Friday, April 13, 2012

An Evening of Mah Jongg, Shakespeare Style

One afternoon, while playing Mah Jongg with my regular Tuesday group, I asked, "But soft, what tile on yonder rack breaks?" and Penelope said, "It is the East." We laughed, because the lines, taken (loosely) from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, seemed surprisingly apt for Mah Jongg, with its tiles and racks and wind-related positions at the table.
Thus, the seed of an idea was planted in my noggin, and within a week, I'd written the first draft of a one-act play (really, a 45-minute comedy sketch) about four of Shakespeare's female characters gathering to play Mah Jongg.
Nevermind that in Shakespeare's plays there are no references to Mah Jongg, nor do the characters I'd chosen ever encounter one another. The conceit of this play is that Lady Macbeth has invited Queen Gertrude, Juliet's Nurse, and young Miranda over to Castle Inverness for an evening's entertainment.
I began with all the Shakespeare quotes I could remember. After verifying that the original quotes were correct, I tweaked the wording to suit the situation. What would four women talk about as they played? Well, men, for one thing: their husbands, fathers, sons, lovers. What else? Food. Music. Their weight; their hair; their stations in life; their experiences as women of power--or powerlessness. They'd give each other advice. Some jealousy or cattiness might surface. And, of course, there'd be competition. Someone would win, which meant someone else might flounce off in a huff.
Cast members (left to right): Donna as the narrator, Cheryl as Miranda (The Tempest), Carol as Queen Gertrude (Hamlet), Pat as Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), and Penelope as Juliet's Nurse (Romeo and Juliet).

While finishing the play, I recruited actors: Penelope as the Nurse, of course, since she was there at the genesis; Pat as Lady Macbeth, who I pictured as tall and lean. Carol surely would lend gravitas as Queen Gertrude. As narrator, I would give the introduction and the closing. Originally, a woman much younger than the rest of us was cast as Miranda, but soon after our first performance was scheduled, we learned that she wasn't going to be available. Donna agreed to take the narrator's part, so I could fill in as Miranda, which would work only if audience members used all their imaginative powers to envision me as a young girl.

I was confident that even audiences who hadn't read Shakespeare's plays would recognize the most famous quotes, such as "To be or not to be," "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," and "Out, damned spot," but for audience members unacquainted with Mah Jongg, there would have to be a brief orientation to the game. So, the program includes definitions of terms such as bams, craks, dots, pungs, and kongs, and explains that through a combination of luck and strategy, players seek to form a winning hand by drawing, discarding, and claiming discarded tiles.
We thought to indicate our characters through headgear: crowns for Macbeth and Gertrude, a garland of flowers and butterflies for Miranda, a plumed cap for the narrator. Nurse's headdress went through several permutations until Penelope chose one of her own hand-woven tea towels to wear.
"What will we do if the audience just sits there in silence?" Penelope asked during one rehearsal. "We'll just concentrate on what we're doing and block them out," was my reply. Yeah, right. More easily said than done. 
Yesterday, we gave our first performance of "An Evening of Mah Jongg, Shakespeare Style" to a group of friends, classmates, and a few strangers. The audience laughed in all the right places, we made very few mistakes, and it was difficult to tell which group enjoyed the performance more: the audience or the actors themselves.
All I could think of was how lucky I was to have friends who were willing to take a risk, work hard, and share the fun! 

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