In the realm of educational theatre, the rehearsal process for a main-stage show generally lasts several weeks, if not months. It can
be hard work. Yet if the selected material gives actors and directors enough to work with, what could be a laborious process is, for its participants, more often a joy.
Mark Hurty and Corinne Veverka, directors of Augustana College's productions of Black Comedy and The Real Inspector Hound, respectively, know this well. (The shows will be performed together at the college's Potter Hall April 28 through May 7.)
Hurty, a guest director helming his third Augustana production, says, "If you're gonna be an actor and participate in a play, you want the material to have something meaty and rich there that you can actually explore on an everyday basis." And as many theatre devotees would agree, you don't get much meatier or richer than Tom Stoppard and Peter Shaffer.
The accomplishments of both British playwrights have made them legendary - Stoppard won Tony Awards for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Thing, and received an Academy Award for co-writing Shakespeare in Love, while Shaffer received Tonys for both Equus and Amadeus, the latter's screenplay also earning him an Oscar.
For four decades, Stoppard and Shaffer have been revered for their wit and brazen theatricality - evident in both Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound and Shaffer's Black Comedy - and, for the Augustana directors, the writers' talents are currently making for a delightful challenge.
"Shaffer and Stoppard are both really quite gifted as writers," Hurty says, "and what we're finding is the depth of the nuance that's there for us to enjoy. It's really neat to be able to dig in and find those little nuggets of character."
Veverka, an Augustana senior majoring in theatre, agrees. "That's one of the exciting things that we've found. Having a longer rehearsal process, we've found a lot of those moments that are so good and so rich for some of the characters. It hasn't gotten old because there's so much there."
Stoppard and Shaffer debuted their respective one-act comedies in the mid-1960s - Hound in 1968, Black Comedy in 1965 - yet, professionally, they had never been produced in tandem until 1998, when producer Sam Mendes put the shows together for a presentation in London's West End.
Critics were generous with their praise - The London Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh raved, "This farcical double-bill from the 1960s shows what absurd fun Tom Stoppard and Peter Shaffer created when they let their fantasies run wild." And The Times' Jeremy Kingston wrote, "The mystery is why this suave pairing has never been attempted before."
In the eight years since, the one-act plays have often been presented side-by-side - "It's a great fit," says Hurty - and for reasons that go beyond their authors' pedigrees; in addition to being enormously funny, both shows profoundly, and giddily, tinker with expected theatrical conventions.
"It's a play-within-a-play," Veverka says of The Real Inspector Hound. "It's been called a play-outside-of-a-play ... the audience doesn't know, really, what's real, and the characters don't know what's reality and what's fiction and theatre."
Hound concerns two theatre critics who, bizarrely, find themselves embroiled in the production they're supposed to be reviewing, and Veverka finds Stoppard's metaphysical experiment fascinating. "It blurs the lines between actor and spectator, and critic and performer, and kind of takes you out of that box of the traditional roles we play as an audience member or as a performer."
In the topsy-turvy world of Hound, it's the critics who find themselves under audience scrutiny, and Veverka enjoys the relish with which Stoppard lampoons these banes of the playwrights' existence. "I think it's a very fun commentary on critics and theatre," she says, adding that Stoppard has also fashioned his protagonists with a degree of self-deprecating humor.
"One interesting thing we learned," she says, regarding the research she and her cast have done on the piece, "is that a lot of the critics' dialogue is actually actual criticism of some of Stoppard's other work. So he's taken things that have been said about him and spun 'em around and threw 'em in here."
Black Comedy, too, plays with audience expectation and theatrical norms, in that what the audience sees is exactly what they're not supposed to. "It's a fun show," Hurty explains, "because it uses that sort of kabuki device where everything that happens, presumably, in the light is, in fact, in the dark, and vice versa."
Like Hound, Black Comedy is, says Hurty, "also kinda upside-down and sideways and inside-out." Whenever the stage lights are on, those onstage can't see one another. But the audience, of course, can see them clearly, and the comedy comes from the furtive goings-on of characters who only think they aren't being seen. As audience members, Hurty says, "we can watch the deceptions as they're taking place. And also, the mistakes that happen, the unintentional interactions that occur ... there are a lot of fun things like that."
But for Hurty, Black Comedy's greatness lies beyond its comic appeal. "One of my favorite plays is Equus," he says, "which is a very deep and dark and brooding kind of a play, and has as its center theme this idea of, 'What is broken inside of us that allows us to do things that are really destructive?' This play actually takes on that same issue but does it in sort of a fun way. I think what's so rich about this play is that it speaks to the human condition, but in a way that's fun and playful.
"The play is about the interplay of light and dark," Hurty continues. "Humor versus real pain and suffering, and there is some real pain and suffering cast against this really very funny backdrop. This could as easily be a tragedy if Shaffer chose to write it that way."
Yet, to an audience's delight, he didn't. Hurty is quick to state that although Black Comedy's depth has made the lengthy rehearsal process a fulfilling one, what audiences will most respond to is the hilarity that results when the show's characters "don't realize who they're actually talking to or who they actually see."
Veverka, too, reveals that her directorial effort continues to not only challenge her, but greatly amuse her. After months of rehearsals, she says, "It's still funny, and there's something different [to watch] every night.
"It's a real testament to the piece that I'm still laughing at rehearsals, you know?"
Tickets to The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy are available by calling (309)794-7236.