When Humor is Not an Option

November 2012

USM production

School For Scandal

Over all, the directing of School for Scandal was done well. The stage space was well utilized. An assortment of backgrounds were used to denote a change of location; therefore, the entire stage could be used in any scene, and the large cast of this play often made use of this availability of space. The thrust section of the stage was a large circular platform and often took the guise of an interior sitting room which one generally assumes to be square. This could have been seen as a negative. However, the expert use of background flies and the precise positioning of the props turned the circular platform into any shape in the audience’s mind. Yet, the best and worst of the director’s choices were related to the actors; the director chose actors with great dramatic acting chops but left them without direction on how to achieve comedic timing.

The director’s choice of cast and crew was extraordinary. The actors worked well together. They played to humorous theme of the play, and aside from a couple of slips and falls, they pulled the play together without a hitch. In fact, Alex Piper nearly stole the show with his initial speech as Sir Peter Teazle. Through a tsunami of spit, he was able to communicate his character’s frustration with his young wife in a way that transcended the character’s dialogue. Although he was unable to maintain this level of heightened level of heightened communication throughout the entire play, he was never anything short of an outstanding actor. Chase Byrd’s portrayal of Joseph Surface in comparison to the character of Sir Teazle was understated. He portrayed Joseph Surface as a refined aristocrat with a taste for polite social interaction, no matter how spiteful and double-dealing his interaction may be. His character contrasted well against the pious yet overbearing spirit of Sir Teazle.  Not only did the director use Chase’s mellow character to balance out bombast of Sir Teazle, but also he used Joseph Surface for a wonderful bit of stage business: Joseph Surface sat down to gobble away the tension with a box of chocolates. This delightful bit of pantomime was one of the highlights of the play. However, since the play was billed as a comedy, the pinnacle of this play’s humor should not have beeen the convulsive Mr. Crabtree’s battle with Parkinson’s disease or whatever other neuromuscular disorders he may suffer from.

However, the jokes were made difficult by the olden character of the dialogue in this play; difficult jokes must be nurtured, but the playwright did half of the work himself. The jokes were written in layers; each one building in tension until the joke reaches the point catharsis, but in this case, the catharsis is a release of tension in the form of peals of laughter. In comedic circles this moment of catharsis is known as the punch line. The play was written with obvious punch lines, but they have been obscured by time; the awkward old-timey language of the play requires that actors pay attention to comedic timing in an effort to telegraph the humorous intent of the lines. However, as a general rule the actors completely ignored the jokes, and even the best designed and clearly written joke can be ruined with an inappropriate delivery. If the director had identified the jokes and taken them out of the context of the play he could have worked with the actors to bring the jokes to the fore. Instead, he left them as irritating Easter eggs to be found only by those who have a strong understanding of the workings of humor. Once the jokes were brought out of the script, the director could have them acted as miniature dramatic monologue. The actor could use his or her acting tools to increase the tension and have the miniature monologue climax at the punch line. The change of speech rate, the change of pitch and volume of the voice, and the use of body language can all be used to help the audience feel the joke. Additionally, a slow and clear lead-in is especially necessary when matters are complicated by old and difficult language. However, there was one actor that seemed to have a natural grasp of comedic timing. Rebecca Yeager, the actor who played Lady Teazle had the most success at bringing the jokes out of the dialogue and getting laughs.

The highlights and lowlights of the direction of this play both involve the actors; the dramatic abilities of the actors that were cast was very high, but the actors did not receive enough directorial input about the play’s jokes to get many worthy laughs. The play still got plenty of laughs; however they were laughs directed at the way an actor spoke or walked. There were even some laughs at the misfortune of poor Terrence Fleming, who played Mister Snake; he proved the slipperiness of his character by not being able to keep his footing throughout the play. But most of the laughs were strained throughout the length of the play as the repeated sight and sound gags lost their novelty. However, the director is clearly talented and did a good job on the play, but a comedy needs to be funny.

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