Mamma Mia

It is a springtime ritual to attend the annual American Stage in the Park rehearsals. This year’s production was Mamma Mia based on the book by Catherine Johnson and directed by Stephanie Gularte with music and lyrics by Björn Ulvateus and Benny Anderrson. As promised it provided “Non-stop laughs and explosive dance numbers.” We enjoyed watching the rehearsals on successive nights as the cast, musicians, stage hands, lighting and audio technicians fine tuned the production.

We have been watching these rehearsals for fifteen years from the vantage of our Howda seats in an empty audience area. The only people rushing around are production crews and actors practicing their next scene. The setting, just outside the marina gate, has not changed during the past fifteen years. The technology has changed but the enthusiasm of actors and crew has not. I recall the very first rehearsal, a spoof on Shakespeare.

The cannon at the local yacht club adjoining the marina went off precisely at sunset. About an hour later, on a somewhat less precise man-made schedule, American Stage in the Park opened the season’s Shakespeare festival with The Bomb-itty of Errors. This “Ad-Rap-Tation” is a popular Off Broadway, hip-hop version of A Comedy of Errors. Three weeks later they opened with the more traditional production of The Taming of the Shrew. By Bomb-itty’s opening night I had already seen this production at least five times in rehearsals. It was another of my many marina adventures.

Shakespeare in the Park is an annual event held in the front yard of the marina. I watched the set construction but, not being a big fan of Shakespeare, made no plans to see the performance. However, the hip-hop beat that came rolling over the docks from huge speakers on stage peaked my interest. It was the first outdoor rehearsal and the boom-chick-boom-boom-chick drew me in.

Much of the marina is situated on a small island surrounded by piers for some 600 boats. In the middle of the island, called Demens Landing, is a three-acre grassy park landscaped with curving trails, a children’s playground, shore-side picnic tables, and the ubiquitous Florida palm trees. The city does a great job maintaining the landscape, which is enjoyed by boaters as well as non-boaters. It’s a dog heaven for the many pets on-board. Recently it has also become a favorite venue for guided Segway tours. helmets tourists glide about on their two-wheeled electric gadgets looking like a family of ducklings following their tour leader and wending its way single file through the park.

My favorite time of day is spent walking through the park on the way to the cafe for a newspaper , Internet fix, and, of course, that first cup of coffee. Later in the day I frequently meet neighbors tossing Frisbee for their dogs to fetch. In the early evening, as the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico, it’s fun to watch boaters return from a day’s outing in Tampa Bay.

In the hour or so between sunset and the start of the first performance of Bomb-itty, the crowd mills around, some selecting lawn chairs while others spread blankets and picnic fare. Andy, the Director, goes around shaking hands with each crew member, uttering a few words of thanks for a job well done. I was seated in my Howda seat alongside the control booth and next to Mark, the Set Designer. This had become my accustomed seat for the past five nights of rehearsals. I had become a guest fixture — known to the crew as the guy who lives on a boat. The Director also shook my hand thanking me for my devotion to the rehearsals. By the time opening night arrived, I had seen at least five full productions of the play.

I made a point of sitting through the many rehearsals to absorb the behind the scenes dynamics of a Shakespearean production, albeit a very modern and high-tech version. I was particularly interested in the computer control of some eight-dozen lights, the audio control of wireless microphones and throbbing mega-watt amplifiers, down to the mundane job of constantly adjusting latches on six interlocking doors on the set so that they would open and close on cue.

At one point I noticed some padding had been installed on a light tower fixture because the actors were constantly bumping into the sharp metal as they came on and off the stage. I mentioned this to Mark, the Set Designer, who had become my frequent seatmate at the rehearsals. I told him a three-dimensional architectural animation of the set and the actions on stage would have highlighted the awkwardness of this cramped passageway. Actually, I was trying to sound smart and observant based on my son’s work with per-visualization of motion picture sets. Mark had heard of this technique but confessed to being an old-fashioned paper and pencil designer, hence the last-minute padding.

I also remarked on the angle of the stage, which was not well aligned with the topography of the park. A slight turn would benefit the audience expected to sit on a nearby grassy knoll. Mark said that was also a last minute change in design, as was the removal of a piece of window framing that annoyed the Director. I was beginning to appreciate the many professional interactions and conflicts.

As an untrained theater goer, I was trying to understand the Director’s likes and dislikes. Generally I could not detect the nuances in lighting changes or pauses in the beat that seemed very important to the Director. However, it was clear when he was happy and when he was unhappy. I could sense his frustration when he marched around carrying his plastic lawn chair briefly sitting in various positions as he made up his mind on how he wanted the scene to look and sound. Then suddenly his annoyance would disappear as he gave a thumbs up sign and the crew hurriedly recorded the changes all the time agreeing with the Director’s wisdom.

It was impressive to see the hard work on the part of the four actors and DJ as they repeatedly responded to the Director’s calls to replay a scene with this or that change. They would keep going over a sequence of lines until he was satisfied. This entailed intricate timing adjustments between the disk jockey, the flashing lights, computer generated sound reverberations, and the rap lyrics.

The entire play is one long rapping session among four male actors — two white and two black — playing multiple male and female parts. A DJ is constantly on the set playing music, scratching records, dropping needles, and keeping up the hip-hop and reggae beat. Four female dancers and two break-dancers appear briefly but for the most part the four actors and the DJ’s turntable carry the show.

On several occasions during a break in the action, while the Director was huddled with the Stage Manager or Lighting Director, you could hear the actors in the background continuing to rap among themselves. One of the four would voice the beat while the other three took turns rhyming away. They were staying in character during the break much like joggers running in place while waiting for a light to change.

By coincidence, my introduction to rapping — other than a few video clips, surfing the radio dial, and the movie 8-Mile — came shortly before this Shakespeare experience. In a small nearby art gallery, I attended my first “poetry slam.” Sixteen prize-winning photos were selected and individually projected on a screen. Four local rap artists were given fifteen seconds to study the photos and make up rap soliloquies based on their interpretation of the photo’s theme. It was amazing to see the brief but intense concentration needed by the rappers to prepare their delivery. A fifth member of the troop provided the musical background by mouthing into a microphone. I learned that this vocal percussion is called beat-boxing and results in the familiar boom-chic rhythm. In what seemed like no time at all the rappers developed a coherent theme and rhyming lyrics to the hip-hop beat of the beat-boxer.

One dread-locked, inner-city rapper was deeply moving with his performance. The photo on the screen prominently displayed the American flag. Studying the picture, he moved closer and closer to the screen until the flag image draped the back of his head and body. He turned around slowly with the flag image now squarely on his face and chest and began his rapping with a complaint “I don’t wanna talk about de flag. I wanna be part of it.” His disenfranchised feelings came through clear and angry.

During one of Bomb-itty’s early rehearsals, the crew misplaced the all-important restroom key, which had been attached to a foot-long board. The marina office had given them one key along with instructions to use the main restroom at the marina office. As Janine, the Stage Manager, scurried around the set looking for the key, I had my chance to become a hero and instant member of the crew. By now they had all grown accustomed to my presence as a visitor. I offered them my restroom key and directed them to several restrooms surrounding the marina grounds. As Janine and Andy quickly strode off, grateful for the key, I felt a touch of the camaraderie that envelopes the production of a play. It’s a team effort with everyone recognizing and appreciating the professionalism and contributions of fellow crew-members and cast. That does not mean there is no grousing when the Directors calls for yet another “Take it from the top.” But everyone knows that success depends on the efforts of the team — including the holder of the spare restroom key.

The second live-audience performance was rained out by one of Florida’s well-known and frequent thunderstorms. I was back for the third night. Janine and Dawn, the Master Electrician at the computer light table, bid me welcome. They were surprised to see me again now that rehearsals were over. I told them I wasn’t quite through memorizing the lines. “Good,” said Janine. “We never know when we might need an understudy.”

The next morning I was taking my usual walk through the park when I noticed two people with metal detectors sweeping the grounds. They were looking for loose change or other valuables dropped in the grass — trickle down economics from the theater crowd.

The local paper review of the play pronounced it “. . .a show bursting with unpretentious fun and featuring an indefatigable cast, proved an enormous triumph. . . . high-energy fun. It’s witty delightfully silly and often very funny.”

It was both fun and educational and a modern way to appreciate the Bard in the new millennium.

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Migrations between a small farming village in Bavaria and a Gulf of Mexico port on the west coast of Florida — the Sunshine State

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Michael Frankel

Michael Frankel

A snowbird from Bavaria

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