Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to Vienna...

Remember back when I talked about how I was going to blog a bunch about the process of doing Amadeus? Well, a funny thing interfered with that plan: the process of doing Amadeus.

Sorry, folks. I simply have never had my ass so thoroughy kicked by a role. That's as it should be, and I still feel as if I'm only just getting my fingers wrapped around the complexity and specificity of the show. But I have spent almost every spare moment of the past four weeks working on physical scoring and, frankly, my voluminous lines. Seriously, on my lunch break, in the car, in the shower, in bed before falling asleep...

So no, I haven't had time to write as extensively as I wanted to. I'll try to make up for that now.
Every time I have worked on a play by Shakespeare, I have been amazed at how the writer's genius reveals itself more clearly the deeper I work on the show. Working on Hamlet and Measure for Measure, in particular, made me a fan of plays I wasn't too fond of to start with. The reverse, in an amusing way, has been true for Amadeus.
Not that it isn't a brilliant script, not at all, and it remains one of my favorite modern plays. But if you ever want to play the Amadeus drinking game, take a shot every time Salieri says something happened "suddenly." It's got to be 20 or more. Don't even get me started on all the interchangeable adjectives beginning with "a" "e" and "i".
This has been an incredibly difficult script to memorize. I gave myself easily three times as much time to learn my lines as I ever have before, only to discover that it was actually going to take ten times as much. Perhaps I'm spoiled by memorizing iambic pentameter, which is actually downright easy in many ways. Perhaps I'm just getting old; Gary Hopper once told me that he quit acting because memorization just got too difficult as he got older. Perhaps it's all the suddenlies. No fooling; this play is filled with repetition, and the repeats almost never have the same intention. The variations on "mercy," "pity" and "forgiveness" in the climactic scene just defied retention for weeks. I've never had such a hard time. The fact that I've never played a role half this size certainly didn't help.
The trickiest thing with the script has been honoring the intent of the punctuation marks while ignoring the timing they imply. Shaffer is inordinately fond of italics...ellipses—long dashes—and, quite suddenly, without warning, exclamation points! Occasionally even ALL CAPS! (Desperately implying an acting direction in the script:) Or all caps—IN ITALICS!
If we honored every punctuation mark, pause, and font emphasis, we'd have a three-and-a-half-hour melodrama largely featuring me yelling at God. (Okay, we kind of have that now.) Shaffer clearly has an idea in his head of exactly how every line should be delivered, which really rankles with me. It reminds me of Eugene O'Neill, who writes so many stage directions one wonders why he didn't just write a damn novel. At some point, I want my playwright to trust that his actors' and directors' ideas about the characters just might possibly be as good as his on occasion.
But Amadeus has, in fact, revealed itself to me as we've worked. It's a very different story than I thought it was, and at the same time it's more of what I thought than I had realized.
That's where James Bond (as seen on Letterman) comes in. He's had no compunctions about ignoring Shaffer's exotic formatting in the service of moving the action forward and setting up contrast for when the big emotional moments have to escalate. He's also mercilessly shattered many of my ideas about how the character's arc should travel. He always does this with me, and it's always for the best. As usual, I can't always remember where his ideas end and mine begin. It's glorious. The result is a trim two and a half hour production of a script full of melodramatic idioms that should really take about 3:10 if played as written.
Also, he makes me laugh. He sends me poetry in text message form and occasionally just ignores the playwright's intentions flagrantly. My favorite example, from about two weeks ago:
JAMES: Is there a question mark at the end of that "I amuse"?
ANDREW: No, it's a period.
JAMES: Are you sure it's not a question mark?
ANDREW: Yeah. "I amuse."
JAMES: Let's pretend it's a typo. Play it like a question mark.
I couldn't be more pleased with the cast and crew, if for no other reason than how much kindness and mercy they have shown a prickly lead actor desperately afraid he wasn't going to be as prepared for the show as he wanted to be. Feeling the pressure as never before (not to mention doing the hugest role I've ever had, while working two other jobs), I've been a bit of a prick the past few weeks, and that's really not the guy I am to work with.
Fortunately, Mike, Liz, Joe, Jamie the actor, Jake, Dave, Katie, Cynde, and Jamie the stage manager have all been fantastic and professional the whole while. One of the tragedies about a play of this sort, which depends so much on a single character's magnetism, is how so many beautifully portrayed characters can fade into the background, especially when so few of them have a memorable exit from the story. There's some really great work being done in this show: Katie's silent Katherina and petulant Strack, Jamie's priceless "gay toad" Rosenberg, the foppish choreography of the Venticelli Dave and Jake, Cynde's imperious, childish Joseph II, Joe's hyper-serious Van Swieten and doddering Bonno. Liz is always wonderful to work with and watch work, and her Constanze is Mozart's equal in cunning and commitment.
Mike Hamilton is my number one guy, a hard-working and risk-taking blur of energy and growing craft. Keep and eye on this young actor, Richmond, and cast him while he's here. His Mozart is a powerful engine in this show, and if my Salieri's scorn, sabotage, and finally pity come across at all honest, it is because Mike gives me so much to work with. He makes it so easy to hate his annoying, arrogant face throughout the first act, then to gloat over his dissolution in the second, but is his utter collapse at the end that destroys me every night.
We're all really working our asses off to make each other look good. It's freaking sweet.
Speaking of looking good, Becky Cairns and Annie Hoskins have outdone themselves this time. I know I always say that (and Becky promises me she has amazing things in store for Midsummer), but this is even more true than usual. James calculated that they were effectively making something along the lines of 35 cents per hour on the costumes for this show (ain't Richmond theatre grand?), for which we have begun referring to them as "the Chinese children." Ah, sweatshop humor... Seriously, the CCs have worked a budgetary miracle this time around in recreating the lines and colors of the late 18th century. I say it every time, but they have outdone themselves. They are nothing short of the costuming MacGyver.
As a side note, it's a bit odd to be propositioning a character played by Liz Blake in the same jacket two years in a row. Next I'll be playing Uncle Peck in it...
I want to give a huge shout-out to Jamie Lish, our stage manager, who has come through in so very many ways for this show. Amadeus doesn't feel like it was a tech-heavy show until we're packing up at the end of the night. She keeps everything in order, including us silly players, and lays down the beats as sound board operator DJ Jamie up in the booth every night. And she always does it with a smile and a kind word. Except when she shouldn't.
Thanks to U of R for loaning us their sound design, keeping us from having to reinvent the wheel.
And thanks to Bryan Laubenthal for putting seats on the chairs. Woot.
Amadeus runs through March 8. Go to Richmond Shakespeare's website to order tickets!

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  • At 2/17/2009 10:52 PM , Blogger Jeffrey Cole said...

    I love that the poster actually looks a little like you. Wish I could have said the same for Hamlet.

    Maybe we could write our own play, starring you, myself and Scottie. The Oddest Couple, but there's 3 of us. Like a sitcom. And all we do is talk. Wacky shenannigans ensue.

    Well, you and Scott would get things done, like taking over a small country or destroying people's lives. I would talk about doing something and then go make a sandwich.

    I'm very proud of you.

  • At 2/18/2009 8:27 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    We counted the "suddenly" occurrences during last night's brush-up rehearsal. At least 12.

  • At 3/01/2009 1:04 PM , Anonymous eraserhead said...

    Andrew, saw the show last night and thought you were magnificent. You didn't leave anything in the chapel when it was over and deserved the standing "O" which was late in starting ... we didn't know when the curtain call was about to end and you left too quick.

    The rest of the cast was superb, too. What a show!

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