Forget everything you hear about bad audience behavior at live theater. At “Deadwood Dick or A Game of Gold,” the audience is expected to get loud.
Well, maybe you should hold off climbing on stage to look for a power outlet to charge your cellphone. (That actually happened at the Broadway production of “Hand to God.”) But you’re still invited to boo, hiss, cheer and jeer at the old-timey melodrama opening Friday and running through Aug. 13 at Surfside Playhouse in Cocoa Beach.
“Oh, absolutely,” said director Bryan Bergeron. “We have a lady who comes out at the beginning of the show and tells the audience that’s their job.”
The comic melodrama, written by Tom Taggert, has all the expected tropes: a conniving villain, strong heroes and damsels in distress. Its setting is a Wild West saloon in the Gay ’90s (no, the other Gay ’90s, from the Victorian age).
In it, hero Ned Harris assumes the identity of Deadwood Dick, a legendary highwayman with a heart of gold. Harris secrets away damsel Rose Blossom, sister to Lily Blossom, both played by the same actress. The sisters have come to Deadwood Gulch to find the goldmine owned by their late father, done in by arch-villain Josephat Redburn.
“It’s a comedy with pathos,” explains Bergeron. “It’s done broad. It’s a western, so it’s not your Snidely Whiplash kind of villain. There’s no ‘nya-ha-ha’ in the show.”
In fact, he said, the story has a lot of dark humor and downright insensitive portrayals, especially of a Chinese cook named Pong Ping.
“It’s the most un-PC thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “But, like most melodramas, it’s very campy.”
It’s also something Surfside audiences have come to expect as summer fun. Surfside’s philosophy is to have a big community show which can bring together both newcomers to the stage as well as veteran community theater actors.
Ed Johnson, a performer with the Not Quite Right Players improvisation troupe, plays Ned Harris. This is his first time in a bona fide play. Sarah Camp, who has been in a few shows at Surfside, is Rose and Lily Blossom. And Gordon Ringer, a popular actor who has appeared many times in many stages throughout Brevard, is the villainous Josephat Redburn.
Bergeron has done “a million” melodramas over his 42 years directing theater here. By far, melodramas bring out the biggest laughs in rehearsals. The director’s only hard part, he said, is waiting for the swinging saloon doors to be installed so he can show his cast exactly how he wants them to go through the doors.
The hardest part for the cast, Bergeron said, is not to laugh at the “Monty Pythonesque humor,” much of which is word play and some physical.
Rhett Pennell, a Merritt Island toy designer, was the villain in Surfside’s production of “No, No, a Million Times No.” This time, he plays Wild Bill Hickock, a sidekick to the hero, Ned Harris. He hopes this time he’ll get cheered rather than booed.
A former professional actor who had his Equity card, Pennell said these over-the-top melodramas are big fun to do. They require an actor to, well, overact, which is great for a natural “ham,” he said, making fun of himself.
When a character falls in love, it’s obvious. Their response to the wickedness of a villain can never be too big.
“Oh, the horror,” Pennell mocked. “You have to let loose and be as dramatic as possible. Hopefully it winds up being funny as well.”
Although modern audiences laugh at this style of acting, it was once considered the highest form of stage poetry, if you will.
One of the first theorists in the field of acting – Frenchman Francois Delsarte (1811-1871) – had a popular method which became known as Delsarte acting.
Delsarte acting has a set of gestures, postures and facial expressions which were designed to convey specific emotions. His disciples would record those actions, describing how an actor should raise their arm in order to convey thought and emotion; i.e., the more certain of the truth, the higher one should raise one’s arm, and vice versa.
Here is a quote, according to Dartmouth.edu, from Francis Durivage who observed Delsarte’s style:
“He depicted the various passions and emotions of the human soul, by means of expression and gesture only, without uttering a single syllable; moving the spectators to tears, exciting them to enthusiasm, or thrilling them with terror at his will; in a word completely magnetizing them.”
Some theater historians argue that the broad style of acting was born out of need. At this time, this overacting melodrama was necessary because lighting was so poor that large gestures were needed for the audience to understand character and plot.
Whatever the academic reason, audiences love it, Bergeron said, especially when the characters speak in asides to the audience.
“They think they know what’s going to happen but they don’t,” he said with a laugh. “We have a character named Tiny Dan, played by Chris Tsocanos. He’s this giant Roy Rogers who comes in, sings a cowboy song, walks out at the sunset.
“It’s a great date night show,” said Bergeron. “It’s campy humor, so people just come and have a good time.”
“Deadwood Dick: A Game of Gold” melodrama opens Aug. 4 and runs through the 13th at Surfside Playhouse, 301 Ramp Road (5th St. S.), Cocoa Beach. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15 general admission, $13 for seniors and military and $10 for children 17 years and younger.