A month later and here I am again, finally on my way back to Appleton from Ashland after being out there much longer than intended – my 8/24 flight was canceled and then it was hard to choose a new date and then it was Labor Day weekend and then we slept through our alarms and overslept yesterday’s flight. Groundhog Day or a Twilight Zone but as it was as if all that was left was this surreal world of theatre in Ashland, as if all the rest of the world beyond the ring of mountains might have disappeared entirely.
It hasn’t. Maybe contrary to my own wishes: there it is below us, the foothills of the Rockies near Denver and before that the barren beautiful land around Salt Lake. Soon the tidy farmed rectangles of Nebraska. There is an awful lot of the US – so much room, so much land, so much beauty. We are such greedy morons.
This enclave of actors and theatre magic felt good for a month; it’s been a long while since I have been in and around actors and stage techs and directors. I like them. First, they are almost always talking about the work. There is something about how communal an art it is, I think, but I can’t name another kind of artist who, as a whole, talks out all the details. Certainly not my kind. We’re pretty much useless on that front. We’re the well steeped and already cold on the counter kind of tea. It’s weird and lonely to think and sit and talk to yourself – which is what writing often is, at least while you’re doing it. So actors are good company for an awkward, earnest type like myself. Words give them their jobs, of course, and give me mine too.
Acting, as an art, strikes me as both illusion and truth – the acting part is obviously pretending, intentionally false, fiction. Yet in the words are the soul an actor speaks and expresses; there is a depth there, a truth that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
This production of Henry V was so, so good. Spare and perfectly cast: there is no better thing than a cast that can deliver Shakespeare as if it’s modern English, who can get the meaning across even when you get lost in the verbiage. What a joy. I wish I could write about every single actor’s performance because they all that moment on stage that burned bright and as a whole, there were no cracks. Every aspect was consistent with the whole vision of the thing and the talent was all in service to that whole.
Which is to say that’s what this Henry V struck me as, most notably in Daniel José Molina’s Henry. I saw the play 3x from 3 different vantages and as I got used to it again – as with a familiar stretch of road – tennis balls, traitors, the breach, siege, fatigue – here is a funnier moment – but still this play is never actually funny, just uncomfortable. And all of the talking Henry does – only fewer lines than Hamlet, IIRC – there is this irresistible movement toward the inevitable, with Henry alternately dragged by or dragging the cart. In this production, during the speech in Act II when Henry walked like a kind of slow motion silent film, or a sepia print of WWI come to life – picking up the weight of those he carried; oh the weight of a king, as it’s often played. But this Henry – there’s so much young brash man to this portrayal, shaved head and all, that you are never either amazed by this Henry and you never feel sorry for him either. He is, like the peasant he describes in that ceremony speech, just working his day and his fate as does everyone else but with less sleep and almost no friends.
And this is where I’m not sure where my experience of the thing was more than the thing than was there, but my god, the ceremony speech. It’s not the most famous speech of the play but it is the best: when a king doesn’t envy his own place but doesn’t exactly value it either. It just is what it is; I am/have become this person who carries others, the kingdom, myself, and yet he’s really only ever carrying his own gloves, less often the crown, while all the soldiers around him grunt with actual heavy lifting.
This scene was the whole play for me maybe because the actor plays Henry as a less austere young man – informal, nearly, easy to smile and fucks right back but better than anyone who fucks with him. He’s a punk, amused by others’ stupidity and his own. This is the character who wakes up one day and realizes all of his friends are assholes – the people who used to be fun, who he found a home with. The punk rock king has to grow up, but still, fuck the system. Ceremony. Smoke and mirrors that will mess you up, confuse and disorient. You don’t get to be a person when you’re a king; you are no longer symbol but only signifier.
No doubt this is all obvious to those who love this play but it hit me sideways because I carry plenty myself and the moments when I wonder how I wound up here on the eve of a battle when I can’t even have too long to think because it’s too important to everyone else that I show my face so that they, in turn, can find the moment to show up too. It struck me that there is no shrugging (fuck off Ayn Rand you shitty melodramatic hack) for a king, or for me, or for any of us. We carry what we carry and that is all.
Before my wife gets too jealous of the lead – a lead she also once played, in a disastrous production that pretty much ended her acting career and maybe her life as a man – let me say that she does Pistol in a way that makes him – yes, I said him – exactly that. An anachronistic play on words, because Pistol is a punk, the older brother/role model sort, the kind that’s full of swagger and danger and is not, for a moment, a clown. He’s that guy you used to think was cool until you find out he’s actually a prick, all swagger and no actual core. Rachel’s Pistol is bitter, angry, opportunistic; his affection turns on a dime of the ‘are you with me or against me?’ variety, with loyalty to his own small cadre his only virtue, everyone else be damned. He doesn’t believe in a damn thing.
By the time Fluellen is teaching him some manners you really do want to see Pistol get his ass kicked. Even though you know he has lost every single one of his friends. Even though his love is dead. Even if. It’s the only way Pistol makes any sense, a kind of older shitty cousin to Henry, knights on a chess board. The Dauphin, the French king – these aren’t Henry’s enemies; Henry’s own past, Pistol and his old gang, are, and the victory is more in how he carries his own self forward, having pulled himself out of the petty, bragging, dishonest version of the person he might have been. Pistol is Henry’s ‘but for the grace of God’ who, we know, Henry gives all the credit to. Perhaps this is part of why Henry knows he’s got luck or divine grace just in not having become who he might have been.
Pistol, mind you, was cross gender cast in this production. Rachel could very well have played Pistol as a woman and there isn’t anything to say she isn’t. But after finding herself on as an understudy and then taking on the role permanently, she had to decide: use a decade + of acting skill developed while playing men on stage and in real life or not? Why waste all of that, all the time she lived as not her own self? She put that shit to good use; it was acting that helped her survive being trans and so it follows being trans might return the favor. Why ignore the tools in a toolbox you’ve had to carry all these years anyway? May as well use them.
While I know there will be plenty of people who have a problem of some kind with my wife playing a man onstage – because they think they get an opinion when they do not – I found it disturbing and nostalgic. I watched her play man after man after man onstage after all, cycling through them as if she might find one worth being. She never did, and it was only after playing Henry in repertory with Wilde’s Algernon that she finally collapsed and couldn’t go on. Henry and Algernon are, after all, the pillar and post of English masculinity, no? Faced with that combination, coming home every night to the work I was doing on crossdressing, she finally found a way to stop, her exhausted ‘no’ more an expression of fatigue than of knowledge. We didn’t know she’d transition then. She retired on a Sunday night in January, and the next day I found out my proposal for My Husband Betty had been accepted for publication – I hadn’t actually written it yet – and our lives took an entirely different turn. She got to rest, and think, and fade a little, while I did interviews and research and spent my days and night putting together a book that would eventually turn us into Helen and Rachel.
Rachel took over the part of Pistol 15 years to the month that My Husband Betty was published and a few months after she ended her career playing Henry. This is what 15 years is to a trans couple; this is what 15 years have been for us: we landed back at where we started before we took the turn to work out her gender, our careers, and our marriage, and somehow one of the most beautiful English plays about masculinity bookended those years.
Once more into the breach indeed.