tableaux

Each act of the star-studded revival of The Front Page on Broadway a couple of years ago began and ended with a tableau, as did the start of the curtain call.

An old dictionary defines a tableau as “a representation of some scene by means of persons grouped in the proper manner, placed in appropriate postures, and remaining silent and motionless.”  The word comes from the French, tableau vivant.  (It means “living picture.”  Tableaux is the plural form.)

In The Front Page, the frozen scenes captured moments of interaction in the press room of the Chicago courthouse where the play takes place.  Given the large cast, it was hard to take in all of the facial expressions and relationships between characters during the short time each pose was held.  But the effect was one of memorializing some of the madcap action in pictures to view for a few seconds.

The poses of the characters foreshadowed action to come and built emotion, a technique that can be used in comedy or drama.  I have never seen Sunday in the Park with George, but I know that it includes a tableau of the famous Seurat painting on which it was based.

For me, a very powerful kind of tableau on stage is one of memory, a gathering of people and times gone by.

Each of us has a cast of characters that has shaped who we are, how we think, what we believe, and what we feel.  Our heroes come from many different domains:  faith, community, vocation, the arts, sports — wherever and whatever moves us through our lives.

Imagine if you could assemble a gathering of your own, in front of you now.

They might be the friends of your youth, some of whom you still see regularly, but others that are but a memory.

Or maybe some special people from different chapters of your life, those you don’t think about as often but who had a lasting impact on you.

Certainly, at this time of year, it’s impossible not to remember family members who came together to celebrate the holidays.  Maybe that’s the group you envision.

Whomever appears in front of us, our first inclination is to want to reanimate them, to go back and relive the best of times.  But we don’t get that chance.

Those tableaux are immensely personal and they can’t be recreated in a theater.  But whenever the technique is used in a play, I find myself torn between the characters of memory presented on stage and those in my own head.  Maybe you’ve had that feeling too.

Picture yourself alone in a dark theater.  Gradually, a faint light starts to build.  You can’t really see anything well, but you notice a gathering on stage.

The lights come up a little more and you recognize a face that you know.  Then another and another.  But the light never gets too bright.  It is all much like a dream.

They stand still.  You want to reach out and touch them, but they are far away.

You notice the beatific looks on their faces.  Solemn, but joyous.  They also remember.

You feel the moisture welling up in your eyes.  As the light recedes to darkness, a tear runs down your face.



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