Story: The Sound of One Critic Clapping

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Another ruddy Friday night, another trip to the Viaduct Theatre to review a show. This time it was Neil Labute’s “Bash,” a play (actually an anthology of three one-act monologue plays) I was unfamiliar with by a playwright I outgrew about five years ago. I’m at the point with Labute where I’ve basically formed my opinion of him, and by extension any production of his plays before I’ve even seen them. Jaded much?

I was exhausted after a day of sitting in a cold cubicle under harsh fluorescent lights, with too little time to go home before the show and too much time to waste before the show. I love how that works. So I sat in the dingy McDonald’s near my work and scarfed down a cheeseburger, contemplating with each bite the unique mixture of chemically preserved food stuffs and self-loathing. I just knew this was going to wreak havoc on my digestive system in about an hour.

At a Starbuck’s in Lakeview, I ordered a coffee I that I knew I wasn’t going to finish, just so that I could grab a seat without feeling too guilty, and read comics to pass the time. God, Matt Fraction’s a good writer. I could kiss his brain.

I got tired of waiting and figuring out when I should leave to get to the theatre at a reasonable time, so I ambled over to the bus stop and got on the Belmont bus.

It turned out that this time, in a strange way, I was glad I didn’t bring a date. Before I explain why, I should say that upon getting to the theatre, at a comfortable 15 minutes prior to curtain (that’s an old-fashioned term; most theatre productions don’t use curtains any more), I found the lobby to be pretty empty. Already I thought, oh god, I’m too early, this is embarrassing. I don’t want to be the first person to go into the theatre! So I sat at the bar. Fine. This was fine. At five till, I went into the space. Actually, I went into one of the spaces. The Viaduct has two of them, and I couldn’t remember which one the show I was supposed to see was in, so I took a guess. I thought I was good, the guy at the door didn’t acknowledge me, so I went in and found a seat.

Ten seconds after sitting down, a woman came in and told me, in a rather direct tone, “You’re in the wrong theatre.” I was embarrassed, but it made sense. I’d walked into a pretty gruesome scene with abstract scenery and eery music playing, and four actors dressed up like mummies facing upstage still as statues. It didn’t really scream Neil Labute, but I guess I’d figured the director was taking some license. He wasn’t. I collected my things and left.

So it’s a slow night, I thought, fine. There didn’t seem to be anyone else yet. I was greeted warmly at the other theatre, and I gave the door guy my name. “I went into the wrong theatre, the first time, apparently,” I said in passing. He didn’t respond to that. He handed me a program and said, “The men are picking from the odd numbered bowl tonight.” He gestured to a bowl of lollipops with numbers written on paper stuck to them. I looked around just to make sure—nope, still no one here, but I’m a man—so I took one and went to sit down.

The space is huge. It’s basically an old warehouse, and the renters rearrange the seating in whatever way they feel suits the show. In this case, the theatre company went with thrust seating, risers of chairs surrounding the playing space on three sides. On stage there were two chairs facing each other.

There was art on the walls of the space. An exhibition of original works connected to the show. Grotesque displays of heartbreak, cruelty, pain and angst. Just me and endless, nameless mixed media tormenters.

Still no one. The guy at the door, whom I assumed was the Artistic Director, was pacing nervously and whispering with his stage manager. A glance over at me. They knew I was the critic. A decision was made.

The AD dismissed the stage manager and made his way to me. “Yale Pepper?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“So glad you could come! Uh, obviously both shows are having a bit of a hard time getting people in the doors tonight . . . ” (It’s true. The other theatre’s house was pretty bare too.) “So, you’ve got two options.”

—Please cancel the show please cancel the show please cancel the show—

“You can sit in that chair”—he gestured toward one of the seats on stage—“or, you could remain where you are, which you’re more than welcome to do.”

“Sit in that chair?”

“Yes. That’s the reason behind the lollipop. We choose a random audience member to sit onstage, opposite the confessor, for each monologue in the show. We wanted to provide a unique experience for a lucky few, given the structure of the piece. Obviously, since it’s just you, though . . . ”

“I’ll stay here, thanks.”

“Of course. That’s fine. We’re just gonna hold the house for five more minutes, then we’ll get started.”

He shuffled off again, supposedly to tell the stage manager what I’d told him, and then shuffled back, passing me and going backstage. More whispering.

The lights went down. The AD came out, and sat in one chair. One of the other actors sat opposite him. Good save.

The AD, who also directed the show, was also the first monologist. It might just be me, but I have a hard time when directors put themselves in their own shows. But then again, that’s storefront theatre for you. That’s why you start a theatre company.

I won’t get into the details of the performance itself. I can’t. I was too preoccupied, the entire time, with the fact that I was the only person in the audience. I seem to recall that most of the performances by the actors were pretty two-dimensional, but the final monologist brought a passion and honesty to her story that put the others to shame. I remember that much.

But no, I was more worried about whether or not I was supposed to clap at the end of each act. I wasn’t sure. Somehow, all my memories and experience seeing plays left me, and I forgot my conventions. I remember, you should clap at the end of a song, but at the end of an act when you’re not going to intermission? If other people were there, it would be obvious what to do. We’d all tap into the collective unconscious and do the appropriate thing. But it was just me, and when the first act ended, I chose to err on the side of caution. I didn’t clap. I let them sit there, as the lights when down, and awkwardly transition to the next act. In silence.

I did that twice and,having suffered through those two times, I thought I was in the clear. I was relatively calmer, enough to sort of enjoy the final piece, and I was digging it—thanks in no small part, as I said, to the talent of the actress—until one more revelation occurred to me. I was still going to have to clap at the end of the play.

She was going on about the high school teacher who impregnated her and how he left her to raise the boy on her own, and all I could think about was the curtain call. More panic. It was a beautiful speech, but I wasn’t there for it. My heart raced as she delivered her final lines. The lights began to fade. The music cue swelled. It was bittersweet. And then—

I discovered the sound of one critic clapping.

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