Once More with Feeling

You swore you'd never watch a hemophiliac raise the spirit of a dead cat again. And then the Fringe Festival returned.

Describing a performance by his idol, the '40s B-movie actress Lola Montez, Smith enthused, "The Miraculous One was raging and flaming. Those are the standards for art." Right back at ya, Jack. --Linda Shapiro


2. Be a Crazy Genius or Just Plain Crazy
The Puzzling Brilliance of Robert "Romeo" Coates, World's Worst Actor


The Minnesota Fringe Festival, being an admirably democratic institution, is as welcoming of stage-tested professionals as it is of amateurs of limited technical acumen. This is not, however, why I have chosen Robert Coates, history's most (in)famously bad actor, as my Fringe Ancestor. I'm convinced that he was a genius--a mad or even unwitting genius, perhaps, but a genius nonetheless.

Coates was born in 1772 in Antigua, where he spent much of his life. The son of an exceedingly wealthy sugar planter, Coates inherited buckets of cash and the family plantation, but had no head for business. By most accounts, he had no head for acting either, but that didn't stop him, at almost 50 years of age, from pursuing a second career as a thespian. In 1809, Coates landed in Bath, England, and within days was scheduled to appear as the male lead in Romeo and Juliet. For the production, he appeared in a costume of his own design. In Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow, Rees Howell Gronow, a Coates contemporary who called the actor "as strange a being as any that ever appeared in English society," describes Coates's costume: "In a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, surmounted by an enormously thick cravat, and a wig à la Charles the Second, capped by an opera hat, he presented one of the grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage." To heighten the comedy, Coates's very tight red pantaloons ripped at the seat during the performance, exposing, again according to Gronow, "a quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag."

The performance itself was just as eccentric. During one of Juliet's speeches, Coates took the opportunity to snort a pinch of snuff. When an audience member asked if Coates would share his tobacco, the actor gallantly brought the snuffbox into the house. He delivered a soliloquy in a whisper inaudible past the front row. He changed lines at will, on the grounds that he was improving on the script. He spoke in a rhythm seemingly unrelated to the meaning of the words. And for Romeo's death, Coates carefully prepared his deathbed and then took several minutes to give up the ghost in ludicrously overdone fashion. "Die again, Romeo," yelled one wag in the crowd, a request Coates obliged--twice, going through the same protracted motions each time.

Performances such as this made Robert "Romeo" Coates, as he came to be known, a celebrity. Audiences flocked to see the man known as the world's worst actor. He was just as famous offstage. He always wore outlandish, diamond-encrusted clothes, and rode in a scallop-shell-shaped carriage that bore a coat of arms of a cock-a-doodle-dooing rooster along with the message "Whilst I Live I'll Crow." What was most puzzling about Coates, though, was that he never suggested that his act (or his life) was a joke. Quite the contrary. He claimed to be a great actor, and by all reports his love of Shakespeare and the theater was genuine and deeply held. Though he indulged odd requests from the crowd, he was sometimes obviously hurt when the groundlings took the heckling and fruit throwing too far. During one performance, he interrupted a performance to recite a poem of his own composition that attacked his critics, and drew a standing ovation for the interlude.

In his amusing Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck, Paul Collins writes that "Robert Coates...in utter innocence, invented Camp." To be sure, whether the actor was a sadly oblivious goof or an incredibly dedicated prankster, he seems to have predicted a great many modern art forms and phenomena: performance art, anti-celebrity, Andy Kaufman-style comedy, outsider art, The Gong Show. He was a pioneer. He died in 1848 when he was run over by a hansom cab. If you're having a drink after one of this year's Fringe shows, crow once for Romeo Coates. --Dylan Hicks


3. Make Plays Not War
Grabbing a Snack and Smashing the State with Maxine Klein

Though she has an Obie Award lying around her Minneapolis home, has collaborated with both Tyrone Guthrie and Howard Zinn, and was once called "perfect" by arbiter of perfection the New York Times, playwright-director-activist-academic Maxine Klein has no interest in resting in the plush confines that her theatrical and scholarly laurels might justify. Her platform remains a soapbox, a street corner, a public protest, and hole-in-the-wall theaters with broken folding chairs and no heat. Here, Klein is at home. Here she speaks for the rights of the poor and powerless. To do otherwise would contradict everything she has fought her whole life.

I met up with the Mother of all Michael Moores in the house of Minneapolis's experimental Bedlam Theater, where she was rehearsing. (Full disclosure: I first met Klein when she was casting an early run of Ambush at the Bedlam Theater. This piece reflects gems that have fallen from Maxine's mouth over a period of time--it's not often that you get to work with one of your heroes.) Klein acknowledges me while swallowing something unidentifiable slathered in hummus. While exhaling to say hello, she also inadvertently launches a veritable artillery of crumbs and chickpea matter.

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