Sixteen years ago I walked into the basement of the Historic Hamm Building to audition for Park Square’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by the late Stephen Kanee. This was my first audition at PST and the first paying gig I’d ever book. Stephen was an adjunct professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, which was more than fortune for me, because I absolutely gassed my audition. I stumbled and I stammered and I looked every bit the amateur I was. Stephen, bless his heart, took pity on me. “Ok, so that wasn’t good. Why don’t you give me something you know, something that shows me who you are.” Quickly, I shuffled through my mental Rolodex of audition material — kidding, I only really knew one more. I was terrible at preparation. “There, that’s what I wanted to see.” A few days later I got a call asking if I wanted a role. I felt big.
That year, the fall of 2000, R&J would rehearse and perform five weeks of matinees for hundreds of middle and high school kids, but, unlike most PST R&Js before, we’d also be a part of the Winter main stage season (plus matinees), making the full run about five months long with a holiday break mixed in.
It was a full scale production with 23 cast members; 19 of which were male, all in one dressing room. Tight quarters.
Stephen placed our R&J in 1950s Little Italy. The set was spartan; all steel and girders, stairs and catwalk. Sometime during tech week, Park Square drew its first blood. Of course it was mine. The plan was for my Paris, who, upon finding the scoundrel Romeo lurking around the undead body of Zombie Juliet, would pounce. We’d fight — I’d swing over Romeo’s ducking head losing my balance, after which, he’d slam my face into the steel gurney upon which the Zombie Juliet lay. The plan worked. Not stage combat style, but face-into-gurney-style. The lights had gone out a half-second early, and Romeo and I misjudged our stunt. “F#@*,” I shouted. Our stage manager Andrea said something droll like, “That’s not your line, Matthew.” The lights came back up and the bridge of my nose had been cracked. Blood flowed. Park Square 1, Matthew 0.
After the holiday break, the show underwent some changes. The actors playing Romeo and Benvolio alternated roles, one playing Romeo on Wednesdays, the other Thursdays, and so on. This meant the Romeo/Paris fight needed to be worked from scratch with a new person flinging me into metal things. Within the first week of the run, new Romeo’s adrenaline got the better of him. My death was to come when another off-balance Paris flail was dodged by an on-balance Romeo parry, and my momentum would take me headlong into the very, very solid steel bridge girder, knocking the life out of me. An accident, you see! Romeo is innocent! Well, this Romeo threw me right into the very, very solid steel girder, tearing the cartilage between two of Paris’ also innocent ribs. Pretty sure that incident caused the theatre to up its liability insurance. No blood this time, but if you’ve ever tried sleeping with a rib injury, I can assure you a broken nose is far easier to manage. The score at halftime: Park Square 2, Matthew 0.
With my ribs still sore, and the show in full run, my body decided it wanted a piece of me, too, in the form of my first kidney stone – Callooh! Callay! Three AM the Friday of a show, a fire like I’d never felt before erupted in my belly. I left HCMC with a scrip for Vicodin and an $1800 medical bill. Worse than the pain — well, no, nothing was — but exacerbating the pain, was the fact that Vicodin made me mush-mouthed. Like more than usual. Shakespeare and narcotics do NOT mix. “Of hon’rable nobility are you both, and ’tis pity that you’ve lived at odds for so long” comes out more like “Of horry nobbers-glib dogger bosht un pity rods fong.” So for six excruciating two-show days, I medicated at night for sleep, then played Paris painfully sober in the light of day. Have I mentioned the show was 3.5 hours long? Well, it was. Thankfully, my Paris lay dead on the stage for the final 30 minutes of the show. Y’know, after getting chucked into the set? Those 30 minutes were downright blissful after the grimaced writhing I’d do on the green room couch between scenes. I have vivid memories of the late and very sweet Kevin Vance catching me from passing out as I’d make this exit or that, and the dear Randy Latimer lending her shoulder to lay on backstage. Three-nil, PST.
Finally, the cursed stone passed on Valentine’s Day, 2001. There was much rejoicing … until the ear infections kicked in. Plural. Both. I spent the rest of the run unable to hear myself speak. The Friar and I worked out a subtle signal for me to crank up the volume if needed. It was totally needed. Four-nil.
My memories of that show go beyond the injuries. I met and shared the stage with a number of wonderful performers, and had the great honor of working with Stephen. It’s been fifteen years since that show closed, so it’s not like I have a score to settle, right? I mean, I did leave out the part where my pet rabbit died, and the part where school kids would fire pennies or M&M’s at my head while I lay dead on the stage. “He’s not dead, he’s still breathing.” He was right, but just barely. My blood is on that stage. I hope it was delicious, kids.