging Seven/24iii, in which seven ten-minute plays will be written, produced, and performed within a 24-hour time frame. One play and three one-acts, written by Tin Ceiling members, are also on deck, and their season will conclude in December with a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. www.tinceiling.org (AE)
Washington Avenue Players Project (WAPP) was formed to showcase unique and original content using metro area actors, designers, and directors. Specializing in one-man and one-woman shows, Todd Schaefer’s company offers a daring selection of material for public consumption. The goal is to foster a network of local actors who are dedicated to creating and exploring new and original productions, as well as unique, previously produced plays and musicals. WAPP will be teaming up with New Line Theatre to offer up the neo-cult classic, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell, in July and August at the ArtLoft Theater, the site of many of its past shows. www.thewapp.com (TB)
Contributors: Anne Earney, Tyson Blanquart