“Selecting From Life”
By Marvin Payne
Editors’ Note: After reading Marvin’s piece we could not help but interpose some of our own pictures of him as he played Don Quixote. We even threw in a picture of our daughter, Rachel Proctor Tomsick, as he had mentioned her in the text. Please click to enlarge the photos so you can really enjoy Marvin, this amazingly versatile Meridian master.
My impossibility-dreaming, unbeatable foe-beating, loving-pure-and-chaste-from-afar stint as Don Quixote is now history. (And you thought Don Quixote was merely literature!) It was fun. I loved playing it. I think it’s a consecratable story, and each night as the overture played out and I perched on a high open ledge prior to my character’s frightened appearance at the top of the prison steps, I prayed that our storytelling would do some good, and a few kind people
told me it did.
To those few of you in Omaha, Tuskegee, and Stockholm who were, tragically, a mite short on frequent-flyer miles (not enough oil in one’s lamps, maybe? Do I feel a parable coming on?) I offer my apologies, and the regrets of the Grand Theatre – we went ahead with the run anyway. There were, you see, a number of season-ticket holders who might have sought litigation. (It’s a sign of the times.)
[Hey, I found out where the editor of Meridian got her good looks. From her daughter! Who was the “less kindly inkeeper’s wife. And did a great job. And looks good even in rags and a quarter inch of prison dirt.]
Nightly during the play, at a certain rather low point in the protagonist’s fortunes, his would-be nemesis derides him and his fellow poets for not seeing “life as it is.” (Being a thieving murderer in a squalid prison awaiting the kind of 16th-century Spanish justice that makes Abu Ghraib look a little like a White House reception for Saudi royalty, said Nemesis’s notion of “life as it is” is somewhat grim.) Don Quixote (who is now Cervantes, Quixote’s creator–see “Man of La
Mancha, dramaturgical construct of”) passionately retorts to said Nemesis, “We select from life that which pleases us!”
This, I will now endeavor to show, is also a guiding principle among theatre critics.
Payne captures perfectly both the nobility and the lunacy of a man who can see a castle in a lowly inn, a magic helmet in a shaving basin, and a worthwhile soul in a serving wench. This Knight of the Woeful Countenance teaches us the necessity of dreams … His story is brought to life with humor, poignancy, and elegant style. This was proclaimed, trumpet-like, by the Deseret Morning News, ever faithful Friend of the Saints.
Payne … misses the larger-than-life quality needed to carry the audience away. “Life as it should be, not as it is” is a tough sell in the cynical 21st century. Despite all the hard work evident here, there is not quite enough magic to make it happen. This from the Salt Lake Tribune, which, you will doubtless recall, demanded that Brigham Young be run out of the Salt Lake valley on a rail.
(I didn’t save the reviews, but it bordered on surreal to compare these two newspapers’ responses to “The King and I,” in which the only true and living journal in town had me “perfectly cast” as the King, and the other ((the, um, would it be too much to say, “Great and Abominable?”)) considered the director’s choice for King to be the casting catastrophe of the modern theatrical epoch.)
Many souls in the audiences of “Man of La Mancha” take from their evening in Spain the resolve to be brave, to be chaste, to be compassionate, to redeem and to dream. I take from my two Spanish months the resolve to keep on selecting from life that which pleases me. Cervantes says to his judge in the prison, “If your excellency has no objection, I should like to present my defense in the manner I know best, in the form of a charade.” (This would be “shuhrahd” rather than “shuhrayed,” the latter being too silly for hardened criminals in a Spanish prison facing prolonged execution.) Similarly, if my excellent columnreaders have no objection, I should like to present my “selecting from life” thesis in the form I know best, that of finding that which pleases me in the labyrinth of theatrical reviews. Here’s how it’s done, with a real review. (Everybody does it.)
The material in large type is the “selected” part, to be read skipping the material in small type.
“THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP”
“This is pretty much what vaudeville was like[!]” is what someone said to me, speaking in favor of Provo Theatre Company’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
“You’ll notice vaudeville isn’t around anymore,” I replied.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep,” written by Charles Ludlam in the 1980s as a campy tribute to the old-style melodramas, has a delicious Halloween atmosphere complete with werewolves, vampires, and dark, stormy nights.
The comedy conceit is that five of the show’s seven actors are unable to perform, leaving Marvin Payne and Chris Brower – two venerable and very bearded actors – to play all the parts. (The five nonexistent actors are even listed in the program, along with fake biographies.)
So there are numerous jokes based on the premise that men dressed as women are funny[!] (especially if one of them is Marvin Payne), and on the actors’ stumbling through The roles they don’t normally play, making quick costume changes and killing time when they’re left alone on stage.
The story takes place at Mandacrest, an old Victorian mansion. Lady Irma Vep has died, and her husband, the “Hamlet”-quoting Lord Edgar (Brower), has recently married diva actress Lady Enid (Payne). There are secrets in the house, though, known by the maid, Jane (Brower) and the Scottish groundskeeper Nicodemus (Payne). Irma and Edgar once had a son, for example, who apparently got carried off by a wolf. Then there’s the mysterious nature of the painting of Irma that sits over the fireplace …
Brower and Payne play all the parts with great focus and energy, with Brower tending to be more frantic and Payne coming across as steady and unflappable. (His high-falutin’ Lady Enid is hysterical, as is the indecipherable Scottish accent he uses for Nicodemus.)
The show has two significant problems, both of which stem from Charles Ludlam’s script[!] as well as J. Scott Bronson’s directing. One is the middle sequence, in which Lord Edgar goes to Egypt to find clues about vampires, et al. The sequence has a few laughs, but not many, and it feels very long. Compounding the infraction is the eventual realization that the entire scene was unnecessary except that it leads to a resolution between Edgar and Enid – a resolution that Ludlam could have figured out a much more efficient[!] way of arriving at.
The other problem is that even though the two actors are supposedly improvising quite a bit to make up for their missing co-stars, it is apparent that most of the play was written so that no more than two characters are ever supposed to appear onstage together anyway. They also seem to know the other parts amazingly well, considering they’ve never played[!] them before tonight. (One or two foul-ups, followed by references to “not having watched this part during rehearsal,” doesn’t excuse this.)
Men dressed as women are funny[!], but for how long? Two actors playing several roles is enjoyable[!], but for how long? Broad, melodramatic acting is entertaining[!], but for how long? The silly acting style may be accurate for the theatrical time period being represented, but it also ensures that none of the characters are very deep[!] – which makes it hard to care what happens to them for the entire length of the play, which results in The play feeling too long. Nonetheless, the giggly-creepy Halloween atmosphere can’t be beat[!], and the show definitely provides laughs, especially in its first half. Payne and Brower are good[!] at what they do, and their combined charisma (even when it’s distributed over seven characters) adds a lot to this family-friendly seasonal treat.
(With thanks to Eric D. Snider, who wrote these words, all the same size in his version, for the Provo Daily Herald.)
I, along with Cervantes, think that it’s the old “Is the glass of water half full or half empty?” question. I think you can see life either way and be telling the truth. C. S. Lewis averred that Satan (a much more sinister dude than anyone at the Tribune would ever aspire to be) shows us cruelty and want and greed and calls it “life as it is,” while Jesus (infinitely beyond the grace of any of the kind, generous, and discerning souls at the Deseret Morning News) shows us mercy and abundance and charity and calls it “life as it is.” Suddenly I’m hearing the taunting Spanish prisoner leering to Cervantes about “life as it is” and contrasting it with Neal A. Maxwell’s smiling invitation to his brothers and sisters to see “things as they really are.” It’s the actor’s choice (it’s your choice). As long as you don’t say that what’s in the glass is root beer.