In a typical play (and usually also in not-so-typical plays) there’s a hero of some sort. Not a super hero. Not always someone we love but a hero nonetheless. Some sort of main character whose story we are following. It is from them the title stems: their life, an event in their life, their world, their name.
Sometimes, often times, you can bend the story to your whim. Pick a new hero of sorts. Sure, the play might be called Hamlet and we all know about Hamlet but what about that Claudius character? Isn’t it really about him? Maybe not, but if the director gets the right actor and plays her cards right, the audience may just leave the theatre thinking new things about the central actions of Claudius.
This past week, I went to two different plays. Two. Very. Different. Plays. Both named after the hero. Sort of. So I thought. But then I go confused.
Jesus Christ Super Star. The last time I saw this play (okay, Rock Opera), I was a kid. I don’t know how old. My mom took me because it’s one of her favorites. They set it in a circus and told anyone in the audience they could come sit in the bleachers on stage that surrounded the circus ring. Of course I made my mom go sit on stage with me. So we watched half of it from the back. I was in heaven. I don’t remember a thing about the story but I do remember striped pants.
I took my daughter to see the final dress rehearsal of the local production of JCSS because her best friend is in it: one of a small group of young kids who come on for one number and then are never seen again. It’s a cute moment. They all come on with the grown-ups who are bearing Jesus on their shoulders, he blesses them and then they all go back stage and hang out until curtain call. They sang their little hearts out and did just swell.
My daughter didn’t really know what was going on most of the time. I tried to halfheartedly whisper-explain but I was also a little lost. The cast did their best but the acoustics in the local 100-year-old-New-England-opera-house (You know what I’m talking about. Every other New England Town has one. They’re cold in the winter, hot in the summer, always need a paint job, and you’re lucky if the stage has any wing space) are terrible. The singers, un-mic’d, were competing with amplified electronified music in a hall with lousy acoustics. It was pretty hard to decipher their sung words except in the repeated choruses which gave you more than one shot to figure it out. So I wracked my brains for the various bible stories in my head, we did our best to follow along, and my daughter had a great time.
Don’t worry, I’m getting to my point:
Judas got the final bow. Not Jesus.
Caught me completely off-guard. Yeah, he definitely had the cooler songs to sing and he sure was on-stage a lot, but the play is called Jesus Christ Super Star for a reason, right? And as it was staged, Jesus was always in the spotlight, never in the periphery of the story. I had to think about that one for a while…
A few days later I went to The Merchant of Venice. This one I actually got to see more than once because I stood in for an actress during their final dress, watched one of their runs, and then stood in for a different actress during a matinee. But it wasn’t until the second time that it dawned on me that there are two Merchants in the play. Both Antonio and Shylock. Maybe everyone who studies the play figures that out pretty quickly, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually studied the play seriously.
The only reason i figured it out is because the director put both men on stage together while not performing in a scripted scene forcing me see their relationship to the story: this is a story about people and how business transactions can go wrong. This is a story of two merchants and the people around them. These two merchants are in far fewer scenes than the lovers, but without the merchants, the lovers wouldn’t have a story to tell. And neither merchant, either the one who loses all his goods, or the one who is gifted his back, gets love. Neither one walks away with a full heart. But all the lovers do. How sad to be a Merchant.*
Made me think back a dozen or so years to The Importance of Being Earnest. In one of our last rehearsals, the director brought up the title for the first time and related it to the Ernest in the play at which point I remarked that the title did not refer to the character “Ernest” but to the action of being “Earnest.” Yes, it’s a play on words just as Wilde intended but the truth of it is, the title is not “The Importance of Being Ernest.” It’s not about how important it is for this man to exist; it’s about honesty. But, of course, the director had been directing this show all along thinking that it referred to the man, not the action. I didn’t watch the play, being that I was in it. But now I wonder if the audience knew it’s a play about honesty, or if they figured it’s just a play about a man whose name happens to rhyme with a word that used to mean honesty.
The author may write the words, but the director helps us understand the story and if she isn’t careful, we won’t be able to tell whose story she’s chosen to tell.