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November 8, 2004

On Tour With The Scottish Play, Part IV

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a renowned Equity LORT company, is currently touring the NEA-US Department of Defense-funded Shakespeare in American Communities Military Base Tour of the "Scottish Play." It opened on Friday, September 10, 2004, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and will visit 13 military bases in seven states before returning to the Virginia Samford Theatre in Montgomery. The cast includes William Brock, Aaron Cabell, Rodney Clark, Suzanne Curtis, Paul Hebron, Jennifer Hunt, Warren Jackson, James Knight, Alex Knold, Joe Kolbow, Sonja Lanzener, Mark D. Leslie, Kathleen S. McCall, Chris Mixon, Howard W. Overshown, Philip Pleasants, Remi Sandri, and Frederick Snyder.

Equity's website asked the cast to send us a travelogue about this unusual production. Following is the third installment - "impressions from the road," by actor Paul Hebron, who plays Duncan.

Paul Hebron

(September 25) And so we leave the eastern seaboard for the great Midwest. We leave behind Dumfries and drive up into Pennsylvania, across the Appalachian and into Ohio, stopping overnight in Cleveland, a city both my wife and I have worked in and know fairly well. It is Sonja's birthday, and so we decide to have dinner at the Ritz Carlton downtown. We walk from the Lakeside Holiday Inn where we're staying, pressing through the crush of a wedding reception in it's lobby. The evening feels like a celebration, and we have a first rate meal at the Ritz. Getting on the bus the next morning isn't easy. But this drive is shorter; a few hours and we're at our next venue, the Army Arsenal in Detroit, MI. We're staying in a suburb township north of the city called Warren. As the next day is a Golden Day, a complete day off, Sonja and I rent a car and, with our friend Jenn Hunt, decide to drive across the border into Windsor, Canada for lunch.

This is the first time since 9/11 that I have attempted to leave the country and while I'm not surprised by the beefed up security measures obvious all around us, it's different somehow when it becomes personal. I'm clearly not prepared for the border guard's clear eyed scrutiny of our car, made all the more suspicious to her by our lack of having the right "papers"; none of us have our passports or birth certificates with us, now mandatory for traveling between these two countries. Nor does my winning smile seem to convince her when I explain that our purpose in crossing is "to have some lunch and drive around a bit". I seem to lack seriousness. It worries our guard, until I nervously elaborate that "we have this day off, you see, and we just thought, I mean, what I should say is, you see, we're part of this touring Shakespeare company from Alabama that is touring military bases across the whole country, that is, America, and, well, since we had the free time we just thought why not cross over into beautiful Canada and have lunch and see the sights a little bit, you know, and then come right back, you know....what I mean? Besides, Detroit is such a dump." This last comment makes her snort in some form of agreement, and she lets us pass. It's only 10 am, but it's been a sobering experience nonetheless. We do in fact have a delightful lunch near the river that separates our two fine nations, and return to our friendly border crossing to slip back into the states. We get a stern assistant principal type this time, and after answering his questions I throw in my killer one-liner about Detroit again. He's not amused. At all. As every bad joke about strip searching begins to float through my mind he seems to change his and just waves us through. Later we learn that the evening before a group of ours had traveled across to shop and generally carouse, and when asked upon their return whether anyone had anything to declare, an honorable colleague produced his five Cuban cigars. The border guard tore them in half then and there. Later that evening we have a fabulous meal at a local Middle Eastern restaurant called La Shish; I suspect I'm not the only one struck by the irony of our environs, as the tabbouleh and humus are passed around the table.

The next day is a show day for us, and the cast has already gotten word that because of problems with the set, our call for the 1pm matinee is going to be 8:30am. We're using the "small" adaptation of the stage, which means our upstage entrances and exits are gone. But here in Detroit it turns out that actual dimensions will preclude the use of our downstage entrances and exits as well leaving us one slot stage left and two in the center stage right. We spend the predominance of the morning re-blocking to accommodate the necessary changes. The larger problem will turn out to be the lack of any extra wing or offstage space, or dressing rooms. The ladies will end up dressing in a nearby File Room, and the men have been provided with three "pop-up" campers to share on the lawn outside the building (we'll be forced to use these again, and I come to hate the draughty buggers....but more of that later). Despite these challenges and inconveniences, the show goes off without a hitch (if you don't include the panicky stares just prior to some altered exits), and the audience of students and families seems to love it.

The following morning I rise early to return our rental car before loading on to the bus. A mere four blocks from the Thrifty counter I'm pulled over by a Warren, MI cop. I have apparently been going 52 mph in a 45 mph zone. Officer Ryzchieski seems to think it was a 40 mph zone and given my recent smooth talking of Canadian border guards, I choose not to argue. He explains in great detail that while he is giving me a ticket, I can appeal by mail to the court to have the charge lessened. The alternative of a simple warning doesn't seem to occur to him. What does occur to him is his concept of what's wrong with this country. "Nobody paying attention to the now, everybody just trying to get somewhere fast, they don't even know where! That's why my favorite show growing up was Grizzly Adams!" And with that he rips me off the ticket, hops on his bike and zooms away. Four blocks from the rental place and I run into the one Buddhist, Nostalgic-for-the-70's, and Survivalist Cop in Detroit. An hour later and I'm happy to get on the bus.

(September 30) Our next stop is an overnight in the small Kentucky town of Elizabethtown, at the local Ramada, LTD. Limited is the right word for it. We have dinner across the road at the Holiday Inn's in-house restaurant, the newly opened Frank's Schlemmer Stube. I love German food, but it takes approximately an hour and a half to get to the table, and by then all I want to do is go to bed. It's beginning to feel very much like the middle of the tour.

The next morning takes us to Millington, TN, where we'll play at the Naval Supply Base (yes, that's right, in TN). Taking a walk the next morning away from the highway and hotel, I stumble across an old cemetery by the side of the road, dedicated to Pemyria Phipps Ward, 1825-1894. Many if not most of the gravestones mark the lives of the Phipps and the Ward family both, well into the late twentieth century. The sense of family and history here, on this shaded, sloping hillside, is palpable. Perhaps largely because I am on the road, I stand here by the stone fence for some time. I sit here reading my notes from Millington, such as they are, and now I'm sure it's the middle of the tour. I have no real memory of the theatre at the Naval Base here, except that there are no downstage entrances again, and again there is no room for our "period" projection screen. Apparently the projections in Act II look better up on the movie theatre's back drop, and the audience loves the show. Everyone's happy with that.

Back north we drive to Fairview Heights, IL for our next stop. That evening several of us take a busman's holiday into nearby St. Louis and catch the 9pm performance of THE CRUCIBLE at St. Louis Rep. Most of us have friends in the large cast, and it's great to see them all again. Our performance the next night back in Fairview Heights feels a little rocky; I grow confused at my first entrance as to whether it's the "small" set or the "large", and am shocked and surprised to find my son Malcom stumbling into my arms from stage right instead of marching on behind me, whereupon the Bloody Captain runs on almost between us. Yet another sobering experience.

(October 5) The next day is spent driving across Missouri to the other Manhattan, home of the Kansas State Jayhawks. It turns out to be a very sweet little college town; the people are lovely, and we have two terrific meals in an historic space named, for geographic reasons unknown to me, Harry's Uptown Grill. Our performance at Ft. Riley is a challenge. Once again there is no real space for dressing rooms, and this time all of us end up sharing the great outdoors in four little campers. Only this evening it starts to rain. I have roughly a half an hour off between entrances for the Old Man, and as I sit in my camper the wind joins the rain in trying to tear the rivets out of the camper's frame. It is Kansas after all, and I amuse myself for awhile trying to remember all the lyrics to the Scarecrow's song; I'm having trouble remembering what comes after the first reprise of "...if I only had a brain..." I imagine the audience is impressed that evening that the Old Man has traveled, apparently, far across the windy, rainy moors to warn Lady Macduff of her peril. By my next entrance, the Doctor's, the skies have cleared, and the rest of the show goes off without a hitch.

We are, to clarify, performing over the next three days at Ft. Leavenworth, not the nearby house of incarceration. This is the one venue where, because of lack of available rooms elsewhere in town, we will be staying on the base itself. The hotel onsite is still referred to as Hoge Barracks, and getting to our rooms once there proves to be an exercise in advanced logistics. It is a maze of corridors and levels, the lobby a mere rumor on the far side of the building (only finally discovered on day three). The elevator goes to floors H, L, and E, with floor B1 below A1. I unload and get immediately lost in its hallways. We finally find Level H3 and our room. Victory! On the up side of things, the grounds nearby are beautiful, a great place for walking off the bus miles, and many of us do exactly that the next day.

The performance here in Leavenworth is a pleasure to do. The space, another movie theatre, is large (my new, simplified criteria for what works), and with no changing areas per se we're set up directly behind the stage itself. Dressing so close to the action our stage manager Mark Leslie insists that we observe silence during the show. It creates a strangely monastic feeling to the process, the near expectation that we'll be chanting Matins during intermission. The show has a wonderful pace and energy this night, and our audience jumps to their feet at the end of it all. We've been asked to stay onstage after our bows for a presentation from the base commander.

He strides up on to the stage, and begins by thanking us for our time and energies in bringing this tour to armed services around the country. He then, as a token of their appreciation, presents us with a framed print of a painting by John Macdonald; it is an unabashedly patriotic rendering of an American Bald Eagle, talons rampant, against an image of our flag, with two commemorative coins to 9/11 embedded at the portrait's base. It is a beautiful and moving gesture. But as the audience goes wild with applause, and we begin to leave the stage, the 60's Liberal in me has the impulse to flash a peace sign as we clear the house. I know it's inappropriate, but if this lovely gift they offer is a kind of sharing, an opening up and expression of what they see as being of value, then it makes me want to do the same in my own way, choosing my own kind of expression. The truth is what my impulse really reflects is my lack of trust in the motives and beliefs of a group, "the military", that in the past I've objectified and disdained. When I try to explain all this to my colleagues later on the bus, I'm met mostly with blank stares, until Frederick points out to me that perhaps it took great courage on their part to trust what we've said about our motives, that we're there to support them in a difficult time in our nation's history, period. He's right of course. At some point you just have to let the past be the past. It is a surprisingly hard lesson to learn.

Tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow....sorry, had to do that at least once) we're back on the road, crossing Kansas to Colorado and the west. This is the leg of the trip I've most anticipated, for purely personal reasons, and I'm anxious to get back on the road..............

Click here for archive of the first installment

Click here for archive of the second installment

Click here for archive of the third installment

Click here for archive of the fourth installment

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