25 August 2010

Two Nights with Patricia Kilgarriff

Few announcements occasion so much disappointment in the hearts of theatergoers than that when the expected star will not, in fact, be appearing in tonight’s performance, but that the standby will go on instead. Experience teaches us that very seldom does the 42nd Street triumph ensue, in which the standby comes back a star: rare in the extreme is the Kiri Te Kanawa who steps in for Teresa Stratas, or the Salvatore Licitra who steps in for Luciano Pavarotti (Met debuts for both artists), which is why we still talk about their performances. Yet on my two visits to the original Broadway production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a standby presented me with one of the most thrilling adventures of my career in the audience.

One night, Dorothy Loudon did not appear as Dotty Otley; the second night, we were deprived of Linda Thorson’s Belinda Blair. By attending the show twice, I got to see both ladies in their roles, and they were wonderful. But they were outmatched by the standby, who took over for each in turn, and who (it’s no exaggeration to say) risked her life to do so: the actress Patricia Kilgarriff.

Noises Off is an indescribably complex comedy, its three acts depicting the same scene of a tatty English sex farce in three stages of production, from differing perspectives. Simply keeping the lines of this puzzle clear was a phenomenal intellectual achievement for the author; that might have been enough, but he managed to make the thing funny, as well. Thereupon, Michael Blakemore directed the piece to run at breakneck speed — still keeping the lines clear and the jokes funny — without killing anybody in the process.

Someone else’s mediocre photo of the original Playbill.
One of these days, I’ll get a scanner or a new camera,
and you’ll have the benefit of my own mediocre photos.

Because Noises Off is, as much as its subject, a farce, there’s a great deal of physical comedy involved, and if any of the actors misses a step, there’s a chance that somebody will wind up with a broken bone. This sort of precision makes brain surgery look as easy and safe as playing with Tinker Toys. One night, taking a pratfall, the actor Victor Garber landed on his back — and kept skidding, fast, until his head hung over the edge of the stage, practically in the lap of a young man in the front row.

I know because I was that young man. A little more momentum, and we’d both have wound up in the emergency room. Or the morgue — considering how close Victor Garber’s neck came to snapping.

So I was conscious from the get-go of the physical risks that the actors took. I had enough theatrical experience of my own to know that, during rehearsals for the show, they’d repeated each stunt until it became almost instinctive, the natural response of the muscles. But standbys don’t get as much rehearsal as the first cast. I knew that, too.

If Patricia Kilgarriff felt any anxiety whatever about flinging herself into the scrum onstage, I saw no hint of it. Meanwhile, she delivered a Dotty Otley that (as I would learn when I saw Loudon in the role) was subtler, wittier, more believable. Those qualities aren’t strictly necessary in a farce, where everybody’s a cartoon. And yet Kilgarriff managed to hoist Dotty’s character into another, more humane realm, without unbalancing the comedy, and she richly earned the laughs she got.

And she didn’t get herself killed. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this fact.

See a movie twice, and the cast remains the same; that’s not necessarily so with the cast of a stage play. Theater is like life, though: changing, growing, subject to random chance. Thus, the next time I saw Noises Off, Kilgarriff took over for Linda Thorson.

Yet again, she offered a more rounded interpretation of the character, with a better grip on the moral ambiguity and humor of Belinda’s well-intentioned busybodying. Kilgarriff was more focused and funnier than Thorson now, just as she’d managed to hit other parts of the theater than the back row (of the theater across the street) to which Loudon, God bless her, typically played.

And yet again, Kilgarriff dove into the choreographed pile of potential murder-suicide — this time, from a completely different angle. Mind you, Loudon and Thorson would have gotten the bulk of the rehearsal time with Blakemore, if not all of it, and they were responsible only for knowing one set of blocking: Kilgarriff had to know two.

She survived, unscathed, to receive my compliments at the stage door. Because of course I had to tell her how much I admired her thrilling performances. Both of them. Indeed, I was almost impatient for the ovations to end, so that I could shake the lady’s hand.

Courage of another kind: Kilgarriff as Florence Foster Jenkins,
the notorious coloratura soprano,
in a regional production of Glorious!

She was wonderfully modest. I saw that she wasn’t doing this for marquee billing or a big paycheck or her picture on the cover of some magazine. She did it because — well, it’s what an actress does. And she made that recompense seem, in itself, greater than any other.

That was 1985. Years later, those nights in the theater aren’t quite so distinct in my memory, yet the overall impression remains vivid. Kilgarriff’s twin performances affirmed the words of Lloyd Dallas, the director of the play-within-the-play Noises Off:
“That's what it’s all about, doors and sardines. Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s — that’s the theatre. That’s life.”
And that’s one reason I keep going to the theater. You never know when life is going to strike.

Patricia Kilgarriff continues to work on stage and screens, and to pursue a career as a voiceover actress and reader of audio books. Since this work doesn’t entail tripping over Paxton Whitehead, it’s safer — and I daresay no less rewarding.

NOTE: My appreciation of the practical demands of Noises Off was no doubt enhanced by my companions: the actor Andrew Weems, the first time I saw the show; and kick-ass lyricist Amanda Green, the second time. True-blue theater animals both, they have never failed to raise my consciousness of the stage. Andy has since acted in the play, as Lloyd. (So now maybe Amanda should adapt it as a musical?)


Robert Blumenfeld said...

Thanks for this article. I know Patricia very well, although I haven't seen her for some time. She recorded Talking Books for the American Foundation for the Blind, which I also did, and we used to talk a great deal. She is a wonderful, feisty, humorous lady of great charm and wit, and a brilliant actress as well. And she just loved recording! She was always so enthusiastic. Life-affirming, and full of liveliness and verve.

William V. Madison said...

Another theater-going friend has written to say that I've missed out on far too many of Patricia Kilgarriff's most impressive performances in repertory that's demanding in ways completely different from Noises Off: he particularly cited her work in Edward Albee's plays. (So impressive was she on these occasions, in fact, that my friend couldn't even imagine her in Noises Off.)