The Choice Is Yours
Rubber Repertory's The Casket of Passing Fancy makes you 500 offers you can't reuse
"Most of the women were bleeding from their anuses after two days, for some unexplained reason," says Rubber Repertory's Josh Meyer, waiting in line at Luby's Cafeteria with me and his partner in theatre, Matt Hislope. He's talking about an experience they had during a study-abroad program in Greece, via the University of Kansas. This was back when their deep yet occasionally contentious friendship was just beginning.
"It was a horrible experience," says Meyer, his long, thin nose crinkling in disgust. "We were in a town called Katohi, this little farming community that's like the Buda of Greece. We spent the whole first week cleaning the abandoned elementary school we were all living in, because it was so filthy. And the school got firebombed because a girl in our cast got involved with a local boy – there was kind of a West Side Story thing happening."
"The U.S. Embassy had to call our parents," says Hislope, grinning. "They had to say, like, 'Your children are under attack.'"
I'm looking at the other people in this dinner line winding toward the Very Large Array of steam-table delights – there are a lot of senior citizens, or near enough, a lot of Sansabelts and polo shirts and nonironic polyester – and I'm wondering how no one's been taken aback by this not precisely quiet talk of women whose anuses are bleeding.
But none of the people in line is paying attention to the Rubber Rep boys: They're engaged in their own predinner scenarios, chatting and nodding and shuffling forward in their orthopedic footwear, effectively oblivious to the animated speech of this Mutt and Jeff pair of Austin thespians.
"Everyone wanted to have an amazing theatre-in-Greece experience," says Meyer. "But we had this horrible director from a school in St. Louis, and he was going through a divorce, and he stayed locked up in his room all day. He'd come out to direct for, like, three hours a night, and about the only thing he said was, 'Just keep doin' what you're doin'.'"
"'Just keep doin' what you're doin'!" says Hislope. "And we were going to be performing for people who didn't speak English, so, yeah, it was the constant refrain of, 'Keep doin' what you're doin' ... and speak loudly and slowly.' That's pretty much all we got all summer."
The geezers in front of us have reached the buffet and are gathering their food. There's much to choose from at this cafeteria, and there are different prices for different combinations; it's all a bit confusing. Longtime Lubyites Meyer and Hislope try to explain, informing me of how many sides you can get with a meat, how a Lu Ann Platter has smaller portions than the regular platters.
Well, yeah, but do I want the baked whitefish or the blackened tilapia or the grilled chicken or the chicken-fried steak? Or do I want chicken-fried chicken? I sure as hell don't want a steaming pile of liver and onions anywhere nearer than three blocks away in some diner bedecked with "Brenner Keep Out" signs. And what about sides? Should I choose the field greens or the mashed potatoes or the new potatoes or marinated cucumbers or fried okra or, or, or what? And quickly now, because the line's moving along, Meyer and Hislope are already at the register, and the night will be over before you know it. But, dammit, there are so many options and – which to choose?
You might have guessed that the preceding section is a sort of metaphor for Rubber Rep's upcoming show at the Blue Theater. If not, let me tell you a little about the unique and theatrical but at-least-as-real-as-Luby's spectacle called The Casket of Passing Fancy. Look, there's a description on the company's website: "Those who dare to sit in the Duchess' parlour will be given the chance to claim one of 500 strange experiences. ... You may find yourself exploring an unconscionable taboo or reveling in the beauty of the mundane. Your experience may last 5 minutes or 50 years. Your choice may bring pain or pleasure, sickness or health, sweetness or sour. All that's certain is that some will win and some will lose, but no one will emerge unchanged."
They're not kidding.
I know they're not kidding, because, until personal circumstances required otherwise, I was part of this gallimaufry of diversions.
I've seen the Duchess' painted smile twist obscenely as she shuffles through her several decks of offers and regales the audience with tales of a vivid and varied youth. Participating in just a tiny portion of the grand lady's array of offers, I've heard the strange whimpers and nervous giggles from behind closed doors, the sound of flesh slapping against flesh, the scribbling of legal documents being quickly drawn up, and the shreds of musical theatre from a practiced but sardonic throat. I've felt a tongue on the backs of both my knees at once, been blindfolded and fed chocolates and candies, had my scalp massaged with Matchbox cars, watched some drunken mumbler light a hundred consecutive matches, and learned the approximate monetary value of my body as meat. All suddenly intimate and hands-on personal, I've helped a man get out of bed and brush his teeth and use the toilet and get dressed for his day. I've planted and watered a living flower in the dirt-filled mouth of another human being. I've had my scrotum soaked in a pleasant herbal solution. I've seen, let's say, a little bit of blood.
I know, right? Didn't our grandfathers try to illuminate for us the difference between an elegant sufficiency and a vulgar overdoity? But this is Rubber Repertory, which staged the live pornography of Wallace Shawn's previously unstageable A Thought in Three Parts and did such a terrific job of it that the playwright, in attendance, was reportedly moved to tears. This is Rubber Repertory, whose Red Cans had performers hidden inside collapsible fabric cylinders to portray a community of complexly aggressive, fluid-spouting alien creatures with penchants for audience footwear. This is Rubber Repertory, which unleashed the perversely erotic song and dance of its Mister Z Loves Company on an ocean cruise and had fellow voyager Wayne Coyne – yes, of the Flaming Lips – following the weirdly masked duo all over the ship. This is Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope, whose first show together was An Evening of Forcefeeding. This is Rubber Repertory, and it's been ... different ... for a while now.
"Josh and I met at the University of Kansas in 1998," says Hislope as we take our seats in Luby's big dining area. "Josh was a year ahead of me, and our first meeting was at the very first rehearsal for Oklahoma!, of which Josh was the assistant director and I was in the chorus. We'd both arrived early, and we had an awkward conversation as we were setting up chairs together."
"I don't think either of us really liked the other one right off the bat," says Meyer, reaching for some salt.
"Yeah, no, we didn't," agrees Hislope. He picks up his dinner roll, puts it back down. "But I can't say that I got a sour first impression."
"But it wasn't friendly," insists Meyer. "I think you were a little nervous about the first rehearsal."
Hislope nods. "Yeah, and I was a little intimidated by any sort of authority – even an assistant director. I felt very freshman and sort of weird. I did not think poorly of you, though."
I take a bite of my tilapia and begin to think poorly of the fish. "And after that meeting," I say, "there was the debacle in Greece, with the divorced director and the firebomb and the bleeding anuses?"
"Yeah," says Meyer, "and that was one of those bonding-while-suffering experiences. That was when we started plotting our first show together, which was An Evening of Forcefeeding, which we then did in the fall back in Kansas."
"How the hell," I ask him, "do you go from a sweet, wholesome musical to An Evening of Forcefeeding?"
"I don't know if it's actually that far of a leap," says Meyer, poking his fork into a dish of stewed vegetable matter. "When we try to think of things that inspire us, I feel like American musical theatre is always in the top five things that come to mind. And that whole vaudeville/Judy Garland/put-on-a-show-as-if-your-life-depended-on-it kind of thing. A lot of our shows start with making things as simple as possible, with the idea that things will complicate themselves naturally. So we were thinking, with Forcefeeding, let's have this show based on these very direct physical actions and see what happens. So we had these eight eaters, and each person had two two-minute forcefeedings with Matt and me feeding them. We had about 80 or a hundred pounds of food, and the climax of the show was Matt and I stripped down to our underwear and tied up and fed everything that was left over. But ... not much of it stayed down."
A year or so later, gastrointestinal systems fully recovered, they moved to Austin.
"A lot of our friends were moving to New York and elsewhere, but we didn't want a situation where we'd have to be working constantly just to live," says Meyer, "and Austin seemed a lot easier to produce theatre in. I was reading a lot about Austin groups, too, like the Rude Mechs developing work here and taking it outside of Austin, and that was exciting."
"I was a year behind Josh in college," says Hislope, "and I was going to move wherever he was, anyway. But also, I'd been cast in a lot of clown roles, and I just wasn't up for another year of, like, buffoon training."
"It's great that you guys stick together like that," I say. "That's one of the reasons I thought – well, you know, for the longest time I assumed, 'Two theatre guys, they're roommates; they're pretty much inseparable – obviously they're gay.'"
Meyer laughs. "I told Julia Smith we were doing this interview and that we wanted to really be honest and have sordid details so it wouldn't be just another boring story, and what did she think we should say? And she said, 'You need to admit that you've been screwing each other all these years, because that's what everyone wants to know.' But, sadly, no: We're not."
"And our first show in town," says Hislope, "Mister Z Loves Company, was full of all this sublimated homoeroticism. So that didn't help the perception. People told us that they had to go read the Bible afterward."
Mister Z was unveiled in 2003. In 2005, Rubber Repertory brought local novelty-song legend Dick Price back to public attention with a series of intimate concerts that wandered the rooms of the songwriter's Hyde Park apartment. And how did two recent transplants to Austin even know about Price in the first place?
Meyer grins. "Oddly enough, I was familiar with Dick's music when I was in high school in Kansas. I was in the Dr. Demento Fan Club, and a Dick Price song called 'I Want a Fried Pie' was on a CD they sent out. It was my favorite song on the CD – I even performed it in a karaoke contest at a forensics tournament. So when I came down to Austin and saw that Dick Price was performing at Flipnotics, I started going to his shows and was a little bit of a groupie, and we got to know each other that way, and he started coming to our shows. He invited us to his home when he had this kind of primitive version of At Home With Dick going, and we thought we should really work on the show and present it to the public."
At Home With Dick was so popular that they reprised it the following year. Between those shows, the Rubber Rep boys hooked up with the Vortex to co-produce and direct an original Dan Basila play called Holes Before Bedtime, the subtitle of which – A Matricidal Sodomidic Cancer Riddle – marked it as a perfect match for the duo's outré sensibilities. And, too, there's the ongoing fascination with the plays of Wallace Shawn. Before the company's official debut with Mister Z, the boys staged Shawn's The Designated Mourner in the home of actor Taylor Maddux, and Hislope later starred in the Physical Plant production of Shawn's The Fever, on the top floor of the Whole Foods parking garage. All of which, along with Red Cans, led to the multivalent, fluid-spilling spectacle of A Thought in Three Parts.
After that, for their newest production, Meyer and Hislope began researching Victorian parlor games and considering how to involve an audience directly in the performance process. They held a party in which guests spent hours re-creating olde-tyme diversions such as Snapdragon and the Preacher's Chair and Poor Pussy. They wondered what might amuse folks in these more modern times and wracked their minds trying to conjure the practical logistics needed to accommodate such an event on a grand, ongoing scale. Which brings us, finally, to the Duchess and her 500 offers in The Casket of Passing Fancy.
Austin Chronicle: How did you decide on 500 offers?
Josh Meyer: For a long time – we started talking about this project in 2006 – there was a set amount of offers each night, like 100 offers for the whole show, and they'd be the same offers every night, over and over. But we were feeling so much stress to make every offer perfect that we decided to have a vast number of offers so we could appeal to every possible taste. And most of the offers are done solo, one-on-one with an audience member, but sometimes our performers team up for a presentation. And now each offer is done only once, and that's it – so when they're gone, they're gone.
AC: You came up with these offers yourselves?
Matt Hislope: Some of them ourselves. For a lot of them, though, we asked our performers to provide a list of 15 different experiences they'd be willing to provide. And we sent them a list of all the offers we were already considering, to see how comfortable they'd feel doing them. Because some people have, ah, different levels of tolerance for certain things.
AC: Like nudity and such?
Hislope: Oh, yes.
Meyer: It's been ... interesting, figuring out how to arrange things so the person who's responsible for providing a chosen offer isn't already busy with someone else. Because – 500 offers, a dozen performers, 30 in the audience each night – we've had to develop a system of signals to keep things running smoothly. And just the props, I mean, we have hundreds of different props! But the Duchess will be able to control, with her cards, which performer's offers are available at any given time, so we're hammering that out in rehearsal, and it should work okay. But in our press releases, we say, "This is the show that will destroy our brains and drive us to ruin," and that might be ...
Hislope: ... closer to the truth than we'd like.
AC: So audience members choose these offers from the Duchess and then go off, one by one, with a performer? And that's it?
Meyer: Well, it's definitely a theatrical event, too. We're transforming the Blue Theater for this show; we have a choir; our performers have worked for months on how the offers are presented. We've developed this whole backstory for the Duchess, and Jennifer Underwood does a great job embodying that. She's this great character who's sort of holding forth and engaging with the audience while offering all these private diversions.
AC: What does it mean, "Some will win, some will lose"?
Meyer: Certain offers might entail more than someone bargained for. There are things people might be offered, and they'll think that there's no possible way the offer's going to be interpreted in a literal way ...
AC: And yet it is?
Meyer: And yet it is. Not all the experiences are necessarily pleasurable, but we're including some things because we think that some people might want to have an experience that isn't necessarily pleasurable.
Hislope: Maybe because they've never had the opportunity before, never had this, uh, forum for experience. Like Josh said in our blog, this show's provided the perfect scenario for a good portion of everything we've ever wanted to have in a show. So a lot of the offers are our own fancies, but we've also tried to have something for everyone. Some of the offers are really pretty innocuous.
Meyer: But there's the nature of the offers being eliminated as they're chosen, too. So if you wait until the last night of the show to come, you're going to get a kind of dog's dinner with what's left.
AC: And what if somebody accepts an offer, but then they have second thoughts about it?
Hislope: We're not forcing anything upon people. If somebody doesn't want to do something, we're not going to push them into it.
Meyer: But they can't, like, go back and try again. We'll have a kind of purgatorylike area where they can wait for their date or anyone they came to the theatre with.
AC: And a few of these offers – some of them might continue for a lifetime?
Hislope: Some of our performers are making commitments to keep up with things for a very long time. Luckily, we have a really willing cast, people who will go to great lengths for a show like this.
People such as playwright Rebecca Beegle, who helped the Rubber Rep boys create the multifaceted spectacle. People such as the fierce ensemble of offer-enablers – Beegle again and Hislope and Heather Barfield Cole, Silky Shoemaker, Paul Soileau, Kris Olson, Carlos Treviño, Michelle Flanagan, Taylor Flanagan, Thomas Graves, and Jennifer Underwood – and Jason Amato (lights), Laura Cannon (costume design), and Ann Marie Gordon (set design). All these people, working together with a zeal that's other than funereal to present the complex Casket for only 30 people each night – fewer than fit into one-third of the carpeted dining room through which Meyer and Hislope and I exit.
"So that's Luby's," I say as we linger in the parking lot beneath a darkening Texas sky.
"I'm sad to say they've remodeled this one," says Hislope. "They used to have these creepy portraits of young children all around, but now it's just that sports memorabilia and things."
"But you still like the food?"
Hislope nods vigorously. "Yeah, it's good stuff," says Meyer.
I continue to think poorly of my tilapia on the way home.
Ah, well: Some will win; some will lose.
The Casket of Passing Fancy runs Oct. 10-Nov. 1, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale. For more information, go to www.rubberrep.org or call 800/838-3006.
A Partial List of Props to Be Used in 'The Casket of Passing Fancy'
Sit 'n Spin
The will of the Duchess
A lighter, preferably antique-y looking
"Hokey Pokey" music
Marfa burial box
Vouchers to Chinati Foundation
Instructions for the person who will be in the show
Tickets to second act of a different show
Map to whatever theatre that show is at
Duchess leg-shaving materials
Sausage filled with holiday treats
Two cheap rings
Giant robot with Roman candles (RR can reimburse)
Declaration of Independence on a scroll
Trippy music for smoking banana peels to
A nice pen to sign the Declaration
Super pudding box
Two diapers (from friend who just had baby?)
Real shit (shared)
Fake blood (shared)
Suit of newspaper
A way to quickly become hairy
Fake pigeon shit
Hot mustard or wasabi or something to leave a terrible taste
A historic conversation to be edited
Actual Matchbox cars
Towel to cover up the collection of cars
Map to Sonic
World's Tiniest Church service items
Picture of famous Yiddish performer
Costume like said Yiddish performer's
Mason jars full of "cat urine"
$100 in pennies (after RR floats you $100)
25 things that have fallen from the sky
Laurel and Hardy masks
Clown College diploma
Orgasm recordings (borrow Josh Meyer's MP3 recorder)
Tiny vodka bottle
Alcohol and any other oil needed for "perfume from body fluids"
Make it rain blood instructions
Dragon's blood ink
Special pen to use it with