Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Oracle of Wales

Has anyone ever heard the Tom Jones song "I (Who Have Nothing)?" This track was introduced to me this weekend by the Welshman playing Malvolio in Actors Theatre of Louisville's current production of "Twelfth Night." After seeing this gleeful production, the cast, including Jessi, and I had repaired to one of Louisville's most precious drinking establishments, Freddie's. It is places like Freddie's that restore my faith in drinking. Contrary to the link I provide for Freddie's, you CAN listen to the jukebox there, and I'd recommend you do so if you feel that the vibe is right. The jukebox is full of 45s featuring George Jones, Elvis Presley, Tom Petty (Girl on LSD), Reba McEntire and Tony Bennett, just to name a few. This jukebox is not so much a jukebox as it is an oracle. At 25 cents a play you can simply insert your quarters and blindly let your fingers punch in a few numbers and you will receive a stunningly revelatory answer to whatever questions may be plaguing your tired head.

After several bottles of Miller Lite and much conversation/slow cheek-to-cheek dancing, the Welshman and I found ourselves once again staring through the plexiglass at the bounty of analog wisdom that this sphinxian jukebox was dangling before us. Breaking the deafening silence he said to me, in his inimitable burring Welsh brogue, "do you want to hear the worst Tom Jones song ever recorded?" And even as he posed it I could feel this question suddenly begin to weigh on my mind with the force of ten thousand endless revisions. Do I really want to hear the worst song Tom Jones ever recorded? I asked myself, but no answer seemed forthcoming. It seemed more like a threat or a dare. I began to doubt this Welshman's intentions. But quite suddenly I remembered that Tom Jones himself was born among the heather-choked and vowel-light country of Wales (the greatest theatrical production I've ever seen was of George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss" at Wales' own Theatr Clwyd), so perhaps this grizzled Welshman knew something I did not. So before I knew quite what was happening the coin was dropped, the buttons were pressed, and in an instant I had my answer: Yes.

I, I who have nothing
I, I who have no one
Adore you, and want you so
I'm just a no one,
With nothing to give you but Oh
I Love You


And truly, every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin' coal. Of course I, I do not have nothing. In fact I have so much, so many things to be thankful for. I will not go into listing these things here for that would be a terrific breach of my carefully calculated air of flippancy, and what is a blog if not a place to conceal one's earnest feelings? At any rate suffice it to say that the denizens of this nicotine palace we call Freddie's were reduced to so much condensation wanly soaking the beer mats that lined the bar by the time this track mercifully wrapped itself up.

I could go on about the musical characteristics of this song; the unchecked, desperate, booming vocal quality; the cavernous reverb applied wholesale to every tea-soaked twitch of the hire-by-the-measure session string players; the shudder I felt as each cataclysmic drum fill telegraphed the beginning of another soul-crushing chorus. But in deference to my own delicate constitution I will go no further.

But what each of us (and by "us" I mean myself and the cast/crew of "Twelfth Night" - the other patrons, numbering 3, were otherwise engaged with either catching a quick forty winks in a booth or refusing to heed the honks of the cab outside that they themselves had just called) realized upon hearing this song was not only the essentially cruel, destitute nature of our lives here on earth. No, what we realized is that this is the song that should have been used as the cornerstone of the production of "Twelfth Night" in which we had all just taken part, they as actors and myself as audience.

"Twelfth Night" is, by my account, Shakespeare's greatest story of love finally requited, against all odds. The production in Louisville injected many ironically "bad" love songs, written by the adaptor and director, to various effect. But few of them ever even approached the heights of depravity that "I (Who Have Nothing)" so endlessly and effortlessly scales. The director of this production seemed to have been entirely unwilling to allow any of this play's darkest moments to flourish. Had he done so, the glorious, loving unions that end the play would only have been made all the more glorious with the acknowledgement of their antitheses.

He can take you anyplace he wants
To fancy clubs and restaurants
But I can only watch you with
My nose pressed up against the window pane
I, I who have nothing
I, I who have no one
Must watch you, go dancing by
Wrapped in the arms of somebody else
When darling it's I
Who Loves you


Of all the characters in "Twelfth Night," all of whom, throughout the play, undergo rather brutal reckonings with themselves and their deepest desires, it is Malvolio, portrayed that evening by this Welshman, who is the most cruelly betrayed, for it is he alone who leaves the play literally defrocked, alone and betrayed. Somehow this Welshman was able to wrest a few singularly heart-slicing moments out of this production - against, as Jessi tells me, the director's wishes. When I spoke to him of this at Freddie's, he silently and knowingly nodded his head a few times and said, looking away, "I hate this fucking play."

At this, a crackly 45 of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" began purring out of Freddie's jukebox, the crowd resumed their conversations, and I asked Jessi if she wouldn't mind sticking around for one more round. A wonderfully illuminating evening of theatre, by all accounts.

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