Wielding Artifice

How does an actor play a character who can’t find the words to express themselves?

It’s an interesting conundrum: the character can’t locate their own proverbial script…even though the actor obviously knows their character’s literal script. The problem: if an actor communicates a comfortable, commanding control over this hesitance, such strength of approach would ring untrue in relation to their linguistically floundering character. As much as tripping over lines and struggling to remember the next might forsake seamlessly convincing “naturalism”, this “artifice” of performance can feel truer to ineloquent characters than scripted reticence.

In recent weeks, I’ve covered how shows like Who Killed My Father and Mala lean into this brand of performative artifice to mine deeper truth; well, Austin Pendleton in The Minutes triplets it.

Geriatricism is another interesting conundrum for actors. Losing your memory is a stereotypical hallmark of aging; how can an actor live in and thereby project this truth fully, in a vocation defined by constant memory recall, without looking like they just don’t know their lines?

Well, why not flirt with this exact look? Austin Pendleton’s line deliveries sound like he’s having actual trouble remembering the dialogue. And have you ever been in the presence of an actor who legitimately blanks on the script? There’s a charged energy of anticipatory tension and dread in the room; are we really witnessing a professional fail at their work in front of hundreds of onlookers??

This effect mirrors what it must be like to sit in a local council meeting — the setting of The Minutes!— with one of the questionably-stable kooks who partially govern our societies…the sort of kook Pendleton is bringing to all-too-real life before us. Questions provoked by his slippery staccato also apply to his slippery character:

Is he OK? Like, is something wrong with him? Or is this just how he speaks?

OR, does he have no earthly clue what he wants to say, making it up as he goes along, arbitrarily deciding what opinions to espouse based on how his mood strikes in that fleeting moment, flying by the seat of his slow pants??

Oooooor, is he deliberately fucking with us?? Is it all an act to keep us on pins and needles, compelling us to figure out where his “expert” attention will roam next, creating ample room for us to lean in and give him the attention and marination he self-evidently deserves and desires? Is he SO smart, does he have SUCH a wealth of experienced wisdom, that it requires processing time to rifle through his endless strokes of genius?

Ooooor, is he an airhead? A formerly (hopefully?) with-it citizen who’s now slipping off his rocker, yet we still have to put up with his lagging because, well, because he still wields his inherited power over our daily lives!

And with that, we’ve run into how all of these questions pertain to representative democracy, another of the show’s focuses. Are we watching the sort of decision-making weirdos who we’ve entrusted to hold the keys to our sociopolitical future? Do all of our elderly elected officials know what they’re talking about…or might we be at the mercy of a few in the midst of losing their wits?

Pendleton’s performances transforms every second he has the mic into a spectacle of elders. Is this whole arrangement hilarious, or tragic? Since the play’s about the deteriorating grip of the old guard, and the repercussions wrought when they cling to their influence beyond the advised expiration date, Pendleton’s unusual turn hammers home the text’s central themes.

His stumbling artifice allows truth to crash-land into an otherwise fictional tale.

One thought on “Wielding Artifice

  1. Anonymous

    Also Pendleton’s character is named Mr. Oldfield, so you’re spot on with Letts’s insinuation about the elderly wielding governmental power.


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