Right at the top of Murray Mednick’s “The Fool and the Red Queen”, now being staged at the Lounge Theatre, there were technical snags serious enough to have the stage manager stop the show. For about 15 minutes the audience sat listening to the muted sounds of restrained panic wafting from behind the scenes. During that span a gentleman seated behind me, perhaps seeing my press package, leaned forward and whispered , “Excuse the delay,” to which I smiled and nodded.
It wasn’t until leaving the theater at the evening’s end that I realized the “gentleman” was Murray Mednick, the playwright and founder of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. Well if Mister Mednick is reading this, let me just say, “No apology necessary!” Because once it got going it took off like a peregrine falcon on steroids.
Now playwrights are motivated to write plays for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes a certain topic or incident or particular character or single line just takes grip of them. But sometimes, usually when they’re feeling at the top of their game, they’ll spin out a gem of a play, for the best reason of all: because they Goddamn can. This is a work geared for the more cultivated palate, belonging to those who will pick up the author’s gauntlet, knowing though a checkerboard sits between audience and stage, it will be a harder game, for the playwright is bringing out the chess pieces.
If you’re seeking a relaxing wad of fluff entertainment or chewing gum for the brain, take a pass here. But if you enjoy grappling with the London Times crossword puzzle, toying around with Mensa tests, or picking out Will Durant’s 11 volume Story of Civilization as light summer reading – well come on down. “The Fool and the Red Queen” is a sinfully smart show written with poetry and passion, perfectly produced, and presenting its audience with fifty pounds of “wow” in a ten pound bag.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” the cowardly Garcin famously concludes, “hell is other people.” Mister Mednick’s take on that could be, “No, hell is an audition.”
Auditions are an exquisite torment, just ask any actor. You want those who are casting to see you’re perfect for the part, even though you have no clue really what that part is or how you’re expected to play it. There may or may not be “sides”, or you may be required to ad lib. You could even find yourself thrown into a love scene with a complete stranger. Nevertheless, you’re expected to “live” the role clueless of what the beginning, middle and end actually holds.
So you see, basically auditions are a lot like life. Only somewhat shorter.
The first act is given over to exploring that “no-man’s-land” between the role and the real.
“We are things,” as a character asserts, “we don’t know about.”
Chauncey (Jack Kehler) who may be a director and Rondell (Gray Palmer) who may be a writer are auditioning Gary (John Diehl), who is an actor, for their upcoming movie. Acting some scenes out, writing others on the spot, even running the dailies, footage of a morose jester and pigeon taking flight, Rondell and Chauncey lay out the role of “Rikki” for the flummoxed Gary who’s inner monologue does ring side commentary throughout.
Unable to escape the Tweedledee and Tweedledum auteur, the hapless actor finds the more they explain it, the more inexplicable the storyline becomes. “A love story” but “protest film” too; “medieval but contemporary”; “positive but negative”; “about finding a friend who could help you die”; about “being in the front line for the rapture”; “a nightmare with a happy ending.”
“We’re trying to find our way through,” Rondall remarks.
In fact, the play is about all that. And more.
Over the years Mednick has composed 7 plays revolving around Gary the unemployed actor, beginning with “Tirade for Three” in 1977. In “The Fool and the Red Queen”, essentially all we’re told of Gary is that he’s an actor who’s been working on one-man shows based on the classic Greek dramas, and that in the not too distant past his son was murdered. By keeping Gary so sparse of biographical details, Mednick establishes him as an “Everyman”, an empty vessel that the audience, if willing, is welcome to fill, which they better be.
If the first act can be viewed as an homage to Sartre’s “No Exit” wherein the limitations and sources of the roles we find ourselves performing are explored, the second act can perhaps be seen as drawing its inspiration from Beckett, especially “Endgame” and “Godot”, plays which question our importance in the Great Drama. Are we major characters on the stage of existence or merely insignificant “spear holders” buried in a cast of billions?
The second act places us in the reality of the film itself, where Gary in the role of Rikki, the blood weary knight, sits silently in a tavern awaiting the arrival of his fate as the tyrannical Red Queen (Julie Prud’homme) shifts between cooing and cursing her Jester (Bill Celentano) as the Innkeeper (Peggy A. Blow) provides pointed asides.
Like the Great Jewish Mother Goddess, The Red Queen berates and consoles the Fool in one long slapstick moment before yanking the materialistic rug out from under him declaring, “You’re not here!” The Fool bewails, “Bowing and scraping and scraping and not knowing why.” When he declares he won’t degrade himself any longer by begging for her forgiveness, the Queen merely smiles and thunders softly from the mountain top, “You’re days are numbered, Fool, and you will beg.”
Now I can hear the rumbling of some critics: “It’s all musings!” “Where’s the drama?” “Where’s the action?”
We of the 21th century are a jaded lot, who for the most part seem numbed from the neck down, so the emotional catharsis which the theatre of the Greeks invoked in its audience is something alien to us. But if we are willing to embrace what Mednick is offering, then an intellectual catharsis is still attainable. Thus the “drama” in his “musings” is in our taking up his challenge to reevaluate the great memes of our times: Sartre’s bleak existentialism, the absurd hopelessness of Beckett, the salvation by sacrifice of the Judeo-Christian mythos.
And the “action?” We are the action we bring. One can choose to scrunch up in one’s seat, the very image of the bored elite, or one can commit to the journey Mednick, our playwright “Virgil” provides for us, a journey past Zoroastrian burial practices, the burden of blood guilt and beyond.
Long time collaborators Mednick and Guy Zimmerman co-direct, melding the play’s gracefulness and poetic potency to the point of perfection. As for their cast: sublime, vibrant, astonishing, glorious, impeccable, sterling, exhilarating, radiant, exquisite, dynamic, stirring, gifted, resplendent, thrilling – go ahead, pick any number of adjectives you like, they’re all applicable.
Because of the nature of their role Blow and Celentano arguably have the tighter ropes to walk, and both do so with soul-stirring skill. Bell can possess the stage in an instant by the pure power of her presence. Celentano doesn’t just walk his tightrope, he does back flips on it and delights with his dampened dynamism.
Jeffrey Atherton’s sleekly conceived set aces every demand imposed by this multimedia, multileveled, multi-”multi” show. Matt Richter’s lighting is likewise superbly crafted and a stunning demonstration of what Fresnel and dimmers can achieve in the hands of a true craftsman. John Zalewski’s sound design layers itself over the stage action, like silk enfolding a pearl of great value. Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley, who’s credits range from The Pee-wee Herman Show to “Bat Boy – The Musical”, adds another feather to her hefty bonnet as she segues from the slightly sarcastic “uniforms of the day” favored by “Indie” poseurs to the surreal garb of the second act that achieves a wonderful Brueghel “Through the Looking Glass” effect. Finally, there are the film segments, with cinematography by Brad L. Cooper and Fritz Davis as the video projection technician, that flawlessly weave into the action on stage, and which are a feast for the eye.
What is truly remarkable here is not the high water mark of talent displayed by these six artists but the deftness with which Mednick and Zimmerman have fused these elements. One seldom finds a show in which the various creative fields have been so expertly orchestrated to bind two such diverse acts together in a perfect harmony while imposing a sense of boundlessness on what is in fact a rather small venue. Nor does that boundlessness go to waste, as Mednick’s play fills every Planck length of it.
“There’s something in the color red,” mutters the Fool. Something in the blood, some primordial imperative that drives us to question everything: existence, the universe, nature, meaning, ourselves.
It’s as Rondall confessed, “We’re trying to find our way through.”
In the end, there are no answers. There never are. We conclude as we began, in ignorance, left wondering if it is our sins we die for, those brought down on ourselves, or the programed sins of the role we were cast to play?
The trail of bread crumbs Mednick leaves behind for his audience winds through the darkest of forests, and if it seems not to be bringing us anywhere recognizable perhaps it’s because our destination, our salvation, maybe even our resurrection is the journey itself, and the questions we ask along the way.