Intellectual comedy reaches the mind and provokes through the disarming effect of laughter. That you were highly successful was evident by 1) the impact of the theme line: “War is a hollow sham, like love,” which you sent home quietly in the pause following hearty laughter, and 2) by the resounding laughter which followed the reversals. “How did you find me out?” and Bluntschli’s undercut comment on Sergius, “He’s found himself out now.” You made those points with real Shavian style.
Wednesday night was a little shaky, although very good. But other performances were witty and brilliant and clowned in the right spots as Shaw would have wished. Since Mrs. Petkoff and Major Petkoff do not change, do not come to realizations, you were right in making them the clowns, for Shaw wants us to laugh at them, even as we like them -- as you made us do. It is always important that the audience sees all characters -- and the play itself -- from exactly the right perspective, and that perspective is the author’s. (We have not yet achieved it in “Romulus.” It was the point of our Friday discussion.) All comedy is criticism; in varying degrees, by poking fun, it criticizes society, or laughs at human foibles. Shaw is critical of the hollowness of heroics in love and in war, but he admires people who are capable of realizing this posturing within themselves, and who are capable of making reversals. You were admirably successful in establishing both the admirable qualities and the ridiculous ones. And your characters had brains, which is a must in Shaw, and as actors you were using your brains to direct your pointing of Shavian barbs. This all adds up to good Shaw.
Frank needs to sharpen his sense of comedy, or to let it activate him more. It should keep tickling him even in serious scenes. Shaw is passionately serious about all subjects he criticizes, but he found out no one listens to sermons or serious debates. So he uses buffoonery, clowning, wit, low comedy, high comedy -- anything to shock, to surprise, to provoke, to disturb, to delight. Every actor, regardless of the nature of the character he is playing, must be Shaw playing his role to shock, to surprise, etc. Every serious moment must be played so that it can turn comic in an instant; every comic moment must have in it the possibility of turning serious in a second, as you did so brilliantly in the war sequence. This means that you must act on two levels always: 1) the author’s, 2) the character’s. Frank still has difficulty playing on both levels simultaneously. It is a temporary difficulty. He is on his way to conquering it. Bright tones are a means, for bright tones psychologically alert the actor’s mind and the audience, too. The words spoken may be serious, (the author takes care of that). The bright tone in which they are spoken adds another dimension: the author’s attitude. Also, the facility in pointing, of giving just the right flick, the right toss, the right lift to exactly the right word, is a great asset in intellectual comedy.
Vance was tremendously successful in this respect: all of Buntschli’s lines require understatement, underplaying, the casual manner of the un-dramatic realist, yet they carry the barbs that make the Shavian comment his understatement, managed to lift exactly the right word, and it always -- by sheer accident it seemed -- landed out front. Vance always divides his concentration between someone right stage and something left stage, and always, accidentally it seems, he turns from one to the other, and accidentally, it seems, the important part of the line has come at the arc toward the audience. The rest of you need to work on this art. You were all successful in landing lines front but some of you are much too obvious.
Bill and Tom still do not seem to happen to glance up and out at the right second. They are throwing lines too directly at the audience. Both, too, need to discover how to toss off the last part of a line. A line up to the key word after which there is a slight stop, and then the last of the line is tossed off with a surprise effect, and you go about your business. Vance has most successfully learned to toss off a line casually while sitting or standing still, and the moving after the line has been snapped; the laugh comes during the movement. Work on this art: everyone.
Saturday night you were all letting your laughs play longer, to the greater delight of your audience and yourselves. Vance did some particularly good holds for laughs. Note the sense of control it give you, how it relieves excess tensions. Vance’s first act clowning was excellent throughout, but reached real brilliance Saturday when he let the audience laugh fully.
To touch off responses in the audience -- laughter, emotion, thought -- to control those responses, direct them as you will, with ease, this is the real joy of acting. Audience reaction is part of the total orchestration of a production. It should be part of your rehearsals. Directors and actors both should incorporate movement following every line that will elicit a strong response from the audience: laughter, surprise, shock, whatever it may be. Without this allowance for audience response a show does not have true pace, and this pace should be established before opening night.
Marianne gave a brilliant performance throughout. She started off well on opening night and each night thereafter crystallized or developed, or played more fully. Saturday’s performance was electric. Marianne has totality -- character is total, responses are total -- so complete that now she has achieved the true improvisation spirit on stage. Her mind is free to respond to the unexpected. She keeps within the framework as directed, but every sense is alert, and her characterization is so complete that you know she could be Madame Petkoff anywhere, anytime, in any situation. Her playing of the breakfast scene was exceptionally find clowning within the character and situation framework. Her totality makes her playing effortless, yet vital. She “plays through” completely.
Bill’s Petkoff was good comedy, but not as effortless as Marianne’s. He punches too hard sometimes and too obviously. So did Tom in his heroic moments. His sequences with Louka had more finesse, were free of actor tension which interfered with his free flow of comic sense in the last act.
Kate’s Louka became more secure with every performance. Kate is a good ensemble player; she is alert every second, her involvement in the situations is vivid and in itself telegraphs ahead to create interest and suspense. We look forward to her next entrance knowing that something of consequence will happen. She foreshadows events without giving them away. We are interested and concerned -- never forget that interest in and concern for a character is the essence of suspense. Kate touched off our liking for her and aroused our interest in her very first entrance. The nice pointing of “running away” identified her with a Shavian surprise throughout. Kate takes a joy in pointing Shavian lines and consequently does an expert job with them. She -- Tom, too -- needs to learn to balance resonances more easily and fully. The voice still needs flexibility in “big moments.” Continue work on singing, speaking up and down the scale.
Frank knows Shaw but does not yet completely play Shaw. GBS should be like a troll inside actors, making them have fun perfecting his ideas. Nicola is a servant, yes; he has the soul of a servant, yes -- but add to the character another dimension, an intensification that reveals Shaw’s joy in the honesty of this soul of a servant -- the plus quality that makes Bluntschli say, “Best man of all.” Frank’s acting is good, is right, but does not yet have the imperative plus which lifts it above life. Life plus is what acting is. Play with sheer physical and mental joy of acting. You have it when you talk about theatre, Frank -- take this zest onstage with you. Borrow a little from Niki. She is gloriously alive, without effort. She joyously takes possession of the stage. her Raina was truly Shavian and the basis for all Shavian women. Her acting is total: mind, heart, body, everything alive and responsive. She doesn’t think about what she is going to do. Niki gets the idea of the character, the author’s idea of the role. That idea touches off imagination immediately taking her into total (not mental) action. She gives herself to the idea of the role and lets it carry her into total responses to the given situation. Then the drama of the situation sweeps her along. Since she has a body which responds completely, she has an instrument which is vibrant and flexible and responds as the imagination plays upon it. Her voice still needs work. She is developing range and flexibility and sometimes has some thrilling tones. Her high notes are still without lower overtones and can become strident and unpleasant; and her low tones are sometimes a little hollow. Work on singing and speaking up and and down the scale, keeping the throat open as you go and directing low tones to the front so that they are combined with head resonance.
The Soldier, being Russian, could have used more resonant tones. He was well-played, but always find a vocal or physical characteristic quite different from you to set up individuality.
The spirited animation of the audience was testimony to a good Shavian production. People were chatting animately as if they were part of a brilliant party. That’s good theatre.