Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pursuing Perfection... and Hats

It's probably not even true, but they say that everyone gets jitters on opening night. And, oh yeah, I definitely had been nervous before the show had started. But now, as the curtain fell for the final time and I heard the muffled applause through its tattered layers, I was filled with a totally different sensation. I was furious. I could feel the anger coursing through my veins as the rest of the cast ambled off into the darkness. Picking the chintzy fedora off my head, I threw it - literally threw my hat across the stage. And then, because I was only thirteen years old and didn't know what else to do, I walked over, picked it up and threw it across the stage again, as if to really drive home to that hat just how irate I really was.

It wasn't the hat's fault, of course. In fact, in all likelihood, it was actually my fault, although I'm getting ahead of myself. The hat I really liked, and on a better opening night, I would certainly have treated it better. That plastic-and-felt fedora represented not only that I had been granted a part in the all-school play, but that the role was even pretty cool. I was a hardboiled 1930's detective, complete with trench coat, candy cigarettes, and that all-important fedora. Maybe not as hardboiled, or as significant a detective as my best friend, who played the lead, but I was excited nonetheless. I'd grown up watching old movies on PBS with my Dad, and my middle school English/drama teacher was inexplicably a fan of 30's murder-mystery-comedies. It was a perfect match.

Throw in the fact that this was the second middle school play I'd tried out for, and the first in which I had gotten a part. I distinctly recall my first audition, standing alone onstage and being so impressed with the acoustics of the auditorium, how I didn't really need to speak any louder than usual to be heard. After that ended predictably well, with my name nowhere to be found on the posted cast list, I had vowed to do better next time. By the time Any Body for Tea auditions rolled around, I projected my lines with the gusto of a tween Kenneth Brannagh (In my own mind anyway), and was rewarded by being cast in the probably expendable supporting role of police detective Kramer. I was determined to do well.

Weeks of auditions followed, until opening night finally arrived. Draped in ill-fitting costumes from the school's collection, faces gaudily caked with excessive amounts of makeup, and nervous tension flowing, nine middle school students huddled offstage, waiting for the curtain to go up and the magic to begin. And for a while it really seemed magical. We had rehearsed so much, run through lines over and over, perfected the blocking (and in my case, had a small enough part), that things became effortless. I didn't need to think about what my next line was or where I needed to stand; it just flowed. The conniving old ladies staged murder after murder while Detective O'Finn investigated, and the sardonic Kramer rolled his eyes and quipped wittily. We were in the zone.

Until the script required Kramer to spot a pair of binoculars on an end table, hand them to O'Finn, and lead them both to realize that the view from the ladies' window opens directly toward O'Finn's apartment. It's about as significant scene as a play like this can have, but it really sort of hinges on physically having binoculars. You can then imagine how I felt when I turned, mid-scene, with all the stage lights shining down on me, to the end table where the binoculars should have been, only to find bare wood. My heart racing, my pulse pounding in my ears, I did the only thing I could think of - pantomimed the binoculars like we had done in rehearsals before we added all the props. The results... weren't pretty.

"Maybe they used these binoculars." [Holds out empty hand]

"Where, Kramer?"

"Uh, I don't know."

We somehow got through the scene with some terrible ad-libbing, but the damage was done. The play, which had been going so well, was now surely a disaster. The play ended without encountering any further mistakes, but I couldn't stop thinking of that one glaring screwup as I chased my hat around the darkened backstage. I sheepishly went to go find my Dad afterward and tell him how bad I felt about the play. He responded with a question asking what part had gone wrong. Could this be true? Had he witnessed the depth of our failure and not even realize we had gone off-script? Now, in retrospect, I realize this means either A) he wasn't really paying that close attention to our otherwise dazzling performance, or B) he did notice it but decided not to say anything to spare my feelings. I wouldn't blame him for A (middle school play, everybody), and give lots of kudos for B if true. Either way, at the time, it was just what I needed. I knew, probably better than anyone, that the play hadn't been perfect. But I realized that it didn't need to be perfect to be just right. We went home and had ice cream, and totally rocked the performance the next day.

96) ST Voyager: Lineage. If anyone needs the lesson that perfection isn't necessary, it's B'Elanna Torres in this episode of Voyager. She finds out that she is pregnant, and becomes positively obsessed with removing any "flaws" she can find through in utero genetic modification. Some of these are good/necessary, like correcting an spinal defect that occurs in Klingon/Human hybrids. But others go a little further, and highlight Torres' own inner conflicts between her two races. And we see in flashbacks why that is, although it seems a bit stilted and unrealistic. I guess I'm fortunate that I haven't lived through childhood strife like her character has, but I just wouldn't think an adult would make the assumptions she does about the situation, particularly the Chief Engineer, who one assumes would think more logically. Had the flashbacks been more nuanced and less after-school special, this would probably have been better. 6/10

95) ST Next Generation: The Most Toys. Here we have a guy consumed with accumulating the perfect collection of rare items when really any one of his "toys" should be enough to satisfy him. And what better item to add to a collection, than a walking, talking humanoid, the only known android in existence? As you can imagine, Data and this collector, Kivas Fajo, have philosophical differences about Data being added to the collection, and a struggle of wits ensues as Data tries to find a way to escape. There's a lot good here, including Data's repartee with Fajo, and his empathy in trying to help Fajo's assistant. And the B-story is quite good as well, showing crew members dealing with Data's (faked) death, and working to uncover the truth. My sole gripe with this episode would entail a major spoiler, so let me just say that I have a hard time accepting Data's actions at the end. 7/10.

94) ST Enterprise: Disaster. Now this episode is exactly why I wanted to write about things not needing to be perfect to be just right. By any objective measure, this should not be a great episode. It only rates a 7.8 average on IMDB. But this episode of TNG, despite its imperfections, is still absolutely great, Sure, the plotline sounds recycled, with some space anomaly knocking out power on the ship and putting all members of the crew in unpleasant/dangerous situations. But it's so great! Picard is stuck in a turbolift with kids! And he hates kids! Worf is stuck in Ten-Forward when Keiko goes into labor, so he becomes a midwife! Troi is the ranking officer on the bridge! And don't get me started with how Data gets through the plasma discharge thingy in the Jeffries tubes. If you can't have fun seeing all your favorite characters dealing with these bizarre and unfamiliar situations, this might not be the show for you. Maybe the overriding theme of achieving things while out of your element isn't as deep or philosophical as some other episodes get, but it's something. And with all the other zaniness going on, that's good enough for me. 10/10, believe it or not.

Speaking of zaniness, I mentioned earlier that the Any Body for Tea fiasco may have actually been my own fault. I swear to this day that I don't know for sure, but it may have been my responsibility to get the binoculars from offstage and put them on the table during the scene change immediately before we used them.As a small production, we had a single crew person, who had control of the curtain and the four main light levers. Everything else was divided up between the cast. So there were definitely items that I had to put in place at various points in the play, and the binoculars sure could have been one of them. If so, nearly 20 years later, I can take the blame for that one. I'm sure my hat would appreciate me taking it out on someone else.

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