Hamlet famously advises the players he is directing to control their funny men. "Let those that play your clowns speak more than is set down form them," he says, "for there be of them that will them selves laught toset on some quantity of barren spectators to laught too, though in the the mean timessome necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it." Clowns, he says, are loose cannons on stage. And boy, is Hamlet right.
We've engaged Bob Rais to play our clown, Touchstone, in this show and Bob is a genuinely funny man.
He makes the whole cast laugh. He's a whirlwind of transgression, sound effects, and timing. He has the energy of a hundred fools. At our first reading he trampled all over the text, roared through every nuance. The sound we were hearing wasn't Shakespeare---it was the zing of his spinning bow tie, louder and louder untilk by the fifth act it sounded like an Apache helicopter. The cast was in stitches and he had driven me half crazy. By the end I was pouting like Hamlet.
I have another funny person in the play, Angie Parr, the young woman playing Audrey, who is luscious, goofy and very funny---she's Touchstone's love interest in Arden.
Last night we started staging their courting scene, which I suggested we try as a picnic. A dangerous idea. Out came the picnic basket, the mayonaise, the ketchup, the potato chips and the pickle jars. In the hands of these two, the picnic basket was a panodora' s box of infinite comic mayhem. Within seconds the text was in the wastebasket and I was saying no no NO---that is, when I wasn't laughing my head off. I felt very close to Shakespeare, who had some famous clowns in his company and who I'm pretty sure said a lot more than was set down for them in the script. That's villainous. At least when the script is by Shakespeare. We know he thought so.
On the other hand, that's just what clowns do. With true clowns there is always at least a hint of license being taken, of true lunacy in the air. The best clowns are free, and that makes them a little dangerous--at least to writers and directors. Touchstone is a real clown--but he's also a very dry and witty and courtly one. He actually makes sense, conducts arguments, and has intentions beyond being funny. He may be the hardest funny man to play in Shakespere, partly because he's often not funny. As a character he's shipwrecked a lot of good actors who've gone down in the role like bombing comedians, trying make stale jokes about pancakes and mustard funny. A few productions have even tossed in the towel from the get go, playing Touchstone as if he was never funny to begin with.
We think no such thing. We have Bob Rais, and Bob Rais will be funny because he can't help himself. My job is to see if he can be funny while also playing Touchstone, which is a different thing altogether. I know Bob is going to ride roughshod over more wit before we're done, and I know I'm going to sulk like the prissy prince of Denmark when he does. But yoked together, riding hard and fast in a cloud of dust, we may just reach the promised land of Touchstone territory. I'll try to keep him on the trail. He'll find the gold -- real fool's gold. We aim to bring home a wagonload.