Things that go bump off stage right

Wander into rehearsals for the Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre’s production of Black Comedy after the first few minutes, and you’ll wonder what on earth is going on.

Though the actors are working on a fully lighted stage, they’re nonetheless tentatively feeling their way around, and refusing to make eye contact with each other.

The reason is actually quite simple: They’re supposed to be in total darkness. But in the world of Black Comedy, dark is light and light is dark. Since the bulk of the action takes place in a setting where the lights have gone out, the production reverses the two, having the play open in the dark and only become lighted when a fuse blows, plunging the characters into make-believe darkness.

Confusing? It won’t be when you see it on show day.

Such approaches — gimmicks, if you will — are becoming more and more common in theater. Starting in the middle part of the last century, traditional stagecraft began to give way to such “experimental” approaches. And that could certainly be said of both Black Comedy, Peter Shaffer’s one-act play, and of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, which together make up the two-play program of HART’s Comic Turns.

But all optical trickery aside, isn’t it perhaps easier to present this type of play — where the viewer is more consciously engaged in a theatrical experience than if being asked to suspend disbelief — than it is to stage more traditional drama?

No, says San Greenalch, Black Comedy‘s director.

Having been involved in theater since age 6, Greenalch steadfastly believes this type of play is, if anything, harder to pull off.

And that goes double for the Shaffer play.

“First of all, you have to go completely against everything you’ve learned about directing,” Greenalch explains. “For example, I usually spend a lot of time having to remind my actors to make eye contact with each other. In a case like this — where everyone is supposed to be in the dark — I have to remind them not to make eye contact, in order not to spoil the illusion.”

And then there’s the danger that such clever, attention-grabbing shortcuts might undermine the emotional engagement between actors and audience.

That’s a real concern, agrees director Tom Dewees, whose Inspector Hound portion of Comic Turns includes its own “hook” — a play-within-a-play.

“Some aspects of a play with a gimmick as a tool are perhaps easier because you don’t have to worry about developing a character quite so much,” he admits. “They’re already there — you read it and they simply flow off the page.”

Still, both portions of Comic Turns are variants on standard theatrical farce. The Real Inspector Hound, a whodunit, introduces the cooling corpse in the opening act, while Black Comedy‘s basic premise (of a young artist “borrowing” an absent neighbor’s fancy furniture to impress a wealthy potential buyer) has characters rapidly entering and exiting the set through a variety of doors.

And yet Black Comedy is a complete departure from what one expects from the author of Amadeus and Equus.

Greenalch notes that both of Shaffer’s earlier plays were written “before he went mad — and did this.”

The Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre presents Comic Turns on Friday, Aug. 20; Saturday, Aug. 21; and Thursday, Aug. 26, through Saturday, Aug. 28, with all five shows beginning at 7:30 p.m. Two additional shows will be held on Sunday, Aug. 22, and Sunday, Aug. 29, with both starting at 3 p.m. Tickets for all are $15/adults, $12/seniors and $6/students, with half-price student tickets available for Thursday and Sunday performances. HART is located in the Performing Arts Center at the Shelton House (259 Pigeon St.) in downtown Waynesville. For reservations and information, call (828) 456-6322.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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