Joker's Wild

Theatrical eccentric John O'Donoghue assaults dramatic conventions--and the stray security guard--to create a new kind of show

What O'Donoghue is doing is employing the Chekhov system of acting, the body of technique developed by Michael Chekhov, a Russian actor and pedagogue who spent his latter years in Hollywood coaching Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Quinn, and a host of other screen legends. In his free time, this nephew of the great Russian writer acted in films--nine of them--earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. "Chekhov puts the actor's imagination at the center of the process," O'Donoghue explains.

Bovino and Mabley-Allen have both embraced Chekhov as well. "I think it makes you a more interesting actor," Mabley-Allen observes, while Bovino, succinct as usual, asserts, "It's fucking great!" And everyone in the company refers to Chekhov's On the Technique of Acting simply as "the book."

"Working with the Chekhov techniques has given me a sense of freedom I never had before," O'Donoghue claims, "and the confidence to find the sense of structure I lacked." On a sweet, personal note he adds, "and my relationship with Mary has given me a sense of stability to match."

At the moment, Mabley-Allen, fresh from some work with his atmosphere, is sitting on a folding chair in the center of the room. He's Herb, the seemingly shell-shocked surveillance master in The Young Machines. He's the one who's doing the barking, as he introduces Dogwood like a psychotic drill instructor, staring off into some unseen calamity: "This man is a one-man justice tag team. He tags himself. Automatically, zigzagging across the hemispheres of the brain. A brain warrior, that's what the man is. A goddamn brain warrior."

The Young Machines may read something like David Mamet for, by, and of the damned--or at least the profoundly darned. And sometimes the playwright pares the dialogue to zero. Hell, the Red Chef didn't say anything, he just swung when the opportunity presented itself, much like Lee Marvin in Point Blank. But off the stage, O'Donoghue is the sort of conversationalist who can leap gracefully from Czech surrealism to 15th-century puppetry, then skate to the genesis of the Dr. Faustus legend, then do a backflip to the attainments of German mystic Rudolf Steiner, landing finally on Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome theory, without even getting all that high-falutin'. And usually, he manages to make whatever point he set out to make in the first place, although sometimes it requires a "now what was I saying?" on his part.

But he's at his best--offstage, anyway--on paper, especially when he's a bit riled and half in character. Witness this inspired spew to the Flaneur mailing list, filed from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where Flaneur Productions presented Bovino's Soft Sleepers, last year:

 

What Americans have to realize is that prescriptive theory-based approaches to art, the weight of academics, think tanks, corporations, "The theatre of experts," conservative know-nothings, and politically correct stormtroopers, are stripping away our souls. It's horrifying to realize that Americans, who used to be renowned for open expression, peculiarity, etc., are developing a reputation for being soulless, unquestioning robotic schlubs...but the fact is that the Fringe Festival, which I believe is in its 67th season, has never had fewer dramas in it. Never fewer original works, never has it had more Broadway style comedies, musicals, deadly jazzbo "physical theatre." "Watch as Denver-based jazzbotronic movement actor Buddy Whitby wrangles his penis into....it's a poodle...no, wait...now it's a bird of prey." Count them, people, not the penis puppets (which sold out by the way) but the 452 standup comedians. The yawbs of these miserable cretins are all over Edinburgh, on buses, on streetcorners, each one has the same uniform expression, that Carrot Top toothy grin. "I'm out of control! Hey this is too much fun! Easy does it ladies there's enough of me to go around! Wow! I woke up this morning and it's so crazy to be me! Watch out for me baby, yeah!"

 

Now what was he saying again?

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