Watching clips of Fuddy Meers online to use as examples made me realize on a conscious level another thing that is so important when playing the aphasic Gertie: enunciation. You wouldn’t think that enunciation would matter when a character only speaks gibberish, but it’s important.
First of all, it’s important for your fellow actors. They are taking cues from you, so even if they don’t understand what you’re saying, they still have to be able to recognize it.
However, it’s also important for the audience. Some of Gertie’s speech is more intelligible than other; for example, when she says “I doan tink-toe,” it’s not too much of an intuitive leap to figure out that what she means is, “I don’t think so.” There are clues in the text for the audience, if they’re smart and savvy and playing close attention, and if you enunciate clearly enough so that they can pick them up.
It’s actually something akin to what they do with the Swedish Chef in the Muppets. Jim Henson originally, and now Bill Baretta–and, of course, the writers that they work with–give you just enough clues in the text to follow the plot of the sketch while still keeping the Swedish Chef largely unintelligible. The difference is that Jim could do it improvisationally, and sometimes Bill does too, whereas I had to stick to the script for several reasons, not the least of which is that I’m just not that good.
To that end, when I was playing Gertie, I thought really hard about those clues and what I could do to bring them out for the audience. I noticed in the script that Gertie’s stroke-words almost always have the same vowel sound as the English word that she’s trying to say. So I tried really hard to be mindful of that and make the vowel sounds consistent with the actual text. For example, I pronounced the word “da” differently when it was representing the word “the” than I did when it was representing the word “that.” There’s a line in the play: “Da is Za, Clay”; translated, it means “That is Zack, Claire.” The actress in the video I linked to pronounces it “Dah is Zah,” which is a perfectly valid, but I made a point of pronouncing it with the short vowel sounds to approximate the intended text as much as possible…without giving the game away.
I said before that, when playing Gertie, you have to know what you’re really saying, even if nobody else does. However, you don’t have to decipher the script; the playwright has helpfully provided a translation section in the back, taking all the lines of Gertie-speak in the entire play and translating them into English. He’s also given some helpful hints about how to play the role of Gertie. He makes a point of saying that Gertie doesn’t speak slowly or slur her speech; she uses the same rhythms and cadences of normal speech, it’s just that the sounds are all jumbled up.
In my opinion, if you don’t follow the playwright’s advice and get carried away with trying to make the stroke-talk exaggerated, you’re potentially missing out on a lot of the humor. In my opinion, it’s a lot funnier that Gertie offers Claire “balcony” for breakfast than “BALL-CON-EE,” because nobody knows what that is. (It’s “bacon,” by the way.) Later on, the Limping Man is threatening Gertie, and what she means to say in response is “I’d never cross you,” but being Gertie, what she actually says is “Idoo nevoo crotch you.” When I played Gertie, I made that line drip with sarcasm, in the first place, and in the second place, I emphasized the words “crotch you.” The implication being that Gertie is, on some level, taking advantage of her infirmity to get in a stealth insult, and that “crotching” him, with all its violent and painful implications, is what she really wants to do.
I suppose that it’s not very sporting of me to judge a whole production based on an eight-minute clip, but it seems to me that they didn’t trust the humor that was inherent in the script and felt like they had to add a lot of physical gags–which are, admittedly, very funny, but it doesn’t feel very organic. Humor doesn’t have to be broad; it can be subtle. Judging by the giant, nightmarish clown portraits on the side of the set, however, it would seem that this production didn’t put much stock in subtlety.
Fuddy Meers is a tragicomedy; the comedy works because there is a real, substantial, emotional pain at the core of it that’s driving all the wackiness and absurdity on the surface. It’s so obvious to me that it really annoys me that other people can’t see it. Gertie is a funny character, but her humor comes more from the situation than from her affliction. She’s also something of a tragic figure, a Cassandra; she knows the truth of the matter but doesn’t have the ability to communicate it to Claire.
Gertie gets one intelligible line in the play, and that only with great effort: “I wish I had said something when I could.” It’s an expression of regret; she feels that she’s failed as a mother in her responsibility to protect her daughter, whom she clearly loves very much. And it costs her a tremendous effort to say that one nine-word sentence. To me, it’s the emotional climax of the entire play, the iteration of the entire theme.
That was actually the hardest part of the whole play for me, trying to make it sound like it was costing me an effort to speak intelligibly. It was actually a lot harder than all the stroke-talk. And I played it absolutely, deadly serious. I don’t remember anyone laughing at that point, and I would have been insulted if anybody had.
This other production that I’ve been looking at plays it for laughs, having Richard smack Gertie on the shoulder to get her unstuck, as though she were a broken record. That really doesn’t sit well with me at all; in that instance, the audience is no longer laughing at the absurdity of the situation but poking fun at a woman with a speech impediment. That’s not only a cheap laugh; it’s unnecessarily cruel.
Gertie is special to me. I have a great deal of affection for her. I put a lot of myself into her; not only myself, but drew inspiration from a lot of people I love. So to see her not getting the respect I feel she deserves, it rubs me the wrong way.
It’s maybe a teeny, tiny portion of the frustration that Steve feels with regard to the direction the Muppets are going.
(You thought I wasn’t going to bring it back around to that, didn’t you? To be fair, I wasn’t sure I was going to either.)