If you’re looking for an entirely different kind of night out you have to check out Vacant House Theatre’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune which opened Thursday May 21 at 122 Stewart St. That’s right, 122 Stewart. Vacant House is inviting you right into Frankie’s basement apartment for an altogether immersive theatre experience.
In the intimate comedy written by Terrence McNally and set in New York City in 1987, we meet Frankie and Johnny, everyday people who work at the same diner and who, in the very first moments of the play, have just slept together for the first time. From there we watch as the two of them work out whether that will be the beginning of something or just another one-night stand.
Start with a script exploring two people figuring out how to get emotionally naked with each other. Add an intimate staging that leaves the actors a whole lot more exposed than usual. Invite audiences into this unconventional space where they’re stripped of their assumptions and expectations. Sounds like a formula for exciting theatre.
I met up with Vacant House Theatre co-founder Alexis Scott, who plays Frankie, and David Whiteley, who plays Johnny, to hear more about the production, the beauty and challenges of staging in a basement apartment, and why this play is a must-see. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
Apt613: What attracted you to this play?
Alexis: Well, David brought it to me.
David: My first time reading it I immediately went “Oh my god.”
I like to call it a crucible: just these two people, one single event in the middle of the night, and the fate of what’s going to happen to the two of them being decided by how each of them reacts to the situation of this opportunity to come together or not.
It involves all these big, big things about what is love? And how do we respond to the chance to feel and the chance to share how we feel and the doors that we open or close for reach other and ourselves? For all the closed doors, for all the one night stands, all the ‘someone offered to buy me a drink but he seemed suspicious so I said no,’ all these things that are these non-events in our lives that Johnny, my character has decided, as he says, “to not take no, I used to but I don’t anymore.”
And maybe it is crazy to say “I love you” on the first date and to talk about marriage on the first date. Yes, it’s ridiculous, yes, it’s stupid, yes, things don’t work that way but the world is full of possibility. If you say yes to something that your automatic reaction is to say no to, what could happen with your life, and could that one instant be the moment between being miserable and alone all your life and living happily ever after? To boldly proclaim that we’ve got in our lives these incredible possibilities if we just don’t say the conventional “No, that’s crazy,” is just so beautiful and so inspiring. To take an evening of just watching two people take seriously what just about everyone would go “Don’t go there, that’s ridiculous,” and to instead say “What if? Let’s think about this.”
Tell me more about doing theatre in found spaces.
D: I found attending found-space performances have often struck me that because it’s not the “conventional” way of staging, you just walk into the building with a sense that “this is going to be different.” There’s this excitement and electricity of “What is this going to be?”
The uncertainty of that is a value in itself, but also it opens a door to receive whatever happens in a whole other way. It hits you more directly, more in the gut, than in the safety of “Yeah, I know this, I’m going to sit in my seat and see something that might make me laugh, might make me cry whatever it is but it’s that safe package of I know that I’ll be OK.” Just the fact of “I don’t know this space. I don’t know the rules here.”
A: It strips things away and makes people actually go through an experience. It’s a different kind of experience when the sets are just put up there for you to see, all pretty and nice. We have blocked this play but it just feels more “What’s going to happen?”
Are there any challenges with this staging?
A: We have to be more creative with how we use the space, where we put people. Because there’s no theatre lobby, we’ll be making a little lobby in the driveway. Our stage manager will be hiding in the bathtub operating the lights.
D: It’s a great challenge and it keeps us honest and rigorous in our work, but the fact that it’s so close and everything is so real that there’s really no room for “We weren’t really talking to each other but it looked like we were,” or “We didn’t really do that thing but from the audience it’ll be fine.” There’s no glossing over anything.
A: We’re not going to pretend to cook. We’re actually cooking on the stove.
A: Our lighting is just the lamp but we really use that to show where the characters are at. When the love goggles start to come off we turn on the fluorescents.
D: My character even comments on the harshness of lighting and a few times talks about it: “I think you see people better in the half-light. I’m a romantic, I think everything looks better in half-light and shadows.” The very unflattering, non-theatrical light is actually rather perfect for this intrusion of reality into what initially feels like this surreal, magical thing.
What would you say to someone who’s thinking “Hey, this sounds like a great production, but what if it feels too close or too intimate?”
D: There isn’t a wall, because we’re all in the same room. There isn’t that theatrical convention that keeps the audience safe. But there is very much a world that Frankie and Johnny live in where the audience doesn’t exist. They don’t implicate the audience because the audience is not part of their world, so there is the safety of being invited to simply be a fly on the wall.
So it’s supposed to be an adventure without the safety of convention or the safety of sitting in the audience, and there’s a proscenium, and the actors are going to stay on the far side of that. This is definitely for people who want to open a door to something they haven’t experienced before. But you don’t need any tools to be able to deal with it or to do a good job of being the audience. You just come and be and experience it.