The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Some Midol For Philip, Please

In college, I was the president of the university’s speech and debate team (I know—big surprise). On the team was a guy named Philip.

Philip was a year younger than I was, very slightly built, with natural auburn hair that a girl would kill for. For some reason, Philip bleached the tips of it and told everyone he was trying to look like Billy Idol. It wasn’t working. He wore small, square-framed glasses and didn’t walk down the street as much as glide down it.

For all his physical strangeness, Philip was actually a good speaker and often placed in the finals at the various forensics tournaments we went to during the year. In my senior year, he approached me and asked me if I would like to do a scene with him and enter the Dramatic Pairs competition at an upcoming tournament in Ithaca, New York.

I weighed the pros and cons. On the plus side, we were almost sure to win—Philip and I were both very good, and our combined talent would probably be exceptional. On the other hand, it would mean hours and hours of “quality alone time” with Philip while we practiced. I finally decided to bite the bullet and say yes.

Philip chose Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf as our play, which was strange because when you looked at Philip, Richard Burton was not the first person to enter your mind. But I agreed and we set up our first rehearsal, which would take place in Philip’s dorm room.

It occurred to me as I schlepped over there that I had never seen Philip’s room, and I was curious as to what it looked like. When I got there, all I could do was stare.

He had carpeted the room (which wasn’t allowed) in pink shag. He had a scarlet bed-ruffle on his bed, and throughout the room there were small end-tables with pink skirts on them. On all of the tables and shelves, there were pictures (in gorgeous antique silver frames) of a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair.

I just blinked and said, “Wow.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to clean,” said Philip, worridly.

I indicated one of the pictures of the attractive woman. “Is this your girlfriend?” (I highly doubted it—women who looked like that just didn’t go for Philip).

He goggled. “No,” he said, “that’s my mother.”


I decided not to say anything else, and rehearsal got underway. I had to admit that Philip had chosen a good scene for us, and he actually didn’t give me a hard time when I gave him suggestions. By the end of the night I was feeling pretty good about it.

This went on for several weeks.

When the weekend of the tournament dawned, we were faced with a problem. It was February, and we were expecting a lot of snow, a problem which would be even worse in the frozen tundra of Ithaca. I had a small and lightweight car and didn’t feel comfortable driving the five long hours to Ithaca College, so my friend Ann Marie, who drove a 1978 Thunderbird, volunteered to drive. Another team member, Maryanne, said she would drive her car as well. With all of that figured out, we piled into the cars and headed off.

Philip and I were in Ann Marie’s car. For the entire five-hour ride, he did “mouth exercises,” which consisted of making faces and strange noises. I watched him in the rear-view mirror, and prayed a police officer wouldn’t stop us and haul him in for being drunk and disorderly.

We finally arrived in Ithaca, found the hotel, and crashed for the night.

The tournament itself was boring, and you will be mercifully be spared hearing about it. Suffice it to say that at the end of the first day, only Philip and I had made it to the finals and would have to stay the following day. Maryanne agreed to chauffer the rest of the team home so they wouldn’t have to waste an entire day just watching me and Philip.

At the awards ceremony the following night, things started to get weird.

Ann Marie, Philip and I sat in the front row of the auditorium while the president of the Ithaca speech team handed out the awards. Philip suddenly began clutching his abdomen.

“Dude, are you all right?” I asked.

He made a whining noise. “I have cramps,” he said.

“What did you eat?” I asked, concerned.

“Oh, it’s not that,” he said, waving his hand. “I’m just getting my period.”

Naturally, I thought it was a joke (albeit a very strange one), so I ignored it. The ceremony droned on, and Philip and I managed to take second place in Dramatic Pairs. I was very excited.

We all filed out into the parking lot, where it was now quite dark and extremely cold. It was also beginning to snow. The three of us made our way toward Ann Marie’s car. Philip continued to make little painful sounds as he clutched his stomach.

“I’m sorry,” he kept saying. “This is an extremely painful period.”

I finally said, “Philip, what the hell are you talking about?”

“You don’t know about my periods? Everybody in the dorm knows about my periods.”

“I don’t live in your dorm,” I reminded him.

“Oh. Well, every twenty-eight days, I get terrible cramps, I get bloated, my nipples get tender, and I have diarrhea for four or five days. It’s like clockwork.” He then doubled over. “Oh! Cramps!”

We got to the car and Philip dove into the back seat, holding his stomach and moaning. Ann Marie tried to start the car.

Dead silence.

“Oh, crap.” She turned the key in the ignition again. We then heard the most frightening sound of all: Click.

“Oh, crap.”

She popped the hood and the two of us stood outside, in the snow, peering under it. Neither one of us knew what the hell we were looking for. From inside the car, we could still hear Philip’s moaning about how much his nipples hurt. He seemed to alternate grabbing his chest and his stomach.

“Do you know what’s wrong?” I asked Ann Marie.

“No. Do you? Your father’s an engineer.”

“Yeah, but he’s not here,” I said. We both stared at the car’s innards again, trying to figure out where the engine was.

This went on for some time. Finally, a van with the words U.S. Coast Guard Academy printed on the side pulled up to us. Two very nice-looking cadets in dress uniforms came out and approached us.

“Hi there,” one of them said in a friendly voice. “Having some car trouble?”

Ann Marie and I wisely stepped away from the car while the cadet and several more of his compatriots fussed around under the hood. The entire Coast Guard speech team insisted that if we couldn’t get the car started, we could go home with them—they weren’t about to let “two ladies” get stranded in the snow five hours from home.

“Do you have anyone here with you?” asked one of the cadets.

“Well,” I said, dryly, “we have him.” I pointed into the back seat.

The cadet looked into the car, and I distinctly heard Philip say: “Excuse me, I’m having my period and I have cramps. Do you have any Midol, or Pamprin, or anything like that?”

The cadet looked at him in disbelief and looked back at me. “Do you have anyone else?”

“No,” I said, sadly.

The cadet who seemed to be in charge of the whole thing finally diagnosed the problem, had Ann Marie try the engine again, and it turned over. We were overjoyed, not only because we were able to go home, but because we could finally rid ourselves of the cowering, crying Philip, who was now curled up in a ball in the back seat, begging for a toilet.

I took down the names of all the cadets who had helped us, and promised I would write a very nice letter about them to the Coast Guard Academy. They were very humble about the whole thing. “Are you sure,” asked the cadet in charge, looking suspiciously at Philip, “that you don’t want one of us men to go with you?”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” I said, sighing. “Thank you, though.”

The Coast Guard cadets drove off into the night, and Ann Marie and I took Philip home. We played the radio at top volume to drown out his wailing.

An interesting afternote to this is that two weeks later, Philip’s roommate asked for a transfer to another room. Apparently, Philip’s cramps didn’t bother him nearly as much as the boxes of tampons Philip kept in the room.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The One About Hamlet

I teach Hamlet pretty much every semester in my Early British Literature class, and eventually, a student will ask me who was my favorite Hamlet. There is, of course, an impressive pantheon to choose from, including Laurence Olivier, Nicol Williamson, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, and Mel Gibson (before he got all weird on us).

But whenever they ask me, “who is your favorite Hamlet?” my reply usually makes them blink and say; “Who?” And then I just smile and say it again.

“Steve Dennis.”

(Long pause). “I don’t know who that is,” they usually say.

Well, I’m not surprised. There are probably only about a thousand people roaming around on the earth who got to see Steve Dennis’ Hamlet, and I’m one of them. And unfortunately, there is no video evidence of his performance (and believe me, I’ve checked). But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back.

Picture it. New Jersey, 1987.

I was taking a dramatics class, which I had somehow not managed to place out of, and one of the requirements was to watch and review a play. Fortunately, the city where I went to college was a big theatre town, so I had plenty to choose from. At the same time, one of my closest friends, Lola, was working crew for the university production of Hamlet. As soon as she found out about my assignment, she fell over herself trying to get me to choose Hamlet as my subject.

“I don’t know, Lo,” I said, kind of unimpressed. “I’m looking to do a real in-depth review, and there’s not many ways you can really do Hamlet that haven’t been done to death already.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. She took a reverent pause. “It stars…Steve Dennis.”

“Who’s Steve Dennis?”

I still remember that conversation. It was in a Burger King. Lola couldn’t believe I didn’t know who Steve was. She told me a long complicated story about how he was the absolute best actor in the university’s M.F.A. program (which is, truth be told, extremely exclusive) and how everything he did was simply magical. She wouldn’t shut up about him. I finally caved and said that I would go and see Hamlet if she would only let me eat my chicken tenders in peace.

A week later, I found myself in the theatre waiting to see the Great and Powerful Steve Dennis do Hamlet. The theatre sat about two hundred people, and I was surprised to see that it was filled. At this point, Hamlet had been running for about a week and I didn’t think that it would really appeal to so many people (and many were obviously not students).

Lola sat next to me. The lights dimmed.

As you know if you remember your Hamlet, Hamlet isn’t even onstage when the play begins. He comes in a few pages in and his first line is: “A little more than kin and less than kind.” It isn’t really a killer line, but it gets things going. Anyway, the actor playing Claudius babbled his lines, and then this guy in a black doublet walked on and delivered the line.

Lola clutched my hand and gasped. I just stared at her. Then I looked at Steve.

There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him. He looked to be about 25, had longish blonde hair, and seemed a bit on the short side. He was very thin and had bright blue eyes. If you passed him on the street, you’d never notice him. But man, his voice was incredible. As an actress myself, I was especially “tuned in” to voices, and this guy had, hands down, the most beautiful line delivery I had ever heard.

I really wish that I had the ability to transport you all there. I wish so much that you could have seen it. Because if I say something vague like: “Steve was incredible,” you’re just going to ask: “Oh yeah? How?” And I don’t know if I can answer it. But here are a few facts:

1. For days after the play, I realized that I literally could not remember what the other actors looked like if they were in a scene with Steve. Your eyes just went to him every time he was onstage, even if he wasn’t talking.

2. Lola took my pulse at intermission. It was 120. She had to hold my hand during the fifth act.

3. At the end of the play, even knowing that Hamlet dies, I still bawled like a five year old. Steve’s death scene was so convincing that I wanted to clamor onto the stage and save him. And I wasn’t the only one. The entire theatre was sobbing.

4. Remember how I said he wasn’t particularly good-looking? I apparently lied. By the end of the play, he was gorgeous.

5. When it was time for curtain-calls and I attempted to give Steve a standing ovation, my knees collapsed from under me and all I could do was sit there.

6. I kept muttering: “Why the hell isn’t he on Broadway yet?” throughout the scene changes.

7. For the entire three-and-a-half hours of running time, the whole theatre was silent. I don’t think anybody even went to the bathroom.

8. During Steve’s soliloquies, I wanted to answer him.

9. I think I actually said: “Laurence Olivier is such a hack,” at one point.

10. I vowed, at one point during the gravedigger scene, that I would meet him and tell him I loved him.

When the whole thing was over, Lola and I staggered out of the theatre in a sense of bizarre euphoria. We would have been concerned about our behavior (giggling, gasping, and beginning sentences with “Ohmigod…”), but the whole freakin’ audience was doing the same thing.

I then went home and tried to write my review. I sat there for an hour, trying to put what I had felt and experienced into words. It was next to impossible. I finally finished by saying something like: “This performance was not only the best version of Hamlet I have ever seen, but possibly the best performance of any play, ever.”

When my professor (who was male, keep in mind) handed me back the essay, he had written: “I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen it.”

Hamlet ran about three weeks (I went to see it two more times!), and after it closed, Lola and I mourned that we would probably never see Steve again. But fortunately, someone important had spotted him, and after his graduation he appeared in a few Off-Broadway shows. I went to see as many as I could, and one night, finally, I got up the courage to hang around outside the theatre and wait for him (Da Dum!).

When I was actually talking to him, it seemed otherworldly. I introduced myself, told him I had once been in the business, and told him I had enjoyed his play. And then, God help me, I started babbling about Hamlet, and he smiled at me beatifically, somehow keeping himself from slowly backing away. I sincerely hope that he didn’t think I was dangerously insane. He seemed genuinely surprised that someone actually remembered his Hamlet.

And then, my real life kicked in. College, grad school, getting married, getting a job—all that nonsense. I never forgot about Steve, though, and often wondered what had happened to him and why he had never become a legendary actor.

One night about four years ago, I was watching Star Trek: Enterprise (shut up), and an episode about the Andorians came on. Andorians are small, blue creatures with antennae. I sat through the opening credits and to my astonishment saw: “Steven Dennis”.

I blinked. Was that possible?

Of course I didn’t recognize Steve when he finally came on…he was blue. But there was no disguising that voice. “Holy crap!” I yelled, and went frantically looking for Lola’s number at the first commercial. “Turn on UPN!” I yelled at her, “right now!”

Pause, then: “Holy crap!” Followed by, of course, giggling.

I really hope he got more than Union scale for that appearance.

So that's my favorite Hamlet. I just hope that Steve doesn't have to be blue in his next role.