Last month, during a performance of Iphigenia presented by Son of Semele Ensemble, as the long-suffering innocent heroine was being murdered by her father, a sacrifice to the gods, somebody in the audience of about 100 people released a very small, involuntary fart — an accident, not a commentary. Cutting through the silence, it was audible through at least the front half of the audience and by the actors — assorted guards and spear-carrier types in particular — who were clearly reaching into the marrow of their bones to contain giggles that were rolling through them in small, powerful waves. For about five minutes, their efforts at mirth suppression became a play within the play, an infantile contagion that crossed the footlights into the house. Suspension of disbelief unraveled. We were transformed from the fantastical Greek classic/goth-rave universe the designers had intended back into the empirical world of a downtown warehouse with risers, where some actors were trying against the odds to draw us into the tragedy. The tiniest of farts had sent the walls crashing down.
It’s not entirely true that such interruptions are unique to theaters’ living spaces. Movie audiences heckle trailers with more glee than most live-theater patrons would dare express at local stages. I once observed a CalArts filmmaker’s 7-year-old nephew — bloated from a spaghetti and shrimp lunch — projectile-vomit during an afternoon screening of his uncle’s senior project, sending the college crowd running for cover in paroxysms of laughter.
But in the theater, the aspect of live performance opens a can of spontaneity that all the rehearsal in the world can’t contain — the pictures that fall off the walls of the set; the actor coming face to face with a snoring patron; the actor playing Tartuffe cutting open his nose on a crucifix pendant when he plunges his face into Elmire’s bosom and spending the rest of the play trying to stanch the blood flow from his face while speaking in verse; the bombastic actor spitting tiny pieces of his sausage dinner into the face of his stage partner while screaming out a melodramatic scene.
Such mishaps form the crux of Brad Schreiber’s anthology of stage bloopers, Stop the Show! A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater. Among its many virtues is its historical sweep, from gaffes at our local theaters, both present and centuries past, to tales of Burton and Gielgud, to Molière’s onstage death during a performance of The Imaginary Invalid.
Schreiber provides dozens of anecdotes in six categories, such as actors losing their lines, tech malfunctions and audience-actor interactions (there’s the classic saga of New Yorker critic Robert Benchley responding to a character’s Pidgin English by shouting out, “Me Bobby, Bobby bad boy, Bobby go,” before ostentatiously leaving the theater). The effect wears off from continual reading because all stage gaffes are predicated on a single joke — the collision of two alternate realities into one. The humor is nonetheless timeless and universal, so returning to the book after some time, to revisit that same joke in new shapes, provides a source of endless pleasure.
There are two anecdotes I found particularly engrossing, and one isn’t a mishap at all. It’s comedian Andy Kaufman performing at a San Francisco comedy club in the guise of alter ego Tony Clifton, warming up for Rodney Dangerfield. Clifton goads the audience by refusing to start until he has complete silence, despite being cursed and having beer bottles thrown at him. He further insults the locals by launching into an off-tune, screeching rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which he keeps restarting from the top because of the crowd’s rudeness. The miniriot Kaufman instigated is an example of the kind of “danger” that theater people often speak of but so rarely accomplish.
The book closes with a touring production of Charley’s Aunt for the Inuit Indians at an Alaskan community center. The mayhem that ensued is a poem to how what we assume is “universal” may be anything but.
STOP THE SHOW! A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater | By BRAD SCHREIBER | Thunder’s Mouth Press | ?272 pages | $16