I’m happily back in St. Louis, a wonderful city I have come to love over my past two visits. Amazing food, wonderful people, a vibrant arts scene, the endlessly explorable Forest Park, plenty to do … what’s not to like?
This time around I will be directing a production of My Three Angels, a quirky holiday-themed comedy, for the St. Louis Actors’ Studio. I will make “director’s journal” entries over the next couple of weeks throughout this fast and furious process as we put together this production. I have always been one to take copious notes- written in various director’s journals and typed up into documents on my laptop. This helps me to track the progress, address problems, and remember the process each time so that I learn from the experience and continue to grow as a director. This handy-dandy little blog here is a fantastic dumping-ground for my notes and ideas, and a great place to share them with my cast, crew, and anyone else out there who might be interested in how theatre gets made.
When I was first approached by William Roth and Milt Zoth about directing this play, I was not familiar with the script. As it so happens, We’re No Angels, the film adaptation of My Three Angels is one of William’s all-time favorites. He had been wanting to put on this play for quite a while and was excited to have it as the “holiday show” for the St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 5th season. Based on my initial research, I had the impression from information about the 1953 Broadway show that it was typically fluffy-family-fare. I was, however, surprised to find there was much more than meets the eye to this cozy holiday tale of love, redemption, and murder.
Taking place Christmas Eve, 1910 in French Guiana, the story follows the sweet (if not a little naive) Ducotel family who have re-located from France after Felix lost his “first-class department store” to his swindling cousin, Henri. Felix now runs a small store for Henri thousands of miles away in a hot, tropical prison colony in Cayenne. Felix, his wife, Emilie, and daughter, Marie-Louise, are honest and loving. They want to believe the best in people and often become targets for unscrupulous cheats and liars. Felix has hired a trio of paroled convicts to repair a hole in their roof and while it seems Joseph, Jules, and Alfred may be up to no good … the hardened criminals come to care for and look out for the Ducotels.
To me, this is a play of contrasts. Yes. It absolutely is a comedy with witty dialogue and some goofy situations. But, I feel that it completely betrays the script (as well as my own artistic sensibilities) if I were ignore or gloss over the story’s darker elements. First of all, there are many elements of violence in the play. For example, Jules and Alfred ARE violent murderers. They describe their crimes in detail and don’t really show much remorse for what they did. In many ways, their time with the Ducotels is not to atone for their own sins, but to get a taste of the lives they missed out on by committing them in the first place.
Secondly, the play is rife with ethical questions. Felix is a loving father, but a horrible business man. In an attempt to forge his books, Joseph points out that in their current un-doctored state, the books show him to be “a waster, a lecher, a scoundrel.” He points out the disparity between image and reality (another prominent theme in the play).
Third, the “three angels” frequently enact their own vigilante justice against what they view as crimes against simple decency and humanity. At one point, they even perform the roles of judge, attorney, and executioner in a mock trial against Henri. Their own form of justice extends even further to attempting to punish others for sins of greed such as Madame Parole or other nameless customers who enter Felix’s shop looking for a deal.
All of this (and more) brought me to conceptualize the play as a delicate French pastry: it’s light and sweet, but with an intense structural complexity that gives it much more body than meets the eye. Like a flaky, buttery croissant filled with dark chocolate ganache.
I found great inspiration in the imagery of pastries. They are beautiful to look at and very sweet. These images also contribute to the visual components of the play’s design. It should be pretty to look at and the pace is light and comic. But, essentially, this is a play about contrasts: the sweet with the salty, Marie-Louise’s innocence paired with Alfred’s worldliness and burden of sin, the light-spirited characters paired with the heat and heaviness of the tropical climate, the contrast between “legal law” and “moral law” and how the characters maneuver between the ideas, the contrast of perception and reality, and the contrast of the European “sophistication” and manners of the French characters contrasted with the inhospitable wildness of the island will all its disease, heat, and poisonous plants and animals.
Other sources of inspiration in working with the characters came from the images of French Guiana’s native birds. There was something in either the physical quality or the personality of these birds that reminded me of each of the characters. Animal imagery a fun conceptual idea I often use to help introduce my initial ideas about characters to actors. I feel as if it gives us a visual starting point. Where it goes from there is guided through the organic discovery process of rehearsal.
For Felix, I found inspiration in The Great Tinamou, a native ground bird. This endearing bird is adorable to look at and perhaps a bit silly. The fact that it is a flightless bird is completely “Felix.”
Emilie, on the other hand, is the graceful Great Egret. She is dignified and protective of her nest. She maintains a sense of decorum, even with all the craziness happening around her.
Marie-Louise is an Amethyst Woodstar. She is pretty, delicate, with a light and quick rhythm to her physical nature. She is very beautiful, making it easy for Alfred to be so immediately taken with her. She moves around the house with speed, rarely landing in a place for any length of time.
Paul, Marie-Louise’s “true love” is the handsome White Hawk. On the surface he looks very dignified and strong, however, his eyes are cold and beady. Underneath the sophisticated looks, he is a predatory bird.
Henri is unarguably the villain of the play and can be easily personified by the Black Vulture. He lurks around corners waiting to scavenge the remains of the family. He has a very imposing, almost reptilian presence to him.
Madame Parole is the puffed-up and proud Magnificent Frigatebird. She has a small role in the show, but is an incredibly memorable presence. I feel that this unique (and loud) bird makes a strong impression wherever she goes.
Alfred, a convicted murderer and former playboy, can be represented by the Bare-Eyed Thrust. This bird looks a bit care-worn, but wide-eyed and very aware of everything around him. Perhaps not the flashiest in the bunch, Alfred keeps a watchful presence over the family throughout the play.
Jules, the unofficial “leader” of the trio of “angels,” can be represented by the Atlantic Yellow-Nosed Albatross. He is a physically large and imposing bird. But the albatross metaphor extends further. Jules desires nothing more than a real home than he can call his own and albatrosses have the ability to fly great distances and circle the globe before ever finding a place to nest.
Lastly, Joseph is the colorful and very memorable Green Aracari. It is difficult to miss this energetic and comical bird. Joseph never hides and is incredibly good humored.
This is the conceptual starting point for the show. We are three days into rehearsal and things are moving along very quickly. There will obviously be much more to report as things develop.