A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 122: From Slapstick to Silence

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A Scene from "The 39 Steps" at the Oldcastle Theatre Company
A Scene from “The 39 Steps” at the Oldcastle Theatre Company


The 39 Steps

Oldcastle Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, and directed by Nathan Stith, turned Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film into something close to pure farce. A tiny cast of four actors, a few chairs, and we were off to the races. The two clowns, Patrick Ellison Shea and Jim Staudt, were far more than comics. Each turned himself inside out multiple times, portraying every kind of figure, from villain to spouse. I saw an evening performance, and it was electric with energy—this after they had already cut loose in an afternoon matinee. The play seemed entirely and wonderfully about virtuosity. We followed the plot in a kind of lazy way because we knew another pratfall was imminent. It essentially had no plot, the plot was so easily perceived that it disappeared. We got a kind of purity of playing; the joy of it. The excess was really thrilling.

Then there was the timing. Both Shea and Staudt had what seemed like total command of how time works on the stage, as funny in slow motion as they were in their manic mode. One of the best aspects of the show was the hint that Mr. Staudt was actually tired—imagine that! His breathlessness moving from one style of pratfall to another was real. The straight man and woman, Peter Langstaff and Natalie Wilder, were excellent foils in the midst of extravagance. Natalie herself participated in at least a couple of the escapades, and she came across as a very real character when she was not making us laugh. Peter Langstaff portrayed a perfect gentleman, haughty and confused at the same time.

Oldcastle is going from strength to strength these days. The 39 Steps is well worth a beautiful trip to Bennington.


The Sound of Silence

A few years ago in the midst of a passionate performance of the finale of a Mahler symphony, played by the Tanglewood Fellows and conducted by James Conlon, the orchestra came to what is often called in musical terms, “a grand pause.” Everyone stopped playing. There was a silence lasting at least 15 seconds, and then without any admonition from the conductor, the orchestral strings, perfectly together, resumed playing. I have long pondered this. How did this happen, first of all? Fundamentally important to it, was the trust Maestro Conlon showed, lowering his arms and listening as intently as his players, to nothing. Or was it nothing? What was in that silence that created it in the first place, and told 90 players when to resume? It wasn’t emptiness. It was, in fact, more full than the sound of the orchestra, at least at that moment. It was as if the playing reached a level of intensity that necessitated the silence. How did they all come back in together? Something that is difficult to achieve, even with a conductor. The the silence was full. It was the goal of the playing. It knew well what its beginning was, and more wonderfully, what its ending was. When the playing resumed, it seemed like a let-down somehow. As if we had seen the vision, and now were walking back down the mountain. Just one more of these moments—I saw the great Kurt Masur, working with a young conductor who had trouble starting the beginning of the Jupiter Symphony (quiet, quick notes), tell the young man to step aside. The maestro then walked up in front of the orchestra, stood there for a few moments, seconds really, made no gesture, and the young players began the movement perfectly together, some 15 or 20 seconds after the maestro stood before them. He was silent; they were silent. But the silence had energy, its meaning was so precise that it was better with no motion. Meister Eckhart writes of this, the silence is the word is the message. The beauty surrounding it, always striving, is there to make the silence. And when the silence comes, and when the silence ends, are always a mystery. To hear 90 players perceive this mystery, perfectly together, their sound uniformly imagined, their listening exquisite, taught me a great deal about what music is.

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