Last night Friend Heather and I performed our much-performed clown duet (originally conceived and directed with Friend Grey), Death + A Maiden, as part of the same festival I performed in the night before. My hat is off to her. She came a long way, through difficult travels, to partner with me in all things theatrical this week, and me with virtually no free social time.
Fortunately, we had great company. There was no way I could have felt isolated this night, let me tell you. Friends Jenny and Dave were MCing as their characters in The Maestrosities, a clown band they developed together, and Friend Anna (Zastrow) was on the bill as well, playing her new clown, Hillemo (sp?). We even had friends in the well-packed audience! Ed Chemaly, our director for Operation Opera was in attendance, as well as Friend Avi. Friends Kate and Leah managed to make it, too, which is always great for audience reaction. Leah's laugh is in constant threat of upstaging any show -- loud and clear and uniquely hilarious.
Heather and I have done this piece many times, in a variety of environments, but there's always something to be learned from it. Without a doubt, this time through contained one of the most gratifying audience reactions to a specific moment that I've ever known. The scenario is that Death pays a visit to a Maiden preparing for a party, intending to dispatch her, but discovering that he loves her. They court, they dance, and about three-quarters of the way through the 15-minute piece, they kiss . . . which naturally immediately kills the Maiden. When we reached this point in our tale, the audience burst into my favorite kind of laughter. It seemed as though they were surprised not only by the turn of events, but at themselves for laughing. I have put forth for some time that laughter is ultimately born from self-awareness, from a fear of death, and this was a particularly poignant exemplification, if you are asking this guy. It was especially effective because it takes a while for Death to realize ("Think slow; act fast." - Buster Keaton) he's killed his new love, and when he does, he has a right heartfelt tantrum over it. The audience was right there with me when I did that scary, emotional bit, it seemed. I felt them pouring their grief in the same dish as mine. That, my friends, is a sharp contrast between the clowning we do, and the clowns most of America is aware of.
What's very interesting about the piece is that, in spite of it being a hit the first couple of times we did it, the ending hasn't satisfied audiences for quite some time. Which is rough for me, because I'm the only performer left on stage (and ostensibly conscious) by that point. When we originally set the piece, it was according to the guidelines of a particular comedy festival in Philadelphia, which specified that all performances must address love and death, and incorporate a Wet-Nap(TM) as a prop. This shaped our show, and naturally lent a certain distance to the story. Because the audiences were aware that 1) what they were seeing is a "comedy," and 2) it will involve death, they could take such elements as ingredients more than as profound, empathetic experiences. In processing this piece for other venues, we've used Heather's ridiculous bow in place of the Wet-Nap(TM), but neglected to revise the ending to accomodate our changed audience.
The ending consists of a five-minute sequence of Death failing to finish his job -- carrying off the body -- until he doesn't anymore and walks out with the Maiden over his shoulder, his scythe shoved down the back of his shirt and kicking his cloak along ahead of him. On its own: cute. After an audience has come to love Heather's Maiden, and empathize with my Death: not so much cute, or even awkwardly funny. So there's work to be done on the old stand-by! That's kind of cool.
If only we didn't have so much other work to do just now. But more on that later...