The drive to rehearsal from my house in Ojai to North Hollywood is about 71 miles, door to door. Then, the drive back after rehearsal is the same damn distance. No, I don’t really damn that distance; I appreciate every moment of that drive.
That lengthy stretch of the 101 is symbolic of my journey with the production of Greeks 6 — Trojans 5 since casting was concluded in May. We had such a strong turnout of actors, thanks to a smart casting director and a producer/playwright who respects an actor’s work enough to pay a great deal in comparison to most Actors’ Equity 99-Seat Plan productions.
That producer/playwright, Chuck Faerber, also has delivered on the goods with a fun-ass play that offers well-constructed comic characters itching to be performed. Examples: Agamemnon, as not only the warrior/god but also disguised as a prankster/priest; Major Megamanus, the blood-and-guts commanding officer who wants glory in battle but is deathly afraid of mail call; the bespectacled embedded journalist, Cnesson from Cnossos, who falls in love with an Amazon warrior.
This fun-loving story strums the chords of comic conflict between the soldiers who occupy the belly of the Trojan Horse upon the eve of battle. This farcical fable fiddles around with the question of what defines a warrior as a hero, and — the yin to that yang — of what defines a coward in the face of life and death. I’ve always thought of myself as a hero: nice guy, fair-minded, a leader, liberal and kinda tall. And I have coward in me as well — I’d never swim into an underwater cave, one that gets smaller and tighter, even to escape from evil drug lords, or to save my Mom.
Rehearsals were due to start in July. I had a gig out of town for the entire month of June, directing a play and teaching acting, writing and improvisation in Fargo, N.D., so… my plan was to cast this play in May, have everyone learn the play for one month prior to rehearsals, then hit the ground running in July and open in August. The best-laid plan of this hero-man.
So while cast and designers used their June to connect with the work and get ahead of the game, I lived away from home, facing the worst personal time I have experienced since the mid-’70s. Loneliness and boredom created for me a reality check that my out-of-state gig was actually outdated, ineffectual and soul-crushing. The job fell way short of the administrative promises that had been made about it, and the student attendance was lackluster and disrespectful. It was then that June dumped more ingredients into this recipe — a heavy helping of sadness, confusion, frustration, anger, 2000 miles of driving from Fargo to Nebraska and back, and back again, and a sudden death.
I actually have been lucky, crazy lucky in my life thus far, and have never stepped into — let alone slogged through — the swamp of Depression. But by mid-June, I felt totally done in. I was immersed waist-deep, wondering how the hell I was going to start and lead the discoveries of a team of comic actors staging a goofy musical play about idiot soldiers who are stationed in the Trojan Horse. I didn’t know what is “funny” anymore. There was nothing funny, anymore, at all. And the start date for Greeks 6 rehearsals was rapidly approaching, like a party invitation being delivered to a mental ward.
What is the best way to begin a chore that you feel is overwhelming? Whistle a happy tune? Chew bubble gum? I’m told that the late great James Gandolfini used to begin the first take of difficult scenes in The Sopranos by just bellowing out loud, long and hard. That’s cool, but it wouldn’t help me. At one time I had been so excited about the challenge of staging this fast-paced farce, moving a lot of characters through a horse’s guts, finding truth and humor wrapped up in honest relationships and spit takes. Now I had to be the Answer Man, the hero with the torch to lead the way to the center of the planet. But I was empty. Forget finding the Best Way in, I would be thrilled to know of any mouse-hole entrance, any access to the party inside of this Pine Pony.
I finally just had to just jump in and begin that first day of staging. And so we did. And the laughter and new friends began to swirl around me, in a dessert of smooth and creamy fun. That stretch of the 101 began to offer fewer exit ramps and industrial parks, and instead more ocean views.
My playwright, designers and cast knew nothing of my tragic June, and yet they had the… well, not a cure, or remedy, but they had their prescription for healing. The actors came prepared. One came with his lines completely memorized. Their concentration and work ethic gave me a feeling of camaraderie. I wasn’t stuck at the top as the lone Decider, but more as a big part of the whole work force.
My costume designer spun gold from her collection of rocks, bottles, rags and straw. My music director glued diverse voices into sweet, confident harmonies. Their gifts of support and collaboration were unselfish and inspiring. In four days the play was staged and the creative ideas began leaping around as we explored all that this new goofy play was offering: dance routines, fight scenes, love scenes, doo-wop songs, disguises, surprises, sound effects, satire and a “honking, big Cockroach God”.
Just dive into your work, they say. And of all the things that “They” are credited to have said, they sure got that one right, I’d say. And how appreciative I am now to drive the damn 101 for five trips a week, down to NoHo and back to Ojai, for a five-week commute in order to work with creative artists.
And to work through Life and the gifts, both goofy and ghastly, that she gives.
Greeks 6 — Trojans 5. Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks 91423. Opens Saturday. Sat 8 pm Sun 3 pm. Through September 8. Tickets: $25. www.plays411.com. 323-960-7774.
**All Greeks 6 — Trojans 5 production photos by Joel Daavid.
Richard Kuhlman has been an actor and director in Los Angeles since 1983, back when Fountain Avenue was a fast short-cut. He has a great role in Robert Townsend’s new film, The Hive. He has directed most of his professional life, from North Carolina to Salinas, from Seattle to Chicago, ranging from Tartuffe, The Importance of Being Earnest, Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Inspecting Carol to Fuddy Meers. Among the many one-person shows Richard has directed are the Ovation-nominated Non-Vital Organs, the long-running Cheerios in My Underwear, She’s History and Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead. His production of Regretrosexual won the LA Weekly Award for Best Two-Person Play. His 2013 productions so far include The Skin of Our Teeth and the premiere of a play about grandparents rights, Nonna. His four-time Audience Award winning short film, A Bit of Counseling, can be seen on Funnyordie.com.