[Editor's Note: This story was published in The Oregonian in 1993, while I was serving as the paper's theater critic.]
As the cast and crew of "Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' file into their first meeting before rehearsals begin, they are chortling. Someone, it seems, has just called the Oregon Shakespeare Festival box office seeking tickets to the Terrence McNally play.
"I want four tickets to 'Lips Together, Legs Apart,' '' the guy says.
The startled ticket-seller quickly corrects him, but too late: Visions of the X-rated parody already are sprinting through everyone's head.
In a way, the joke is a stroke of luck, helping to break down the reserve among this disparate collection of friends, acquaintances and strangers. And the tone is right. McNally's play is no "Debbie Does Dallas'' or even "Oh, Calcutta!'' but it has its ribald moments. Think of it as a darkly comic exercise in the existential and the absurd, with some naughty words thrown in.
More than 20 actors, costumers, administrators, techies and other assorted theater folk gather in the rehearsal hall of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts as director Penny Metropulos takes the lectern. It's late January, five weeks before the Feb. 24 opening night, and Metropulos is clearly ready to roll.
Short, curly haired, with a green knit sweater and an animated face that dances and smiles as she talks, Metropulos packs considerable voltage. It's easy to see why, after giving up a successful career as an actress, she's become such a hot directorial property. She's also open, even to the possibility of allowing a journalist into the normally closed world of the rehearsal process.
Will the production suddenly come alive one moment in the rehearsal hall — a pretty worm, wriggling toward the light? Or will it be a gigantic exercise in legerdemain, an elaborate sleight-of-hand, an illusion carefully wound and sprung on the audience? The journalist will be allowed to drop in from time to time over the next five weeks to find the answers. Make that, to learn that the reality is a lot less glittery and magical than one imagines.
Metropulos zips through the opening meeting. She describes the script ("I think the play is about fear and courage''), talks about the set, supplies some key words and images from the text, and discusses acquired immune deficiency syndrome and how it figures in the play. ("The AIDS epidemic makes us think about destiny.'') Then she predicts what the play's painful, personal nature will mean for her and the actors: "Although we'll be getting into some nasty places, we'll have some laughs, too.''
Metropulos extends an invitation to the extended group to come in and watch rehearsals, but asks that they clear it with her first. "It's a small cast,'' she explains, "so you feel pretty exposed out there.''
Tony DeBruno, one of the actors, picks up the cue and returns the discussion to its ribald beginnings. "Especially when I take my shower.''
"Oh,'' Metropulos retorts, "everybody is invited that day.''
Act One: Details, details, details
"Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' has only four characters. That made Metropulos' auditions in Ashland last August crucial. With only four actors, a casting error would be disastrous.
What was she looking for? The right physical types, perhaps, to fit the play?
"I was looking for an inner rhythm,'' Metropulos answers.
At first that seems like so much mumbo-jumbo — the theater-world equivalent of "whatever feels right.'' But then it starts to make sense.
"We all have rhythms that are our natural rhythms,'' Metropulos continues. "Fast, slow, smooth, jerky. That inner rhythm is where you live. It's not that we can't shift from there — good actors can — but it's where you live. For ' Lips' you don't want a lot of slow Southern rhythms. This is set in the Northeast. You need drive and speed.''
The group she has assembled sports three Ashland regulars — Linda Alper (who worked with Metropulos on "Restoration,'' last season's critical hit, among other starring roles on Ashland stages), DeBruno (another "Restoration'' vet who has acted all over the country, often in comic roles) and Bill Geisslinger (whose list of Ashland credits is far too long to fit here).
The fourth, Amanda Carlin, has major New York and Los Angeles experience and appeared in the festival's Portland version of "Season's Greetings.'' Trying to find a fourth for her trio, Metropulos remembered that performance in the dark Alan Ayckbourn comedy and invited her to join the show.
Despite the actors' differences in experience and approach, they are a warm and funny group. And they do have a similar rhythm: quick, to the point, alert.
DeBruno has a long face, expressive eyes and a flair for comedy. A veteran actor who has spent the last four years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, DeBruno's Everyman sort of appearance fits well with Sam, the middle-class character he plays in " Lips Together, Teeth Apart.'' Sam has some homophobic feelings and he's irritated by people who can identify Schubert, but he's not an Archie Bunker. He's much more sensitive than that.
Carlin brings zest, insouciance, sensuality and a flair for the theatrical to Chloe, Sam's sister and the wife of John. Chloe seems to be the least complex character, primarily because she always says what's on her mind. She is overt, vulnerable, always taking care of everyone's culinary cravings. "You get a clearer take on Chloe instantly,'' Metropulos says. "Then you start looking more deeply into it.''
As John, Geisslinger plays the role of a cynic. John is ailing, physically and emotionally. He can be prickly and nasty. He doesn't try to get along. "John makes me sad,'' Metropulos says. Geisslinger must be closed and flinty one moment, closed and blissful the next, then closed and aggravating. It's a serious role, though Geisslinger is determined to find some leavening in it.
Alper, who has spent seven of the last 13 years working in Ashland after training at Julliard and working for 10 years out of New York, gets the complexities of Sally. Sally is dealing with the death of her brother and his gayness, and with a lot of other things: her affair with John, her pregnancy or lack of same, her general feelings of separateness and alienation. Things affect Sally deeply, and they show up in Alper's expressive face, her shoulders, her posture.
Besides choosing the cast, the Ashland-based Metropulos had hundreds of other choices to make before the operation moved to Portland. Theater people are always talking about choices. They think of the finished production as the culmination of a series of choices, managed by the director.
"You try to be as specific as you possibly can about what you show out there,'' Metropulos says. "There isn't time for just ' kinda, sorta.' On the stage for 2 1/2 hours it all has to be specific work that opens the point of the play. It's about specific choices.''
Many of the essential choices have been made before rehearsals start. The play has been chosen (by Henry Woronicz, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and assigned to a director (Metropulos). The director has cast the play, worked with the designer (Robert Brill) on the set, talked about costumes (Sarah Nash Gates), lights (Derek Duarte) and sound (David Maltby).
The play's the thing
The play itself is where everything begins, of course, and Metropulos is a big fan of McNally's work. She remembers reading "Lips'' for the first time:
"I read it the way I would watch it. I read it to see if it did anything for me. I laughed out loud. It moved me. It talks about things that are very real and very important. It's extraordinary that he's done a play about AIDS without it being a play about AIDS. He focuses on what the disease has done to confront us as a culture; our fears and bigotries. You don't want to believe that you would wash your hands after being with someone you love. But we're here; we're scared.''
Even talking about it, Metropulos gets misty. It's something she obviously feels deeply about.
"Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' takes place at a beach house on Fire Island, a resort getaway near New York City. Sally and Sam have inherited the place from Sally's brother, David, who has died of AIDS. It's the Fourth of July, and they've invited Sam's sister, Chloe, and her husband, John, to spend their first weekend with them in their new vacation spot. Very quickly we learn that Sally and John have had an affair, that Sally and Sam have been having problems connected to her inability to have a child, that John has cancer, and that Chloe is beginning to crumble under the strain of life with John.
A quick summary misses McNally's humor: "Lips'' is a very funny play. It also presents very complicated technical problems. Music swells onto the set from the offstage houses on either side of Sam and Sally's new place. Very specific music: Mozart, Gluck, Schubert, Ellington, music from Broadway musicals, even some pop stuff. The house must have a working kitchen. The set must also have more than a suggestion of a swimming pool.
All of these problems involve choices. But by the time rehearsals begin with a first read-through on Jan. 22, many of the decisions have been made. There's just this little matter of figuring out what the actors are supposed to do with their lines onstage, and then waiting for the magic to happen.
Act Two: Say it again, Sam
Rehearsal is not glamorous.
Repeat after me, rehearsal is not glamorous.
To the visitor, it resembles death by a thousand cuts: a sophisticated and cruel torture that lacerates text, actors, director, stage manager.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival rehearsals take place in a large, high-ceilinged room above the Intermediate and Winningstad theaters of the Performing Arts Center. It's full of banners and sports some large windows, but it hasn't been finished. Several of the walls are bare concrete. Still, it doesn't look like a torture chamber.
The rehearsal setup for "Lips'' is pretty simple: deck chairs and a table, a line marking where the house starts, a makeshift kitchen and two bedrooms. The actors wander around this space, trying to figure out where they are and what comes next.
In front of them is a long table crowded with stuff for the play: two cassette players, Big Red gum, Calistoga water, pencils and pencil-sharpeners, coffee cups, blueprints of the set, masking tape, a phone, variously marked scripts, watches, diagrams, a model of the set, Post-Its. Behind the desk sits stage manager Joanne Fantozzi, who coolly figures out all the cues for the play as she keeps up with Metropulos' instructions to the cast and makes sure everyone keeps to the schedule.
Jerry Montoya, production assistant, supplies props as they are required and prompts the actors when they draw a blank on their lines. He and Fantozzi are quiet and efficient, amazingly attentive and emotionally balanced.
Metropulos sits and watches — and takes notes. Lots of notes. When she sees something she really likes, she expresses approval enthusiastically. When something is going wrong, really wrong, she jumps up and intervenes. She tells the actors what she's seeing, asks them questions ("What are you thinking there?'' or "Why do you think Chloe wants to talk to Sally woman to woman?'') If it seems warranted, she lightly bounces through the physical gestures, demonstrating for the actor.
A Sisyphean task
Late one Friday afternoon, a couple of weeks into the rehearsal period, the actors are going over the end of Act Two. And suddenly it all comes clear: THESE GUYS ARE WORKING ON THIS ALL THE TIME!
It can be snowing, the Blazers can be fooling around in Salt Lake City, the Legislature can be fumbling away our future in Salem, and these seven people will still be up here going over "Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' — again and again, eight hours a day, six, count 'em, six days a week. They finish the final act, and then they start over at the beginning.
During the rehearsal period they will work on a particular scene dozens of times — learning the lines, working out the physical action, then trying to apply what they are learning about their characters to both the lines and the action. The changes seem minute. Gestures are cleaned up. Inflections change. The tempo is increased. An emotion — in this play, anger or sadness — is allowed to dissipate or increase.
Even Metropulos, who is cracking the whip, uses the word obsessive to describe the process.
"It seems to me as a director that you try to answer as many questions as you can,'' she observes. "But you never seem to have enough information. That's why it's such an obsessive kind of thing. You will spend eight hours rehearsing a play, four hours reading it and then go out to coffee and talk about it. You start relating everything to it — even the war in Yugoslavia. As (director) Peter Brooks says, with this one word, ' interest,' we could go very far.''
Later on, in a different context, she adds: "Ever since rehearsals started I've been dreaming about death.''
A tireless director
Throughout the rehearsal period, Metropulos is tireless. She keeps worrying a scene, answering questions (should Chloe put the cover on the grill if she's going to cook hamburgers, how should Sam hand a packet of pictures to Sally, how bleak is John at any particular time).
Instead of groaning under this assault, the actors actually seem to appreciate it. "She's intelligent and she has a lot of energy,'' DeBruno explains. "Actors often take on the mood and energy of the director. She gives you a lot of room. If you try something new, she sees that. You aren't acting in a vacuum up there.''
Alper, who has had to grapple with the ambiguities of Sally for weeks, is just as enthusiastic about Metropulos. "She's my favorite director ever to work with. She's very specific, and she's just dogged at keeping at the work. She has a good eye and she just keeps working. Penny doesn't get tired at draft 30: She goes on to draft 50, if that's what it takes.''
Gradually, the play takes shape. The actors give birth (Metropulos' term) to their characters. The connections between scenes begin to make sense. The "prop hell'' in which Chloe finds herself begins to work itself out. It doesn't happen all at once, and the changes are rarely radical. Slowly, after much effort, the production begins to breathe. No magic. No wriggling worm. One step at a time.
Then it's ripped out of the rehearsal room and plopped onto the stage of the Intermediate Theatre.
Act Three: The real thing
At the tech rehearsals, which start a week before opening night, the actors attempt to translate onto the stage the things they've been doing in the rehearsal hall. At the same time, Metropulos and Fantozzi work with the lighting and sound crew to make sure all the cues are right — that the Gluck comes wafting in at exactly the right moment to shade the action of the play, or the right actor is illuminated during a monologue.
Metropulos is running a marathon. She dashes constantly from stage to production table and back. Talking over a scene quickly, putting her imprimature on a lighting decision, pointing out a propping problem, she seems to be everywhere at once. Fantozzi sticks to the table, earphones connecting her to diverse sound and lighting centers.
Two issues become paramount. Can Chloe deal with all the serving, cooking, cleaning and household chores with the way the house is set up on stage? After a while, it's apparent that she can.
The second issue is starker, and involves the pool. The pool is a rectangle, five inches deep, filled with a ton and a half of water. The question is, how will Geisslinger manage to plunge his head into the water, exhale enough bubbles so that the audience in the balcony can see them, inhale some water, be pulled from the pool and placed on Chloe's lap, and then spit the water in her face? How will he do it tonight? How will he do it night after night?
Geisslinger is visibly nervous about it. When he dangles his feet in the water for the first time, he stops the action abruptly. It's cold. Really cold. Not only is he going to be drenched, he's going to be cold and drenched. The first time he dunks his head, the rest of the actors proceed through their lines at a normal pace. Suddenly, he emerges spluttering from the water, dripping and gasping for air.
"We're going to have to speed this up,'' Metropulos says. She's concerned. Geisslinger had only wanted to have to stick his head under once, because of the chill. Now, it looks like more chlorinated water is in his future.
Into the water again. This time Sam and Sally get him into Chloe's lap, but he hasn't been able to inhale any water. Again. But not enough bubbles. Again.
And finally it works.
Far from wanting to do it only once, Geisslinger is now eager to try new methods to get the right effect. In fact you can't keep him out of the water. He submerges himself continually. He becomes the master of this watery domain.
The next night is dress rehearsal. And Metropulos is still fussing with the sound, the lights, finding the cleanest, most natural way for the actors to find their places onstage. But really, things are looking quite beautiful. Brill's set is a shining thing. Duarte's lighting effects range widely over what is possible, including a reflected fireworks display. Maltby, Metropulos and Fantozzi have figured out the tangled complications of the music and the sound of the ocean. Geisslinger is a porpoise in the pool, and all the actors seem fresher and more polished than they have before. In a moment of exhaustion, Metropulos even manages a confident smile.
But it's still a leap from dress rehearsal to last Wednesday's opening night — and the leap is illuminating. In between, the actors have had three previews to tighten things further. For the journalist who has missed the previews, one thing on opening night is shocking: gales of laughter.
The audience finds this grim existential play howlingly funny. It has seemed funny at times throughout rehearsals, especially Carlin's Chloe. But now Sam is getting laughs, big guffaws. Even Sally and John are getting laughs.
During the serious moments — the monologues, when each character muses over his or her circumstances — the audience quiets. After a particularly nasty exchange during which Chloe has been banished for six hours by John, Chloe tells the other three: "I think we are all pathetic.''
And there is applause.
Up to this point the characters haven't been noble, and we recognize that. Then Chloe says, "Sally, will you clean up? We'll have bugs galore. Pussy Galore! Remember her?'' And there's laughter again. The deftly rehearsed bantering onstage is reminiscent of that off-the-cuff ribaldry of five weeks ago, when the cast and crew of "Lips'' first met.
At Wednesday's opening night, the whole evening is a triumph: A funny, complicated contemporary play shines on stage, and has the audience bubbling at intermissions. It's an adult play with adult themes, intelligently written and produced. At the first intermission a woman in the audience says, "This is good,'' and heads for the lobby. At the second intermission, she's revised her opinion. "This is really good,'' she says, and waits for the third act.
The journalist, able to recall when the actors were bumping into things up in the concrete rehearsal room because they had to hold the script in their hands, is frankly amazed.
Nuts and bolts have turned to gold, after all.
This story first appeared in The Oregonian. Publication Date: February 28, 1993 Page: C01 Section: LIVELY ARTS