Does anybody else feel like they’re just trying to see All The Shows before things get shut down again? My theater-going habits feel downright manic this summer.
We saw The Bottom Show last week in Richmond, on the lawn at Agecroft Hall. As I write this, the last opportunity to see it is tomorrow and you should go.
I took my kids (ages 8 and 10) and husband, as well as his sister and two of her children (16 and 6). They all enjoyed it. My family had had an extremely difficult and exhausting week; we almost didn’t make the two-hour drive to see the show. Afterward, everyone, even the exhausted children, agreed that it was absolutely worth it.
The Bottom Show used a script that dates back to the interregnum, when theater was banned in England for 17 extremely dull years. The original title was The Merry Conceited Humors Of Bottom The Weaver, which was a droll made up of the “rude mechanical” scenes from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m going to go down a little theater history rabbit hole now because this kind of script is very cool. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you’re not in the mood. I had read about drolls in theater history class but didn’t get very curious about them until I read Meg Miroshnik‘s brilliant play The Droll (ps if anyone wants to hire me to direct that, I am extremely interested). You know those scenes in old movies where it’s Prohibition, and everyone is drinking bathtub gin and doing the Charleston in a basement speakeasy, and then the cops come and everything disperses, kegs flip around so they dispense sarsaparilla, the music disappears, the crowd dashes out the back door? That’s essentially what a droll was. Underground, bootleg theater, performed in found spaces and designed to vanish if the authorities showed up. Actors would cobble together famous scenes from well-known plays, pass the hat repeatedly throughout the performance, and act like nothing interesting was happening if the sheriff wandered in. If they didn’t get to finish the show, it didn’t matter much because the audience knew the story anyway. You can try to squash the theater, but actors can’t help themselves. They’ll even do plays on Zoom if that’s the only way to make stories together.
Quill Theatre took The Merry Conceited Humors and, with a few minor changes, created a brilliant evening of pure entertainment. They updated a few of the references—Bottom is no longer a weaver, but a used car salesman—and added a lot of pop musical numbers. This is in keeping with the spirit of the original droll, which would have used music people were familiar with. We loved watching the energy between Kurt Benjamin Smith (Bottom) and Erica Hughes (“Penny” Quince), but each of the mechanicals had their moments to shine. I’ve always found the mechanicals recognizable as caricatures of specific types of theater folks, but somehow the modern setting and the clarity of the acting made that even stronger than in other productions I’ve seen. I felt like I knew all of these people, like I’ve worked with every single one.
Lucretia Marie as Oberon was absolutely majestic, maybe my favorite Oberon ever. The contrast of her regal energy with Emily Berry’s darkly funny Puck crackled. I also loved the storytelling in the scenes with Bottom and the fairies—as his time among them wore on, Peaseblossom and friends clearly became disenchanted with his nonsense, but not all at once.
This is the second show I’ve seen directed by James Ricks (the first was Red Velvet, very different but also extremely good). One thing that strikes me about his work is how absolutely solid his sense of timing is. He has an excellent sense of how long something can be funny, when to stretch a moment out and when to move it along. That’s a tricky thing to manage as a director, because not only do you have to sense the rhythm, you also have to communicate it to the actors and get them to buy into it, so they don’t get seduced by audience response. If an audience is loving a moment, actors often are tempted to milk it too long rather than letting it be. When I comment on something this specific about a director’s work (but I wasn’t in the rehearsal), people often ask me how I know it’s not just good acting. It’s because of the consistency throughout the piece. In order for it to be an actor thing rather than a director thing, Ricks would have had to cast a dozen actors who not only all had great senses of timing, but also had the same sense of timing. And he would have had to do it across both the plays that I saw. When something is a feature of a whole piece with a perfect unity, that’s a director’s work. When I watch someone else’s work, what I always notice is the part I don’t do as well. I’ve been thinking all week about what I can learn about timing by seeing Ricks’ plays.
One thing I was not expecting at all was that I would be in tears at the end of this show. It’s true what Shakespeare teaches us—if you want to make people cry, get them to laugh first. At the end of a riotously funny Pyramis and Thisbe, the play ended with a rewrite of “If we shadows have offended,” containing references to COVID shutting everything down. There was one line in it that hit me right in the heart; I wasn’t writing notes, so I probably have it wrong, but it was something like, “Theater teaches us to be human.” I was suddenly overwhelmed with the weight of the silent stages and lonely ghost lights of the past 18 months, with the presence of the humans all around me, laughing together and then still, listening, reflecting. All the losses of being human and of being a theater maker sat in that line, in that moment.
James Ricks was sitting behind my family and so he was the first person I saw when the house lights went up. I think he was a bit taken aback that I didn’t immediately say anything. I was just completely overwhelmed, and stood there staring at him for an uncomfortably long time, trying to orient myself. He looked relieved when I finally said, “That was absolutely wonderful. Thank you!” And it was. After this long year and more of loss, we need theater that brings us joy, and teaches us to be human.