Vital Signs

Out of Balance

Ray Pentzell, head of the Hillsdale College theater department, attended university during the heyday of improvisational theater off-Broadway. When he could, Pentzell traveled down from Yale to New York dressed in the "straightest" outfit he could put together. His objective was to be picked by the improv players, who often selected hapless members of the audience as targets of theatrical abuse. Pentzell figured that he was as good an actor as any of them, so he'd do them one better when they coerced the "unwilling" gent onto the stage.

Pentzell's rule-breaking tactics came to mind while watching Michael Bogdanov's production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. As the patrons filed into the Festival Theatre, the stage was set up to resemble a cabaret-type bar, where an effeminate "host" presided in black leather. Two transvestites ushered what seemed to be ticket-holding customers onto the stage. These embarrassed patrons were seated at tables and offered drinks from the bar. The use of this sort of improv schtick (now some 20 years old) made it appear that Stratford was trying to take a step away from its typically conventional staging. As it turns out, however, all of the participants on the stage were Shakespearean actors—though not crafty ones like Pentzell. The audience slowly realizes that it was all a setup, intended,...

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