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Archive for Thursday, March 4, 1999

THEATER FROM THE GUT: A WAR STORY SPECIAL TO THE JOURNAL-WORLD

March 4, 1999

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A children's theater director remembers the night when his young cast learned the meaning of "the show must go on."

Traditional wisdom in the theater says to avoid animals and children. This doesn't account for the pride of parents, grandparents and extended family who love to see their favorite child shine as a candy cane, fairy, mouse or even a rock.

After surviving "The Night the Kids Threw Up," I think it would have been better to push the broom behind the elephant in the circus parade than to sit at the keyboard wondering when and how "it" was going to happen again.

Tim was the saint of the evening. Tim is scary -- sometimes. He manages Liberty Hall. The children all "know" there is a ghost in our restored vaudeville palace and that Tim must be the man who feeds it. While good to the children, Tim is prone to sudden outbursts of anger when they totter on the edge of the balcony or race through the hall with popcorn and coke streaming behind.

No animals, big cast. "Why the Nutcracker Fought the Mouse King." Not the "Nutcracker" -- but the original 19th-century Christmas tale by E.T.A. Hoffman. Everything you'd expect was in the play -- toy soldiers, the seven-headed mouse king, the sugar plum fairy -- but more. Behind the story of the ballet is the richer, more disturbing tale of the nut of the Crackatook Tree and the curse of Dame Mouseyrinks upon Princess Pirlipat.

Five days before Christmas. The weather is cold. Excitement is intense. School is almost out -- and a flu virus visits the town. This happens. One toy soldier doesn't show up for tech. The King of Chocolate misses dress rehearsal. Opening night we are one cat short (the tiger doubles -- a small stretch). No problem.

Then comes Saturday. The afternoon show sees us four children short -- one of them apparently goes home after throwing up in the downstairs bathroom. The smell raises eyebrows and makes a few others queasy, but we are still under control.

Then the epidemic. Saturday night. Backstage becomes a Fellini film. I am playing the overture while the first child throws up -- not in the bathroom, but right in the central gathering area between the dressing rooms. The dressing room "moms" get Tim and he begins his vigil with a mop, a bucket and a big spray can of Lysol.

That child goes home and the others begin an internal investigation. Their conclusion (based on the natural reaction to the smell and sight of vomit): "I must be sick as well." Pantaloon pukes on his way up the stairs. Tim is there with mop, bucket and Lysol. I am oblivious while Rome burns backstage.

My first realization that anything is wrong occurs when the curtain goes up on Marie's bedroom, revealing her dolls, stuffed animals and brother Fritz's toy soldiers, all standing "frozen" but about a third AWOL.

I look for signs that the show is about to collapse, but they seem to know they will have to cover for each other and they must not break character.

The unthinkable happens. As Marie crosses to examine the toy bugler and drummer, the front soldier makes a small movement, almost imperceptible. His cheeks puff up. Marie's eyes become slightly bigger than usual, and she calmly says, "Fritz will have to fix you up. Come along to his room now." She marches the soldier casually off-stage, still in character to where Tim waits with mop, bucket and Lysol for this new installment of the Fellini film.

This installment begins the hysteria. Not one or two, but three more children spontaneously erupt. Backstage becomes a pandemonium of people rushing around, cleaning up, throwing up, trading costumes, calling parents and figuring out how to play scenes with substitutes. New and unique castings appear before my eyes.

Then the climax. Act Three. The soldiers once again frozen just before the big battle -- a soldier in the back room can contain himself no longer. He is three tiers up. He turns his back to the audience. There is no sound of barfing to give him away. The only telltale clue to his illness -- a strange splashing sound like curds and whey hitting the floor and then the smell, imperceptible to the audience, begins to waft past the frozen soldiers and toys, eliciting a slight shudder like a wave as each character realizes the nature of the smell, determines to ignore it, fails and then steels himself for the final battle.

The audience sensed it. Some knew. The children survived it. The Nutcracker won, the seven-headed mouse king was defeated. Tim cleaned up at least 12 more rounds of real and hysterical vomit and when the final curtain came down we all breathed a sigh of relief.

I'm proud of that Saturday night. The ghost stayed away, Tim proved himself a saint, the children stayed in character and learned the meaning of "the show must go on." And -- we all survived the night we performed Theater from the Gut.

-- Ric Averill, of Lawrence, is co-founder of the Seem-To-Be Players and a published playwright.

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