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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

A Walk on the Mild Side

"[Kate Hamill and] Eric Tucker's production was no staid costume drama but a hyper-caffeinated romp, with a chorus of nattering gossips and wheeled furniture that rarely stopped swirling. Hamill and Nichols played the Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor. The hundred dollars was never exchanged.

"Hamill, thirty-four, has now found her niche in the theatre world, adapting thick nineteenth-century novels into kinetic stage concoctions—and starring in them. This spring, she hacked down Thackeray's Vanity Fair for the Pearl and took the role of its cunning antiheroine, Becky Sharp. Now she's playing Elizabeth Bennet in her own screwball adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, at the Cherry Lane."

—"Kinetic Adaptations of Nineteenth-Century Novels," by Michael Shuman, The New Yorker for November 27, 2017.

 

*   *   *

 

My nerves were shot to hell, as jangled as the test doorbell at the Girl Scouts Cookie-Selling School. I jumped at the sound of my cat walking across shag carpeting. When I tried to pour my morning coffee—not that I really needed or could benefit from such stimulants—my quivering hand dispensed half of the hot liquid onto the kitchen counter. Behind the wheel of my car, I crept along at ten miles per hour under the speed limit, and began braking at least one hundred yards from every pedestrian zebra crossing, even when the zones were empty of people.

And I owed all of my debilitated condition to having performed in three Kate Hamill productions back-to-back, across the past eighteen months.

The life of a journeyman actor is a tough one. Constantly scrabbling for parts, putting all one's implacable living expenses on credit cards, going without medical insurance. This is hardly news, and I didn't expect sympathy or pity from gainfully employed mundanes. No one had forced me into this life; it was my choice, and mostly a case of happily following my bliss. I'm only trying to explain why I had stuck with Hamill's troupe even when I could see the bad effects her style was having on my mental and physical constitution. It seemed like job security, a chance to practice my art, a great accomplishment to add to my CV. And Hamill was getting so much ecstatic press.

I was able to perform respectably during her adaptation of Le Fanu's Uncle Silas with only the sprouting of a mild yet alarming tic under my left eye. But her hacked-down, hyper-caffeinated version of Gissing's New Grub Street left me with a palsied hand and ulcers. And the conclusive assault on my well-being came with her rendition of Zola's La Bête humaine. Whereas her other "kinetic stage concoctions" had featured wheeled furniture that never stopped, this one, set in a train-yard, sported massive full-scale steam engines continually racing up and down the stage. For weeks after the final performance, I shrieked and dove for cover whenever I heard a tea-kettle whistle.

So when Hamill invited me to audition for her latest production, a flensed screwball version of Longfellow's The Wreck of the Hesperus, all I could picture was becoming the first person to drown onstage during a Broadway premier, and so I said no, as politely but firmly as my quavering voice allowed.

But this of course left me without employment or the paycheck that so conveniently accompanied work and fended off creditors.

Thus it was with a certain desperation not unmixed with hopefulness that I entered the offices of Hygge & Koselig Productions in search of a role.

The space was very comforting and elegant, imparting an almost subliminal sense of security and refuge from the busy urban world just outside their doors, and I could tell these folks had some money behind them. That was a good omen. The charming receptionist treated me kindly, even pouring me a cup of home-brewed hot chocolate with real whipped cream to solace my wait. For the first time in months I could feel my taut jaw muscles loosen and my tachycardiac heart rate decrease.

Eventually I was shown into the office of a bluff, hearty, friendly fellow who radiated a kind of low-grade Santa vibe, although his expensively tailored dove-gray suit was far from Santa's shapeless flannel uniform, and he was clean-shaven and young.

"Do I have the honor of addressing Mr. Hygge or Mr. Koselig?" I asked.

He laughed heartily. "Neither, I'm afraid. Those terms merely describe our approach. They basically translate as 'cozy' and "comfortable.' And along those lines, you may call me Mr. Gemütlichkeit."

We shook hands; I sat and waited for Mr. G., as I thought of him, to describe his firm's current needs.

"We are embarking," he said, "on a translation of certain classic novels of fantasy and science fiction to the stage."

I jumped up instantly like a startled hare, and began to make for the door. But Mr. G. caught up with me and restrained me in a friendly fashion.

"Hold on, hold on, hear me out! I know your history and how you've been badly burned by the rigors of Hamill's hyper-kinetic approach. But our methodology is exactly the opposite. Inspired by such trends as 'slow food' and 'slow gardening,' we intend to soothe the modern theatergoer, whose busy life is already chockful of overstimulation. We believe that's there's a market for comfort and placidness, theater as anodyne to the hurly-burly of the twenty-first century. Our motto is adapted from Chekov's famous maxim. 'If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then don't ever bother having it fired. Or maybe never even put it there to begin with.'"

I commenced to get mildly interested, and allowed myself to be guided back to the chair. Mr. G. returned to his own seat and continued.

"The first book we intend to bring to the boards is The Hobbit. But there will be no adventures. The single set is Bilbo's home, and the action will consist of him entertaining a steady stream of fellow hobbits with a veritable banquet of breakfast food, while they discuss ponies and their gardens for two hours."

I could practically feel the warmth of Bilbo's hearth as Mr. G. spoke, and a glowing sensation of ease began to permeate my limbs.

"After that, we hope to get the rights to dramatize Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Just a single set again. We find that too many dizzying set changes just raise the audience's blood pressure. This time it's the viewing room where the tape-recordings of Hari Seldon are played. The board members of the Foundation will listen intently to Seldon assuring them at length that everything is going swimmingly, just as foreseen. Then the council will enjoy some refreshments while having a casual conversation about the latest Trantorian entertainments and how well their children are doing at school."

The pleasant lassitude that enwrapped me like a blanket felt wonderful.

"Next up is Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. You recall that wonderful ending to the Truffaut cinematic version, with all the folks meandering through the woods while reciting their memorized books? That's our whole play. Two-and-a-half hours of actors strolling the stage, reciting the most reassuring and calming public-domain passages from world literature."

By now I was almost boneless in the chair, feeling as if I had had a long sauna followed by an endless massage.

Mr. G. smiled "I can see that you are fully onboard with our esthetic. Marvelous! I suspected you would be. Our test audiences have been almost unanimous in their acclamation of our tactics. In a world riven by screeching and inane hourly conflicts, thrust into one's face by ubiquitous technology, people are immensely grateful for drama without any drama in it, if you take my meaning."

"Oh, I do, I do!"

"Now, this is a program for which we see a long continuance and almost endless expansion. We would need you to commit to a long-term contract. We have in mind future adaptations such as a War of the Worlds where all the Martians die as soon as they open their capsules, while the spectators enjoy an extended picnic, and a Game of Thrones featuring nothing but direwolf pups getting bathed by members of the Stark family, toweled dry, then set to playing tug of war with each other before happily eating their supper. It should be considerably less exciting than the annual Puppy Bowl."

I leaped to my feet and struck a heroic pose. "Mr. G., I'm your man!"

Mr. G. winced and looked a trifle disappointed in me. "I'm afraid you'll have to tone down that enthusiasm and fervor a bit, sir, if you ever wish to put our ticket-buyers to sleep!"

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