Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias Act Three

Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias, Act Three

                Some bad news this early in – the actor playing Lawyer Possum (Ernie) has left the show. Our director has replaced him – David will be our new Lawyer Possum (I am avoiding last names). I only saw Ernie at the block rehearsal for Act One, Scene Two and never got to meet him or introduce myself.
                Lawyer Possum is the smallest role in the play other than Colonel Rance Chickenwing; but as with the Colonel, it is an important one. They are both the first two victims of this murder mystery. Don’t be upset that I spoiled a “surprise”, c’mon, we’re adults here. It’s a murder mystery – people get murdered. And it is not as if I am telling you who did it. Please remember this is a spoof – even if I did tell you who did it, how and why; it wouldn’t make any sense. And it wouldn’t spoil the enjoyment of a very silly show.
                There is one victim whose death is unexpected, though; I won’t reveal that one. It would spoil some of the fun!
                The two blocking rehearsals went very well. The actors are still learning their lines and cues, but it is coming together. The nuances and ebb and flow of the conversations, arguments and (mostly) non-sequiturs are starting to gel. The physical cues will come after the dialogue is set in our minds. In other words, it’s hard to remember to walk to the fireplace mantel when you are still reading lines from the playbook.
***
                Let’s meet my characters. I am playing two separate people, one of which has split personalities. So I am playing two characters and four personalities. I believe I will be the only actor or actress in the play that will have a costume change – at least three! I haven’t spoken to the director about a possible fourth costume change for the fourth personality. I think it’s appropriate and I do not mind doing it – there will certainly be enough time in between my scenes to change – I just hope there is a place other than the public bathroom to change!
                Colonel Rance Chickenwing: the patriarch of this little group of misfits. By the time of the play he is seventy-six years old and appears to have emphysema, tuberculosis or some kind of breathing trouble. So far I have not done his voice with a wheeze – I shall have to discuss if the director even cares about that. He is from old antebellum money; but that money seems to have run out some time ago. His father grew lilacs. He was a US Senator for a very brief time. Whether he won an election or was appointed to replace a vacancy is unknown. I would guess the latter. The Colonel seems the type to keep to his friends and family – rarely if ever leaving his home or grounds. He doesn’t seem the type to want to travel the state meeting the great unwashed and kissing their babies.
                If his term was any shorter he would be in the Guinness Book of World Records, Jezebel the housekeeper said. His only activity in the Senate was his bill to make his home, Belle Acres, its own state. If he ran for the seat in an election, he would have made no bones about this being his primary aim. He would not stump about protecting and serving his constituents. He would not have been elected. Not back then anyway, nowadays …
                When his only piece of legislature failed he likely decided not to run for re-election or resigned from the Senate. At least he has his lifetime pension and insurance.
                He drinks at least once per day and chews tobacco.
                By now (and likely as a young man) he is crotchety and angry when not getting his way. He neither suffers fools nor does he like anyone speaking to him as if he were their equal. I doubt he considers very few people his equal.
                He is the lord of his manor and they are a reflection of each other. In these later days he and his manor are crumbling and fading toward its end.
                He loves and cares for his ditsy sister – his closest relative – although he can’t stand to be around her for very long. Jezebel is the only character that stands up to him and matches his wits, so obvious he cannot stand her. If she were a better housekeeper he may have a grudging respect for her and even secretly like her – but I am putting way too much depth in these characters.
                Although the script calls for him to be weak and wrapped in a shawl, I would rather play him as the snappy and snarling lion in winter – still able to slap down foolishness or anyone being too uppity for their station. He dies at the end of the prologue; and it is not until Act One we find out he was murdered.
                He looks like Colonel Sanders. I have the white suit for it and the thick reading glasses. I’ll likely be wearing a string bow tie or bolo and white wig, mustache and goatee. He also wields a cane.
                Thornbird Chickenwing III: a poet in the Tennessee Williams mold. The playbook says he is weak, frail and slightly effeminate. At six-foot-three and over two hundred and fifty pounds I doubt I can play weak and frail. I can do effeminate, but to play full-blown camp doesn’t fit. I think the director agrees with me. At least so far she hasn’t asked me to go all Waylon Flowers …
                He is a poet. Whether he is successful or not is unknown. He doesn’t do anything else for a living so he is either living off his family’s old money or able to live on his writing. How he developed his split personalities is unknown. The play does not say whether he is even aware of his mental illness, so I am playing as if he has no idea. He may be aware of the events witnessed by his “sister” and “great-great-grandfather” when his Thornbird personality returns, but that is unknown. Did he remember his “sister” learning about his inheritance or did he learn it from, say, Bubba? There are no lines in the play indicating what happens when Thornbird transitions from one personality to the next – and I realize I am putting WAY too much thought into this silliest of parts in the silliest of spoofs – but it’s important to me to know how Thornbird would react to things happening to his other personalities.
                Thornbird (mine at least) is dressed in a frock coat – I have a nice tuxedo coat that looks old-fashioned and with some pinning could be very Victorian/steampunk, black pants, spats, and my straw trilby (too big to be a real trilby/too small to be a panama hat). He will have a cane, too. It will have to be different from the Colonel’s. He will also have gold granny glasses with the small rope-like holder going around my neck. 
                I would like a mustache and a small patch betwixt lower lip and chin.
                Thornbird’s sister: They never give her name and she has only 5 lines. She’s done purely for shock value and the playbook says to use a deep (normal) voice. It’s hard not to do a high breathy voice in the scene. I always imagined those Benny Hill skits when he played the Southern Belle.
                I’ll wear a loud dress and carry a parasol and wear a wig. I’ll keep the mustache and beard patch. I hope I can still wear my pants, shoes and spats underneath.  They will be obvious from the audience, but it will work – Thornbird is supposed to be crazy, after all.
                Rufus T. Chickenwing: Amanda and the Colonel’s great-great-grandfather. We only know that Thornbird, Bubba and Blanche are distant, distant, distant cousins of Amanda and Rance. Whether they are all first cousins or some generations removed is unclear and intentionally so. I would guess the younger characters – Thornbird, Bubba & Blanche – are cousins or second cousins to each other, while the older folk – Amanda and Rance – are cousins to the younger set’s parents.
                Rufus is 205 years old and is a poet. One poem was written one line per year and is now up to 183 lines. If using modern dates (as opposed to 1980, when the play was written), this means he started his poem during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
                Whether Thornbird actually had a sister is unknown, but Rufus was “real” and Thornbird is assuming his persona – as in the great tradition of Teddy from “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Is it normal to assume both real and non-existent people in a multiple personality case?  I’ll let the psychiatrists argue about that one…
                I don’t know what to wear as Rufus yet. Should I put back on the white suit coat of the Colonel’s? Keep the black pants and spats? Using the Colonel’s white wig would be funny – especially making sure it isn’t on correctly and twists and turns throughout the scene.
                Rufus carries, and is attacked by, a bird on his arm. My wife won a giant plush parrot some twenty years ago and we had it displayed in our house. I took it to the first blocking rehearsal as a prop. The director said it was perfect and we can use it in the play. At one point I am behind the couch being attacked by it. This is where twisting the wig around would work.
                But will I look too much like the Colonel? Will anyone think I am the same character but “in disguise”?
                Remember the great movie “Sleuth”? Michael Caine played a detective investigating the disappearance of the main character played by Michael Caine. It was obviously the first character in disguise. His moment of truth was not so thrilling. “Wyke, it is … ME!! Milo Trindle!!”
                “No. It. Cannot. Be. Say. It. Isn’t. So,” chews Laurence Olivier.
                You knew the detective was Michael Caine – you explain it by saying it’s a two-man show, so of course they play separate parts.
                So will people say, “It’s the Colonel” when Thornbird walks on?
                Yes, but I will try to make them separate people – their voices will be different. The Colonel’s voice will be a big-mouthed gruff mountain bark; Thornbird’s a tight-lipped Virginian drawl.
                Fortunately the Colonel does his entire scene sitting, so I don’t have to worry about how they walk or move about.
                I won’t worry about that if no one else does. If anyone says, “I was expecting you to take off your hat and say ‘I was the Colonel all along!’ we can rethink it in later performances.
                After the costumes are firmed up and the blocking done I hope to get some pictures here and on my Facebook page. More news as it develops!
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry
             


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