Amanda Card-McCoy as Patricia Carleon in Blackbird Theater's production of G. K. Chesterton's play Magic.
There's a reason I don't go see live theater. I'm sick of it. Plus, it's almost always bad.
And there's a reason I can't pay all of my bills every month. I'm an actor. I'm an actor who does lots of Christian theater, no less - a true recipe for financial disaster.
But acting is a vocation - God has made us to do this, called us to do this, and doing this is the most challenging thing on earth. Many of us realize early on, as I did, that if we're ever going to work consistently, we have to produce our own stuff.
And after you've made a living at that for about thirty years, as I have, you realize more than you ever did how hard this business is. It's a collaborative art that requires tremendous talent and dedication at every link in the chain; lose a link here or there and instead of a "hit" you've got something that "hits" the ground with a thud.
This is why much of the stuff Theater of the Word Incorporated has done for EWTN has been a bit cheesy. This is why our production of Magic at the American Chesterton Society Conference a few weeks back was a struggle (we had about one or two rehearsals total, the cast not gathered together until the very week of the show). This is why everything we tour with is no more than four actors, simple props and a black backdrop. We have literally no financial resources and we have clients who always poor mouth us and sometimes stiff us. Given the conditions under which we work, it's remarkable that we come up with stuff that's as good as we do.
Or, as the lead character in Chesterton's Magic (who is himself in showbiz) puts it ...
A man spends his time incessantly in going about in third-class carriages to fifth-rate lodgings. He has to make up new tricks, new patter, new nonsense, sometimes every night of his life. Mostly he has to do it in the beastly black cities of the Midlands and the North, where he can't get out into the country.
Translated into my life, this means most recently we've done 33 performances of 12 scripts in 90 days, traveling 17,000 miles through 18 states - and while not in the "beastly black cities of the north", at least for one night we were stranded in Toledo. And that counts.
I bring all of this up not because I'm griping, but because when it all comes together, when you get it right, when the Magic of Theater happens, it's worth it. We may be starving, homeless and hungry, but it's worth it. It's worth it because, whether we know it or not, whether we're Christians or not, we're doing it for love - we're doing it for God.
Now since I hate to go see live theater, I've had to enjoy these consolations - these moments where everything comes together and the audience is one with the cast and the cast is one with the material - on stage as an actor. But last week - on August 25, the Feast of St. Genesius, Patron of Actors - it happened to me in the audience.
My actors and I went down to Nashville, Tennessee to see Blackbird Theater's production of Chesterton's Magic - the same play the American Chesterton Society had struggled so mightily with in St. Louis three weeks before.
Produced by Randy Spivey with the help of Greg Greene, and directed by Wes Driver, this was the perfect production of this play. Honestly. I don't know how the original West End Production or the two Broadway productions could have been any better.
Now my friends know me as a curmudgeon, as a crabby cynical old cuss who would critique the Second Coming as being "over-produced". I do not rave about anything, as a rule. I am more Belloc than I am Chesterton.
But allow me to rave.
I know Chesterton and his writing very well. He was the man who more than any other brought me from atheism into the Christian Faith. I have been reading him, studying him, adapting him, performing him for close to fifteen years. I know his plays very well. I was the Poet in EWTN's version of his play The Surprise, Father Brown in our TV movie version of The Honor of Israel Gow, Ignatius Press audio book performer of Manalive, gave the keynote address on Chesterton and Drama at the 2009 Chesterton Conference in Seattle. I've even taken Dale Ahlquist out to dinner and made him pay for it!
Believe me, then, when I tell you that this was the perfect production of this play.
We begin with the set. Bradley Jones designed a very attractive realistic Edwardian drawing room set - which made me realize how important the set is to this play. Unlike The Surprise, which takes place in a kind of fairy tale setting, the whole point of Magic is the contrast between the supernatural and the mundane. The eeriness of the magician's tricks and the presence of the demonic only really work if played off against a realistic background. This play is all about normal everyday skeptics confronting the shock and terror of a world beyond this one - and that can only work if the everyday world looks solid and real on stage. Thus a good set can make or break this play, as it's really a kind of set drama. I didn't realize that until I recognized how much we lost by comparison playing the thing with an abstract set in St. Louis.
Stephen Moss' lighting, Hannah Schmidt's costumes, and even the judicious but powerful use of background music all contributed to this effect.
So quite literally the stage is set. A brilliant script, great set, lights, music, costumes - now it's up to the actors and the director to make the dead stuff come to life. Heck, how hard could that be!
This was an unbelievable cast, from top to bottom. One little example: Robyn Berg played the part of Hastings (written for a man, but played by a woman in this production), a throw-away part, a part that's so incidental we gave it to a deacon in our version (after all, deacons don't do anything, as we all know). Now in the climactic scene, Ms. Berg as Hastings has a little moment where she is overcome by a foreboding, a sense of spiritual oppression. She played it by falling back just a bit against a wall, as if she were fighting against fainting. It was a tiny little movement, an exquisite little bit of physical "business", and it was just the thing to set the tone for the climax that followed, a climax that happens after Hastings' exit, no less. It was a marvelous little piece of acting, and it came from an actress playing the least important role in the play!
And from there on up, it was a delight to watch these actors work. Christopher R. C. Bosen played the Duke, the most difficult role in the show, as he's asked to get laughs off of lines that are funny because they don't make sense and his fellow actors stare at him in confusion whenever he says these non-sequiturs. How easy it would be for these lines actually to play this way and for the audience to join in the blank stares of confusion! But Bosen gave the character a character-voice and milked the maximum out of his dozens of comic moments.
Alan Lee played the part I played in St. Louis, the materialist doctor, and was just what the doctor ordered, you might say. He played him more droll and bourgeois than I did, and it worked like a charm.
Another contrast to our production was Daniel Hackman (pictured here), who played the Anglican Rev. Smith. Gary Wells, in our show, played Smith as a kind and balanced gentleman, very even-tempered, whose sanity depended upon his dullness - and it worked. But Hackman kicked it up a few notches and drove the play forward with his passionate portrayal of a man of cloth having a crisis of faith. I was amazed at how Mr. Hackman was able to play the part "big" at moments and yet never so big that he upstaged others or seemed out of place in the context of the scene. Indeed, Hackman made Smith the central supporting character in the show; much of the conflict played itself through Smith in this production, and that was due largely to the astonishing performance of this gifted actor.
Zack McCann as Morris (pictured here) was also very impressive in a difficult role, a role that's a mixture of comic relief, a parody of stage conventions, with a touch of pathos and tragedy - while being at the same time the role of a three-dimensional figure whose skepticism goes dangerously further than that of any one else in the story. A hard part to play, but McCann managed to play it both for laughs and for integrity. I was especially impressed with his ability to build in the scene where Morris goes crazy.
And then there are the leads.
I would marry Amanda Card-McCoy if my wife would let me and if Judge Judy and Beyonce turn me down. She was just right as Patricia. Her accent was a bullseye, her mixture of dreamy innocence and hard-edged practicality was exactly where it should be.
And then there's David Compton as the Conjurer (pictured here). I thought we did well in St. Louis with my buddy Kaiser Johnson in this role (and we did), but Compton was incredible. I was surprised to learn that he had struggled in rehearsal to get to where he got with this part, as he absolutely nailed the character, and nailed both the comic delivery of the laugh lines (of which there are many) as well as the undercurrent of guilt and anger which occasionally rise to the surface, and which are central to who he is and to how the story unfolds. And he did it all in a way that looked smooth and effortless.
And the two leads together - Card-McCoy and Compton - pulled off the most delightful, entertaining and believable love scenes one could ever hope to see. They had a table of teenage girls next to us melting with the delicacy of the romance.
I could rave about the scene they filmed and played as a movie to begin the show, or the strolling magicians who did a pre-show warm-up, but I have to save my final rave for the director.
Now usually a director is kind of like a manager in baseball. He can very rarely help a play, and quite often he can hurt it. In the case of Blackbird Theater's Magic, however, there's only one explanation for why the whole thing worked as well as it did. Wes Driver, the director, understood the play from the inside out. He cast a brilliant cast and then drew from them absolutely every single moment and "beat" that the show needed. The pacing, the character insights, the feel for the show - everything was perfect, and this is a sign of excellent direction.
The good news is these are not only good actors and producers and directors, but good people. Blackbird Theater is the resident professional company at Lipscomb University in Nashville, and it's a company well worth your support. Their mission statement reads as follows ...
We want to do the kind of the shows we ourselves most want to see—imaginative, intellectually stimulating, and uniquely theatrical. Not self-indulgent experimental stuff. Not kitschy homespun comedies either. Theater with intellectual heft and humor. Fiercely entertaining . . . with maybe a little to discuss at dinner.
What a wonderful vision for a theater company.
And what a wonderful experience for a group of rag-tag actors sitting in the audience on our feast day. Well worth the five-hour drive down from St. Louis.
For there we sat, feeling as good in the audience as we typically only feel on stage.
As the Conjurer says of himself and his show business background:
My mother was a lady and she married a dying fiddler who tramped the roads; and the mixture plays the cat and banjo with my body and soul. I can see my mother now cooking food in dirtier and dirtier lodgings, darning socks with weaker and weaker eyes when she might have worn pearls by consenting to be a rational person.
Well, actors are not rational people. And while the pearls we do manage to wear are costume jewelry only, they show forth a greater beauty and a deeper truth than real pearls do, especially when there's magic on stage.