Merry peasants, decked out in costumes reminiscent of German theme restaurant servers, were doing merry peasant things. The set was opulent. The staging was superb. In the distance, a horn sounded. "The hunting party arrives," explain the liner notes to the San Francisco Ballet's recent performance of Giselle, "led by the Duke of Courland and his daughter, Bathilde, who are seeking sustenance."
Sustenance, however, was not on the menu. Instead, a ballet crowd sitting alone, together in the dark would, in short order, be jolted out of the rote ritual of theatergoing and united by an act of primal humanity.
Humanity, on this night, would be provided by a dog.
The regal hunting party ambled onstage behind Bathilde, who was grasping the leads of a pair of long-legged, overbred, gorgeous hounds. The grandiose impression was fleeting; the dog in the rear took a couple of randy passes at his (or her) fellow canine thespian, mounted it, and with their derrieres facing the audience, thrust madly for a good 20 seconds.
The term "ballet crowd" carries its own set of connotations. It's not for nothing the ads in the program hawk eight-digit real-estate properties or elicit legacy bequeathments. But, on this night, the audience reacted exactly as you'd think it would, like a crowd at a wrestling match or a county fair in this or any year. Peals of laughter cascaded from the far reaches of War Memorial Opera House like water from a burst dam. It was an utterly cathartic moment for the paying crowd, if less so for the performers upstaged by amorous dogs.
That said, an observer in the orchestra section claims even Bathilde was seen to double over in laughter as she led the newly minted stars of the show offstage.
And that's it.
The audience was transfixed. The fine actors rapping back and forth in Steinbeck's period dialogue were an afterthought. Every last eye in the house was on that dog. A dog doing no more than standing up. A dog doing dog things. In San Francisco, nothing could be more ubiquitous. And yet, on stage, it becomes riveting. A thing of wonder.
The rationale behind this cuts to the very essence of why we go to the theater — and what theater is. Later in the show, the old dog was led, stiffly, offstage. A gunshot rang out. And the visceral displeasure of that crowd is something your humble narrator still recalls, from the depths of his childhood. Because when that dog struggled to stand, it was truly struggling. It was real. And it became real for the audience.
Confusing reality and fantasy is something we are taught not to do in daily life. But then along comes a dog. Doug Dildine is the chair of the drama department at Contra Costa College. He directed that show all those years ago. The dog, he says, "tore away any kind of disbelief." It acted the way dogs act, which is to say not at all. It was a dog doing dog things, and those simple things remind us how strange and unnatural it is to watch people pretending to be German peasants or American cowhands on plywood sets. Dogs may rut, but, somehow, the humans look ridiculous. How can we not laugh at that?
The audience is, collectively, returned to that time when it really did believe anything could happen onstage because, for a moment, anything can. We become children again.
And, for an audience full of children, an animal often provides exactly what we wish to see.
He, too, attended a recent performance of Giselle at the San Francisco Ballet, albeit one in which the ballet, wisely, opted to deploy only a single dog. And yet, the mere sight of an animal among the menagerie of performers populating the village of Thuringen was enough to wrest his attention away from the actual show.
"It's so weird. A dog — who cares? On the street you don't pay any attention," he recalls. "But, onstage, nobody paid any attention [to the performance]. I was so angry at myself and everybody for doing that."
Scheie, a fixture at the California Shakespeare Theater and professor at UC Santa Cruz, is one of the Bay Area's most transfixing actors. Like Jack Benny, it's astounding just how much humor he can wring out of a simple gesture, a beat of silence, a look askance, a bit of strange diction. The smaller he plays it, the bigger he gets.
Scheie, a man who can read the instructions off the back of a shampoo bottle and make it compelling theater, could be upstaged by a mongrel. He doesn't like this. "Oh, it's horrible," he wails. "Acting is, you know, kind of hard! When you're at the top of your game, you're quite precise. But a dog is not precise ... a dog exists in a plane of performance a person cannot, neither the spectators nor the actors. It's clueless. It's real. It's so real. A dog is not wearing a mask."
Perhaps the audience should be — because there have been times when Scheie gets his wish.
Rhonnie Washington, an SF State theater professor, recalls the theater manager's cat at his alma mater of East Texas State wandering through stage productions and, on at least one instance, leaving a souvenir in his dressing room. "I think it was malicious," says the professor. "I never did like cats."
Stage managers still swap stories about the long-ago Broadway production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in which an animatronic camel exploded during dress rehearsals. Closer to home, Scheie personally witnessed the ignominious conclusion to a San Francisco Opera presentation of The Girl of the Golden West, in which famed soprano Deborah Voight closes the show by mounting a steed and riding into the sunset — but not before her horsey dropped a load, center stage.
"It was kinda ruined," says Scheie. "But kinda awesome."
Sitting in the front row of a show and knowing every actor, every stagehand, every line, every gesture, every entrance, and every exit is an experience antithetical to that of most theatergoers. When miscues occur — and occur they do — the terror is intense. The acid in your stomach runs up your spine and into your eyeballs. Your ears ring and your brain vibrates. But, here's the thing: You look around, and no one else is any the wiser. They don't know what you know — the actors are winging it, righting the ship, and moving the show along.
And, in these moments, you don't know much; you don't know what's coming next and you have alarmingly little control over it all. Like life itself.
And like life, it's horrifying, but it's also exhilarating. It's kinda ruined. But kinda awesome.