Monday, April 10, 2017

Reliability, Absurdity, and School Theater

My affair with acting in theater in high school was brief and tragic. I usually worked costumes and props with my friend Lauren for every performance, which was a great gig. All we did was sit around backstage talking to our friends in the cast and coerce the middleschoolers running the snack bar into giving us free sodas, while occasionally moving a chair or zipping up a dress. My high school was an all-girls school, too, so we usually got to have fun forcing our theater-nerd friends into fake beards and painting on wild eyebrows with eyeshadow, too. But the fall of my senior year we did Wizard of Oz and I was struck with thespian inspiration—either that, or “senioritis” madness—and I auditioned.
I was double-casted in the incredibly prestigious roles of Foremost General—a man who, I quickly decided, was a hard-headed and tough-as-nails vet of the Oz Army—and Flying Monkey. I was a little offended at the casting of the second one, because I was not the only flying monkey and yet I wasn’t even offered a number to my title. Was I Flying Monkey #1? Flying Monkey #2? #3? How was I supposed to properly inhabit the character I was given, properly understand his motivations, if I wasn’t even awarded a status ranking? (In retrospect, my Flying Monkey character should’ve been undergoing a crisis of faith or something.)
My situation wasn’t nearly as bad as my friend Tori’s, though my costume was. (That semester I would become intimately acquainted with cheap faux-fur felt and smelled like under hot stage lighting.) She had, in a sort of ironic joke, auditioned for the role of Toto; that is to say, she knelt down onstage and barked during the auditions. Apparently our theater director must’ve thought she barked really well, because she got the role and a specially-ordered fuzzy suit, which looked as though it had been sewn together after a successful raid on a grey sheep farm. The novelty, if had ever been there, wore off after a week of crawling around the hardwood stage on her knees and barking every time Dorothy patted her on the head. It didn’t wear off for the rest of us, though—we called her Totori through graduation.
The rest of the show, as you might imagine, passed in typical high school theater style: pitchy vocals, scenery malfunctions, me getting trapped in my monkey costume, and the Wicked Witch falling off a riser when she was attempting to melt. So when I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the disastrous Wizard of Oz production spoke a little too close to home for me—though his was technically middle school as compared to my high school, the experience was something I could relate to all too well. Even, unfortunately, the child who was forced to wear the Toto costume. I think this is one of the reasons why Kinney’s sense of humor is so effective (and effective enough to inspire at least nine other books in the Wimpy Kid series). A lot of what Greg goes through are universal experiences that everyone in school and/or adolescence goes through. Bullies, annoying siblings, and even terrible musical productions are fairly universal—and universality and relatability, as we’ve discussed, do play a big part in humor.

Aside from this, and my Wizard of Oz connection with Greg, there’s an interesting absurd factor of Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s sense of humor that the illustrations add. They almost always present information that’s at-odds with Greg’s narration, or show the truth despite Greg’s wild understatement. When he and Rowley are lifting weights, for example, Greg doesn’t seem to realize that Rowley is clearly struggling to breathe under the makeshift barbell; his illustration of the event, however, shows that he must be somewhat aware. Likewise when he is pretending to have a cast. He claims he got it from a terrible infection from a splinter and that he can’t understand why people don’t want to sign his cast, but the illustration—girls clearly being disgusted by his “infection”—suggests he really does know. While this probably suggests that Greg is clearly an unreliable narrator, they seem to be more for the audience/reader’s amusement: we know what’s really happening even though Greg doesn’t or is pretending not to, and it sort of becomes an inside joke between author and reader.

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