It is hot in here. So hot that a thin membrane of sweat glistens on the balding head of a man two rows in front of me. Some of this is due to actual heat, but mostly, I suspect, it is the byproduct of nervous anticipation. Tonight, a healthy crowd of us have gathered at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center for an evening of Anonymous Theatre, and basically, all we know so far is what play we are going to see: Moliere's "The Learned Ladies." The rest remains a secret.
The program, which a few desperate people have started to use as a fan, offers this description of the annual event, presented by The Anonymous Theatre Company and Theatre Vertigo, and now in its fifth incarnation: "auditions were held, the play was cast . . . but the casting is a secret. even from the actors. each actor has had a few rehearsals one on one with the director, but never with anyone else in the show. tonight, the actors have arrived dressed in street clothes. they got a ticket and program and took a seat. when the play begins, the actors will make their entrances from the audience, standing up and delivering their first lines en route to the stage, where they will meet the rest of the cast for the first time."
The whole thing makes for some fascinating "Clue"-like people watching as I wait for the play to begin, and the mystery of just who the cast is to reveal itself. Who among us is an actor? Could it be the rotund man with a wild mane of hair doling out hugs? Is it the woman in front of me, quietly knitting? Maybe it's the man in the Hawaiian shirt? (I run into a friend at intermission who tells me she immediately marked a guy in her row as a cast member: Who shows up to watch a play in a suit?)
The director, Darius Pierce, told me beforehand that they ask everyone who auditioned to come see the play so that the sense of mystery is further heightened for the actors, and they can't guess who got which part. He takes the stage to remind the audience that this is a highly unusual and "clandestine process," and that the actors will be operating under a great deal of stress. "If someone needs to call a line -- fine," he says. "But they lose a finger for each time, after the show."
As the lights dim and we wait for the first actor to rise from the audience and speak, I find myself wondering what would happen if some guy just decided to leap out of the audience right now; it would probably take us all a while to figure out imposter from anonymous actor. When the moment finally comes, and the first actor jumps up, it feels like a scene from "The Price Is Right," with the crazy streaking camera shots, as the cameramen pan wildly, trying to get a fix on just which lucky person from the audience has been invited to come on down. Altogether, it happens 13 times, and each time it never seems to lose any excitement.
It's fascinating to watch the expressions of the actors themselves as they realize who is about to take the stage. One woman claps her hand to her mouth, and rocks with silent laughter. How wonderful, I think. We can work from a script, and still, there can be so much surprise.
-- Inara Verzemnieks