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Editor’s Note: “Stage Write/Stage Wrong” is an occasional series by Madison Magazine theater reviewer Aaron R. Conklin about those occasions when live performances do not go entirely according to the stage directions. Most actors, directors and designers have the grace and style to appreciate and/or survive dropped lines, stumbles and misbehaving props, but it's the confident ones who are willing to relive and share those experiences with us.
Back when he was a budding actor, Sam D. White circled “John Falstaff” in red on his acting bucket list.
Several decades later, he’s finally living the (extended) dream, prepping to play the Bard’s blowsy drunkard for the second time in Madison Shakespeare Company’s production of “Henry IV, Part Two,” opening this weekend in the Bartell Theatre. A year ago, White stole the show in MSC’s production of “Henry IV; Part One.”
“This show is a great picture of Falstaff,” says White. “You see the sides of him you didn’t see before.”
There are rumblings that MSC may opt to stage “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — the other Shakespeare play that features Falstaff — sometime next year. Could a third time be part of an even bigger charm for White? He’s ready if the flagon is passed his way.
“You just don’t get the opportunity to do something like that very often,” he says.
Between honing his swordplay and practicing his incredulous expressions, White took a minute to stroll down memory lane and share some non-Falstaffian stories from his multi-decade career.
Back in 2011, White got the chance to direct a very unusual play — “You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery,” a show originally staged in Madison by Mercury Players Theater. White and his cast, including familiar local actors Matt Korda and Liz Angle, brought the production to the New York Fringe Festival.
The play’s hook was both throwback and (as “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” on Netflix has shown) timeless: A Choose Your Own Adventure crossed with a Sherlock Holmes-style whodunit. Christian Neuhaus and Rick Stemm’s script had no less that seven forks in the road, points at which the show’s narrator would stop the action and poll the audience as to which clue the detectives should pursue.
“The actors had to be ready to change course on a dime,“ White recalls. “It was amazing.”
There were plenty of highlights, but White vividly remembers the first dress rehearsal.
“It was so exciting,” he says. “I’ve never seen a group of actors get so into something, or be so unified.”
White has to reach all the way back to his 20s to find his all-time worst stage experience. He was playing an Italian hotel manager in Edgewood College’s production of Georges Feydeau’s “Hotel Paradiso,” complete with dyed black hair and a seriously questionable Italian accent. The set featured a room with a fireplace.
A poorly constructed fireplace, that is.
During one scene, White’s character was standing near the faulty set piece and talking to other characters checking into the hotel. It was then that White saw the fireplace began to tilt precariously. White lunged and stuck his hand out to prevent catastrophe. Then, thinking quickly, he grabbed a nearby table — including the ornate tea set that was sitting on top of it — and jammed it into the mouth of the fireplace.
Continuing the play with a tea table stuck in the fireplace would have been, well, weird, so during the next scene break, the show’s tech manager handed White a weight and told him to go out and swap props.
“So I walk out on stage, ad-libbing the whole way,” White explains. “And I have to pull the tea set out and put the weight in at the same time so the thing doesn’t fall over. Suddenly, I’m stuck between the table and the fireplace [when] I realize the weight’s not going to work.”
The next thing White knows, the actor playing the building inspector has joined him onstage.
“He comes out and starts interviewing me about the hotel falling apart,” White says. “It was hilarious, but it was also kind of a nightmare.”
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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