I arrived early, which is unusual for me, and sat by myself on the edge of the audience, a position which quickly became metaphoric for my feelings about the audience in general. "Dead Enders" stars three amazing actors: Michael Connors (who also directed), Jesse Allis, and Beau Mirchoff. Since most audience members came to see the latter, they were comprised almost exclusively of teenage girls. I felt old, and in feeling old, also felt a little creepy.
The performance began with the stage manager reading the audience instructions about turning off our cell phones during the performance. She read these instructions straight from her iPhone, and I did not miss the irony.
The lights went down, then up again, and Jesse Allis was on stage as Phillip - a homebound orphan suffocatingly but carefully sheltered by his brother, Treat (Mirchoff). Within a few scenes, their scrappy, dysfunctional routine is interrupted by Harold (Connors), a man of sketchy means whom Treat intends to milk for all he's worth. But Treat is not in control - nor is he ever, it seems - and Harold takes the boys under his wing for better or worse.
The trouble I've always had with stage performances is that I'm very aware of what I'm watching and that I'm watching it. Something has to happen on stage, something magical, to make me careless of my surroundings. I was never, not even in the most poignant moments of the play, unaware that I was sitting in a room full of teenage girls. Mostly this was because they seemed to laugh at all the wrong parts (like, shall we say, a death scene) or not laugh at all the right parts (like, shall we say, an intentional joke), but perhaps I'm being fussy. And it didn't help that my people-watching before the performance began turned the audience itself into a kind of character.
Ultimately, though, my awareness was none of the performers' faults. The magic did happen. I saw it. During the second act, from the time Treat climbs through the window and on, I believed every word and gesture.
More than with film or television, there's an immediacy to theater that inspires unparalleled delight. You are completely invested in the success of the performance as well as the progression of the story. You are rooting for actor and character both, and I'm not convinced that's just because they are standing right in front of you. I think it's something endemic to that type of performance itself. It has to do with the investment the actors have in every cell of their characters, in every slight movement. Your eyes can rove the whole stage. The camera of the audience is never out of focus. Every motion is charged.
Aware as I was of the audience, I was more aware of the characters on stage. I forgot to think about how the one actor balanced performing and directing the piece. Or how the other actor managed to prepare his posture behind the scenes before stepping out. They became their characters and the characters became the play. Theater won.
I've been thinking about stage performance in general ever since (which, granted, hasn't been that much time), and I've also been thinking about how depressing and weird is celebrity culture (for reasons). But most of my thoughts on those will wait for another day. For now, I'd encourage you to take advantage of the last few performances of "Dead Enders" this month. Bring your brother, your father, or your neighbor-who's-a-boy, and you'll make for a welcome variation in the audience. After all, it really is a piece about fathers and brothers more than anything. Ticket sales/donations go to a worthy cause. If you need any other excuses, let me know. I used them all.