It’s really bright in here. Where is the anonymizing darkness in whose murky depths I am so accustomed to hiding?
The audience is seated, under full, merciless fluorescence, in the rec room of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in San Luis Obispo, where thespian John Pillow is about to take the stage—otherwise known as the area in the center of the room where there are no chairs.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
There are three important items in the space before us. To the left is a desk, atop which a radio sits, spilling forth incongruously funky jams. To the right rests a white Baldwin piano. And, front and center, a lectern.
The crowd (and we are a crowd, comprising more than three persons) is murmuring like a flock of supernumerary actors, but we shut up immediately the moment Pillow strides to the desk, switches off the radio, and sits down, his back to the audience. He takes a swig of stage coffee. He cracks open the tome on the desk.
“Words,” he pronounces.
Unimpressed, he flips through its pages.
He rises, wanders to the piano, and bangs out a labored tune. He gives up, walks to the lectern, and speaks, looking each audience member in the face. It’s clear at this point the lights are not going to dim. He is a moody Hamlet, but when his cell phone rings, he makes the requisite apologetic gesture, and snaps with schizophrenic adroitness into a fatherly Polonius. He is listening, pacing, interjecting, pausing, and dispensing unsolicited advice: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
The phone flips shut, and he once again acknowledges the presence of the audience.
Though a one-man show, there are many characters on parade here, as Pillow veers from pensive to buffoonish to intense, drawing from his entourage of personalities to best interpret Shakespeare’s words.
Out of the mouth of a hick, the Elizabethan language is grotesquely fascinating (“I had rather be a kitten and cry mew than one of these same metre ballad-mongers,” Pillow thickly drawls), and from a hiccupping drunkard, hilarious. He even throws some believable cockney into the mix.
But these treats come only ever so often, between moments of what looks like unaffected realism synced so neatly with the antiquated language as to seem a matter of course. Pillow establishes in his performance a baseline of normalcy, before deviating sharply from it, diving down the crooked alley of some craggy, odd character.
Pillow is good. He is very good. At a show such as this—humble, spare, under-the-radar—this fact is a joy, and a tremendous relief. By Will … Alone, his self-directed, hour-long Shakespeare mashup, is an artistic success, if criminally under-attended. This is why, with Pillow’s consummate performance leaving me with so little left to want, a critical eye must be momentarily trained upon the significant other role in the room: that of the audience. Interplay between multiple characters—even those contained within a single physical incarnation—is a great part of what makes theater what it is. Pillow’s choice to directly engage certain members of the audience is a good one, but this shy, polite group didn’t often return the favor: Pillow’s wonderfully witty impersonations were often met with a silence that bordered on reverent, until one person laughed, granting the others permission to laugh, too. Credit is most certainly Pillow’s due for neither withering from, nor speed-talking through, these moments of levity so stonily received.
William Shakespeare’s works have been “updated” many times in film and onstage, though of late shows like Compleat Wrks and MacHomer have seen the comedic genius of running the bard through the pop cultural laundry and laughing at what comes out the other side. But while By Will … Alone derives some humor from its modern twist, Pillow is also capable of delving deep, of looking misery and mortality in the eye through his portrayal of a grieving mother, or a prince whose fate is already sealed.
Using musical performance as a divider, Pillow breaks up the hour into three parts, which are themed “Eternal Summer,” “Dogs of War,” and “Undiscovered Country.”
Pillow has been acting since his teens, and studied at PCPA in the ’70s. Last April, he made his directorial debut with The Gin Game at the SLO Little Theatre. He’s performed in a long list of Shakespeare’s plays, and moves deftly and confidently through well-worns like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, into the lesser known territory of King John and Troilus and Cressida, hand-picking sonnets along the path like darling buds of May.
He describes the piece as a work in progress, and one wonders momentarily if this disclaimer is not merely a defense mechanism, a way to deliver an outstanding performance and then announce, under the pretense of humility, “But alas, that was a mere fraction of what I’m capable of!”
But this would be a faulty assumption in Pillow’s case. It is a constantly developing work. During certain longer soliloquies, he still reads from the script atop the lectern. (He still reads from the script! “Excuse me, but this cost me $15,” I wonder if anyone thought.)
You’d be hard pressed, however, to catch him faltering.
Eva Schwarzweiss is the pickier alter ego of Arts Editor Anna Weltner, who can be reached at email@example.com. Pillow specifically invited Eva to this show.