Thursday, April 12, 2012

The weirdest performance ever on the stage at Barter Theatre

In the course of some Facebook-commenting, friend Anthony Parnther reminded me of a unique event in our lives: a duet we performed for Barter Theatre's 14th annual Community Christmas back in 2007.

We agreed that our duet stakes a solid claim as the weirdest performance ever on the stage of Barter Theatre.

And I'm sure Barter's seen plenty of weird things. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it's the professional theatre of the Commonwealth of Virginia--a year-round, residential repertory company with a wide variety of theatrical works in production at all times. It's in Abingdon, just up the road from where I live. (The name "Barter" comes from its early days, during the Depression, when local folks could parlay their vegetables into the price of admission.)

Barter is thoroughly professional and high-quality, but they're not what I'd call weird. Sure, they'll do Waiting for Godot or something by Ionesco from time to time, but challenging as those are, they're so well-known as to be mainstream. In order for a performance to qualify as "weird," it has to combine novelty, uniqueness, and strangeness in such a way that it leaves the audience completely unmoored from any safe haven of expectation.

Anthony and I, with the help of Jon Hutchins, unmoored that audience way more than Othello could have.

Partly it was just in the nature of things. The Community Christmas is a charity fundraiser variety show, and this being Appalachia, the variety is provided by a folksy mix of local performers--three or four bluegrass(y) bands,three or four acoustic balladeers, a Dixieland band, a youth choir, maybe a church choir, and--this being a town with cultural pretensions--a youth ballet company And there's always a theme--the heart of Christmas, celebrate local, a Southern Christmas, etc. Or rather there's always supposed to be a theme. I'd done the gig before and was impressed with how performers just seemed to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. The theme in 2007 was "high notes of the season: a jazz, blues, big band Christmas concert." They asked me to play and, well, basically, I'm an oboe player.

I don't know about you, but "oboe" doesn't just leap into most people's minds at the thought of jazz, blues, and big band. However, I had, as I said, done the gig before playing oboe with a bluegrass(y) group called The Full Grace Grifters. We'd rendered Jimmy Buffett's "Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum," and I must've fooled some people. But hey, isn't that what grifters do?

I was determined to give them what they wanted. If they wanted jazz and blues, I'd give it to them. Since they'd already bid for an oboe, why not call them with a bassoon, and then raise them with electric lap dulcimer? Anthony Parnther would be able to cover on the bassoon whatever I threw at him. But who would we be? For some reason I started thinking about how unfair it is that our indelible image of Ebenezer Scrooge is his beforeness. So we'd be him afterwards. We'd be "Joy of Scrooge."

So, now that I've set the stage for the weirdest performance ever at Barter, here's how it went:

[Emcee Nick Piper]: And now, here for your listening pleasure are Eb Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, appearing at the behest of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to exhibit musical abilities that they never knew they had by performing jazz on the oboe and the bassoon.


[Scrooge (me)] Just remember, as in everything connected with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, what you're experiencing right now is a hallucination designed to change your behavior. What you are about to hear doesn't have to happen in real life ... if you will change your erring ways. Specifically, in one small matter of punctuation.

Look at your program.

Do you see how our first song is listed as "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen"? What about that comma? Horrified? No? The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is horrified. God rest you? What, is God in the mattress business now? Humbug! It should be "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"! God rest you merry! God rest you merry! God rest you merry! Gentlemen. And ladies. Upon the placement of that comma rests an entire understanding of the nature of the holiday and indeed of divinity. So now we're going to play it with the comma in the right place so you can wake up to the joy of Scrooge.

[Joy of Scrooge perform God Rest You Merry for oboe and bassoon.]

[While they are playing, a figure--in real life Jon Hutchins--comes out onto stage behind Scrooge's (my) back, carrying an electric dulcimer and wearing a full peacock tail, snakeskin pants, a loud plaid tie, a loud paisley tie, sunglasses, snowshoes, and a faux-tigerskin cowboy hat with a garish crown of crosses for a hatband. Bemused titters from the audience. The figure--in real life Jon Hutchins--slides the dulcimer next to Scrooge's (my) chair and puts the cowboy hat on Scrooge's (my) head while he plays.]

[God Rest You Merry concludes and Scrooge (me) takes up the patter] OK! Enough drama about a comma! You know it's not widely known that Dickens had a fourth Christmas ghost, between Ghosts 2 and 3, variously known in his manuscripts as The Ghost of Christmas 2.3 the beta version, The Ghost of Christmas What Were They Thinking?, and The Ghost of Christmas My True Love Gave To Me As a True Test of Our Relationship.

In this pre-first-edition self-published version of the story [here Scrooge (me) holds up the Classics Illustrated comic book version of A Christmas Carol], Dickens describes this ghost as--I'm reading his words--"a bizarre, chimerical figure, part peacock, part snake, part plaid, part paisley, with the eyes of a bluebottle fly, having for feet the shoes of Esquimaux, and haberdashed with a broadbrimmed hat of tiger skin, banded with a coronet of sham Byzantium."

I've never met this ghost, but I've felt his presence on occasion ... hey! What's this?

[Scrooge (me) reaches up and feels the cowboy hat, takes it off, examines it, then questions the audience] Is there something you're not telling me? Oh, and look here!

[Scrooge (me) looks down and sees the electric dulcimer] Just what I've always wanted! An ironing board with strings! Nothing like a truly practical gift that only The Ghost of Christmas 2.3 would know how to bring! But we hope our next song is something you can take home and use. It's a simple folk blues from the tradition that recognizes that Mary must've been one tired mama sometimes that first Christmas, and that her and our own Christmases sometimes need some rocking to keep us going.

[Joy of Scrooge perform Mary Had a Little Baby on bassoon and electric dulcimer, with the dulcimer sound run through a distortion/phaser pedal and the bassoon laying down like a bad bari sax.]

[Performance ends. Polite applause.]

[Backstage patter: "Joy of Scrooge, y'all are very dangerous people."]

So anyway, that's it. There was no aftermath. Anthony rushed off to another gig. Jon had already left with his Bride of New Year's Yet to Come, my daughter Emily.

Barter Theatre hasn't invited me back.


Any oboe/bassoon re-enactors out there that want to take a shot at God Rest You Merry: get the music here.

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