Thursday, February 18, 2016

Legend Has It

From 1968 to 2013, the American Legend Cooperative held the public's attention with a 45-year-long branding campaign entitled What Becomes A Legend Most? During that time, nearly 70 celebrity spokesmodels could be seen in posters advertising Blackglama furs. Because those furs were primarily marketed to women, most of the campaign's models were female stars of stage and screen. Only four (Rudolf Nureyev, Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, and Tommy Tune) were men.

Martha Graham, Rudolf Nureyev, and Margot Fonteyn were
three of the 1976 "celebrity spokepersons" for Blackglama

Although there was another man who might have been considered as a possible celebrity spokesperson for Blackglama, André René Roussimoff didn't quite fit the bill. Far from photogenic, the 7'4" tall wrestler weighed 520 pounds, spoke with a thick accent, and was better known as André the Giant. Born in Grenoble on May 19, 1946, he made his professional debut in 1963, retired in 1992, and died the following year from congestive heart failure.

A superstar of international wrestling who would later embark on an acting career that included television appearances on shows like Zorro, B.J. and the Bear, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Greatest American Hero, and The Fall Guy, his most famous acting role was as Fezzik (the gentle giant who loved to make puns) in 1987's The Princess Bride.

The Custom Made Theatre recently presented the world premiere of Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant, a new play by Gino Dilorio that focuses on the real-life friendship between playwright Samuel Beckett and his neighbor's son, who had rapidly outgrown all the other children in his school. The play begins in 1958, when 12-year-old André stood six feet tall, weighed 240 pounds, and was tired of living on a farm in Moulins.

Brent Averett and David Sikula in a scene from Sam and Dede 
(or) My Dinner with André the Giant  (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

This 90-minute two-hander begins as Beckett (Dave Sikula) attempts to convince André (Brendan Averett) to let him drive the boy to school every day. Not only does André have severe problems fitting into the front seat of Sam's truck (the young man would much prefer to ride in the open back of the vehicle), he still acts like a rather petulant child. The difference between the two men is that André has a keen understanding of the physical limitations imposed on him by his oversized body while Beckett is more focused with parental concerns about safety, logic, and how things should be done.

Though he may seem much older, André is still at an age of unrelenting curiosity, demonstrating a childlike ability to stump the famous playwright with one simple question after another. As their friendship starts to build (thanks in large part to their shared passion for cricket)  André becomes the one person who doesn't hesitate to ask Beckett questions. Others would probably never think to do so in the presence of a purported genius.

Brent Averett and David Sikula in a scene from Sam and Dede 
(or) My Dinner with André the Giant (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Dilorio finds comic gold as André innocently challenges the inherent absurdity of Becket's famous play,Waiting for Godot, while posing questions that the playwright finds himself at a loss to answer. After several years pass, Beckett attends one of André's wrestling matches in Paris and accepts his friend's invitation to a post-performance dinner.

As the two men begin to loosen up under the influence of some wine (with André easily downing each glassful in a single gulp), they strike up a curious bargain. André will teach the reluctant Beckett how to wrestle, after which Sam will teach the wrestler how to write.

Brent Averett and David Sikula in a scene from Sam and Dede 
(or) My Dinner with André the Giant (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Dilorio's imagined conversations are a charming theatrical device (especially considering André's notorious appetite for food and wine) that have been tenderly directed by Leah S.Abrams. In the final scene, both actors appear in a snippet of a play resembling Beckett's Endgame. It's easy to imagine a set designer mimicking a classic moment from 1975's Jaws by saying "I think we're going to need a bigger trash can!"

Brent Averett and David Sikula in a scene from Sam and Dede
(or) My Dinner with André the Giant
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Erik LaDue's scenic elements mostly consist of movable blocks which can be rearranged to resemble a truck, a desk, a table, and other basic shapes. When the two actors finally appear in the absurdist props necessary for one of Beckett's plays, the result is oddly comforting as the audience watches André get to perform in Beckett's territory where (for once in his life) his size does not relate to the character he depicts onstage.

Custom Made Theatre faced a last minute casting crisis when the actor originally scheduled to play André was forced to withdraw from the production due to illness. Brent Averett stepped in on short notice and did remarkably well in the role, nicely progressing from Andre's petulant childhood behavior to his early moments of success as a wrestler-gourmand-glutton.

The trick with Dilorio's play is that it requires audiences to suspend their disbelief and imagine that the actor portraying André really stands 7'4" tall. Without that kind of dramatic buy-in, this play would have great difficulty succeeding. But isn't that what theatre is all about?

Performances of Sam and Dede (or) My Dinner with André the Giant continue at the Custom Made Theatre through March 5 (click here to order tickets).

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