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Doing the play RASHOMON exposed Kevin to a side of performance that is COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY!
Kevin goes way, way out on a limb, spending:
TEN MEMORABLE NIGHTS IN A BARROOM!
. I was 20 in 1975, studying drama at a small cow-college outside El Lay and slowly morphing into much-dreaded ‘adulthood’. I became friends with one of the directors there, a Mr. Donald Horst. One evening, I found myself backstage with the director watching a performance of his latest production unfold on the video monitor. It was the last scene of the second act of the old-time melodrama Ten Nights in a Barroom. In his final scene in the play, an unsavory bartender named Frank ends up on the receiving end of a well-deserved punch in the nose, getting knocked unconscious as the curtain falls for intermission. But this was one of those interesting performances where all did not go as rehearsed. The punch was thrown, the actor playing Frank took the dive and CRACK- abruptly redesigned his right hand, little pinky now jutting out at a 90° angle from the other fingers! Of course, if something goes awry, an actor is trained to conceal the misfire from the audience- but this poor schnook went into instantaneous shock. Bolting upright, he lifted his mangled hand for himself and everybody else to see and then WHAM- passed out cold for real. The audience gasped audibly as the curtain rung down.
. Realizing that he would now be without a Frank for the second week of the run, Mr. Horst turned and grasped me firmly by the shoulders, demanding: “Kevin! Are you a quick study? Can you learn the part in three days? I’ll pay you fifty bucks from my own pocket!” What was there to say? Sure, I’d accept the challenge. I would have done if for free. Three nights later I was backstage, in costume and make-up waiting for the curtain to go up.
. Ten Nights in a Barroom is a prohibitionary morality fable decrying the evils of drink and the glories of temperance. The play covers 30 years in the lives of the characters, chronicling the role alcohol plays in their destruction or salvation. Each act happens ten years after the previous one. In act one Frank is a young man, just starting out on the first day of his first job, bartending. Clean and sober, sharp and solicitous, Frank’s a stand-up guy. But in act two, a decade of corruption by the underworld of alcohol had transformed Frank into a hardened cynic. All the goodness had been drained from him, as he degenerated from teetotaler to bitter alcoholic, drink by devastating drink. He had become cool and slick and detached, turning in his overalls and apron, for a stylish new checkered suit and cap. Frank had become a bad apple, cursing, womanizing and smoking. The problem with this, was that I loathe cigarettes. I went through school with one eye welded shut because I was allergic to cigarette smoke and both my parents were heavy smokers! It may strike one as a double standard, but marijuana just didn’t make me ill the way tobacco did. So, emptying out a Marlboro, I replaced the contents with some finely chopped weed.
. Word spread through the cast and crew that Kevin was going to smoke pot onstage! Julie Berger crept up to me while I was waiting in the wings for my impending cue, and whispered urgently: “Kevin, I’ve heard what you’re going to do. Please don’t! It puts me in a terrible position. I’m your friend Kev, but I’m also the stage manager. I would have to tell Donald. Please smoke a regular cigarette out there!” Fine. But I didn’t have one. Neither did Julie. Other than wacky-weed, we were both non-smokers. My cue came. I shrugged and walked onstage.
. I was probably about as nervous as I’ve ever been on the boards, stepping out under those bright lights, with all those eyes on me- a capacity crowd to the left, right and center, and me about to pull the most outrageous public stunt of my life! Waking nightmares of collegiate exile writhed through my head. Would this be my swan song, the ignominious end to a distinguished theatrical career? The actress playing my Mother threw me the cue: “Hi, Frankie. Do you know where papa is?”. In the first act, Frank would have played the dutiful son and responded with an eager-to-please offer to rush out find his father. But now, ten years later, the changed Frank would only light his cigarette indifferently, study his manicure and mumble: “I don’t know.”. (Just the act of smoking in front of his poor, ailing mother had been established as an outrageously disrespectful affront.) I lit that fake-cigarette, my hands secretly trembling as I struck the match on the bartop and puffed vigorously to get it started. Taking a long deep drag, I paused to contemplate the ‘cigarette’. The house was absolutely silent. Then, I surprised myself completely, by tilting my head back and blowing big smoke rings into the turbid air in that densely cramped bungalow. (Until that very moment, I had no idea I possessed this skill!) Rolling the mock-Marlboro in my hand and meditating upon it, I shrugged and responded: “I don’t know.”
. To my baffled relief, the entire audience burst into laughter. And then something strange happened: they laughed some more. And they kept laughing. And then to my stupefied amazement. they began to clap. Applause, in the middle of the play! No one onstage seemed to have any idea why a simple line like “I don’t know” would elicit such a spontaneous eruption. (Eventually it dawned on me. I had accidentally stumbled onto a form of ‘method acting’. In the text of the play, Frank was supposed to be getting away with something by lighting a God-forsaken cigarette and sassing back to his Mom. In a fortuitous parallel, I was getting away with something by smoking pot onstage! As an actor, I had accidentally stumbled upon reality. And it was that reality that sparked the surprise ovation. The moment just rang so true.)
. Still dumbfounded by the unexpected reaction, I wondered, could it be… was my fly down? I sneaked a mortified look. No. It wasn’t that. Exchanging secret glances with the boys at the poker table, they seemed equally confounded by the scope of the response. My pal Paul had the juicy role of a sly, southern riverboat gambler, a slick shyster, artful lady-killer and gifted grifter. As actors, we were trained to improvise bits of business during laughter or applause, (or disaster for that matter!), so that there is no detectable dead air. Paul filled the time by reaching for the still-corked prop-whiskey bottle to pour his first drink of the night. As the unexpected laughter became baffling applause, Paul poured a triple-shot and knocked it back: glug, glug, glug. (Unbeknownst to anybody else, before the performance I had secretly pulled, what is often referred to as ‘the old switcheroo’. What had been harmless iced-tea, used to stimulate whiskey, was now strait Kentucky bourbon!) So…
. Paul lifts the shotglass to his lips, and glug, glug, ACK! The sophisticated gambler lurched forward and spit a big mouthful of liquor all over the table, the cards, the chips and his fellow gamblers- completely out of character, considering this varmint would guzzle whiskey the way regular folk would drink water! The applause suddenly fell silent.
. All eyes turned to Paul, as he collected his wits, stalling for time by cleaning his glasses with a manicured hanky. Stammering and grumbling, my quick-thinking colleague jumped to his feet in mock-outrage and loudly ad libbed:
. “Somebody’s been putting WATER IN THE WHISKEY!”
Moving on to Serious College, Kevin follows in the path of his counterculture hero Yippie Jerry Rubin, in: WHEN IN DOUBT: DO IT!
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.