By Karen Peakes, Mary in Women in Jep
Laughing onstage is an interesting thing. Sometimes it’s a safe, internal chuckle easily kept to oneself and tucked away in the back of one’s mind to share later in the safety of the dressing rooms. Other times it’s an utterly embarrassing guffaw that comes without warning and certainly unbidden and immediately sends one into a state of panic and self-recrimination – “How could I have let that happen?!? I’m supposed to be a professional?!”…the list goes on.
Still other times, it’s an ungodly fight to maintain one’s composure in the face of mounting hysteria. A mere twinkle in the eye of the other actor is enough to trigger it. The slightest lip wobble or eyebrow lift or, god forbid – vocal quivering (as in, someone trying not to laugh) – is enough to cause a full body reaction similar to the “flight or fight” response – only in this case it would better be called the “laugh or bite-your-lip-till-it-bleeds” response.
This show, Women in Jep, just happens to create more of those moments than any other show I’ve been a part of. I can’t remember a time I’ve laughed more in a rehearsal room – and I do mean while running scenes and trying to be a good actor. The actors in this play are all so uniformly wonderful and talented that they make it almost impossible to keep a straight face.
Now, once rehearsals have been going on for awhile, the laughter sort of dies down between actors as we come to expect those moments that have made us crack. We become better able to let go of wanting to laugh and just live in our characters (who of course take all of it very seriously).
So, just as we are finally feeling on top of things and confident in our lack of hysteria, the live audience shows up. The audience – which quickly reminds us of how funny this play is and how ridiculous these characters are. The audience – which adds the extra layer of pressure NOT to laugh – which, of course, only heightens the desire TO laugh.
Then comes a show like tonight’s.
A crowd roaring with laughter and wanting to have fun from the word go.
A crowd up for anything and not afraid to let us know they’re there.
A crowd perfectly suited for the perfect storm that was THE NOODLE. At the top of Act two, I’m in a scene with Aubie Merrylees, who plays Trenner. Now, the scene is already on the verge of making me break every night – not the full lip biting verge, but certainly a kind of welling up in the throat that wants to be a laugh but hasn’t quite managed to bubble up and out. This night was no different. Loud laughter from the audience, fueling a slight urge to smile as I look at Trenner’s hilarious face.
Then, as I was clearing the plate from the table, a large noodle fell from the fork and landed with a splat on the floor.
Now, in these moments, it’s utterly astounding how fast one’s brain is able to think of a million differing scenarios of how to rescue the noodle (or whatever prop or item that has created chaos)without it seeming to disturb too much the flow of the scene. My brain sifted options and came up with – “leave the damn noodle, you’ll figure out how to clear it later”. Admittedly, not my best solution, but I was feeling confident. Then – oh then – I look up and start to speak just as Aubie, in perfect Trenner attitude and character, reaches down and cockily and obviously pops the noodle from the floor INTO HIS MOUTH.
Needless to say the reaction from the audience and from myself was immediate and without warning. Huge hysterical response from those who could and should respond in such a fashion. Huge hysterical response from me. It was just such a perfectly executed, totally viable option for that character to pursue. The simplicity and the outright comedy of solving the problem of the noodle by EATING it just charmed me to my core and literally took my breath away. Fingernails went into the palms, lips drew inward as far as possible for maximum biting capacity, and breath became a kind of panting desperation. Even with these coping mechanisms, I am afraid I have to admit to a laugh. It was just one of those moments – completely unexpected and completely ridiculous.
All one can do in that situation is to try to lamely turn it into something your character would find funny. So, for just a moment, Mary found Trenner utterly hilarious.
It’s moments like these, that make this job so hard – and so incredibly fun. I’m so grateful to have been a part of this project.
Every single actor involved was such a treat to work with and laugh with (more importantly). Wendy and our director, Ed, created an atmosphere where laughter was ok and to some degree embraced as a means of getting at the heart of this play and these characters. No one’s gonna find the play funny if we don’t! And, boy have we had fun!
Many thanks to all involved. I’m gonna miss being a woman in Jep.