Merry Christmas and welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re continuing our chronological coverage of every single episode of Xena: Warrior Princess — both the episodes that I have previously highlighted AND the episodes I’ve yet to feature. Complementing my thoughts are the thoughts of those who worked on the series: mostly actors, writers, directors, and producers. I have done months of research for the acquisition of the quotes you’ll see over these next 67 weeks (as there are 134 episodes and I’ll be covering two episodes per week). They come from a variety of sources, including the original special feature-laden DVD releases, The Chakram Official Newsletters, both the Topps and Titans Official Xena Magazines, the fan kits, and other assorted print and video interviews. So in addition to sharing my thoughts, these posts will also contain information and musings from the Xenites that matter most — the ones who brought this exciting series to the small screen.
85. Season 4, Episode 17: “The Play’s The Thing” (Aired: 03/15/99 | Filmed: 01/25 – 02/02/99)
Gabrielle makes her debut as a playwright. Too bad her producer is actually a con artist who has her reasons for wanting the play to bomb.
Written by Ashley Gable & Thomas A. Swyden | Directed by Christopher Graves | Production No. V0620
Things to love and things to loathe. As with all of the comedies in the fourth season, the series delves into self-parody, deriving much of its humor from our knowledge of the characters, the show, and its fanbase. Unfortunately, this is a Lucy-lite episode, which naturally means that the series’ principle narrative arc (Xena’s futile quest for redemption) is nowhere to be found. Additionally, the episode lacks the heart of “If The Shoe Fits…” and even “A Tale Of Two Muses” and “In Sickness And In Hell…” On the other hand, the episode, like a lot of Season Four, is focused on Gabrielle, meaning that, despite the episode’s triviality, it doesn’t feel out of place. Furthermore, this episode makes great use of a wonderful ensemble that includes Ted Raimi, Alison Wall, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, and Lucy Lawless’ stand in, Polly Baigent. As a result, “The Play’s The Thing” is one of the funniest episodes of the last three seasons.
But, I’m sorry to say, it’s at the expense of some logic. Principally — Gabrielle is a pacifist, not a moron. She is the focal point of most of the comedy, in which our favorite bard is rendered as both a simpleton who is easily duped by the overly-theatrical Zehra AND as a painfully bad playwright. The latter depiction is perhaps the most inexcusable, as we’ve seen before that Gabrielle is supposed to be a renowned storyteller. It doesn’t add up. (And personally, with so few episodes until the end of the season, an episode like this feels like a waste of space. Gabrielle has just renounced violence — and the first episode following this has little action. WRONG. We needed a good episode that challenged her steadfastness to this newfound path. And with “Takes One To Know One” and “Deja Vu All Over Again,” coming in also as lightweights, that leaves only three installments in which Gabrielle’s arc is explored as it should.) Again, however, it’s difficult to really be displeased with an episode that knowingly doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s all in good fun, and when there are as many laughs as these, why am I bothering to complain?
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Alison Wall (Actor, Minya): “[S]ome parts of the script may change during shooting. I remember that [this episode] got changed quite a lot from readthrough. But [this] episode was so much fun, because it had a lot of physical comedy and improvisation in it. And with people like Ted [Raimi] on set, you start to ask yourself, ‘Why am I getting paid for this?’, because it’s all very silly and very enjoyable.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #13 – December 2000)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “[This] was Season Four after [India]. Gabrielle’s going to put on a play with Joxer. May have joined “Vanishing Act” as one of the least good ones we ever did.“ (“The Furies” Commentary – Season Three DVD Set)
Alison Wall (Actor, Minya): “Poor Minya, she so wanted to play Xena and ended up as a spear carrier. She even has her own homemade costume now. It was very silly to do, but fun. One man, who played a centaur, was made to look absolutely horrible, which is no mean feat to do to someone as good looking as that. But Ngila [Dickson, costume designer] managed to put him in an old woman’s evening dress or something with all these spangly bits and a blonde wig made out of an old mop. We all looked completely stupid.” (Whoosh! Interview – January 2000)
86. Season 4, Episode 18: “The Convert” (Aired: 04/19/99 | Filmed: 02/09 – 02/18/99)
Najara returns claiming a newfound mantra for nonviolence while Joxer wrestles with the guilt of his first kill.
Written by Chris Manheim | Directed by Andrew Merrifield | Production No. V0621
I featured this episode as #49 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Chris Manheim (Writer/Producer): “Well, Najara had been a very successful character in the first of her appearances on Xena and we thought she was such a strong character in that episode, let’s bring her back and mix things around a little bit among the the three women. And it also gave us yet another way to have Gabrielle explore what is her way in this world. You know, that seemed to be the jist of all of our fourth season episodes with Gabrielle, [with] her trying to find her own unique path that paralleled Xena’s perhaps, but didn’t emulate it… Certainly R.J. [Stewart] and I discussed Najara. I think what was even more informative to me in terms of writing the character as she was in my episode, was watching the episode over and over in which we had introduced her and seeing where her strengths lay and what we could plausibly do with that character that didn’t make Gabrielle seem an idiot for following her – for believing in her – and yet, kept Xena at a distance… With Kathryn Morris having already been established as a character on the show, it was 100 times easier to to write her. Given, her character’s bent in this episode, of course, made a little bit of a difference, but a known quantity is always much easier than writing a character we’ve yet to see…[But] I have to tell you, [Gabrielle’s] powder weapon was nobody’s favorite. Let’s put it that way. I think I read in a book where some Amazon tribe or something used a bit of powder that befuddled the senses or blinded them temporarily… anybody’s face it was blown into. So we chose that because we were looking for a weapon that didn’t make Gabrielle violent but allowed her to participate in a fight… Gabrielle believes Najara has changed because Gabrielle is capable of believing that people change. She’s seen it in Xena. She’s actually seen herself evolving as well. It’s a gift and a curse for Gabrielle because her open heart is such that she allows anybody the chance to change. When they don’t, of course, it’s pretty devastating. But the good news about Gabrielle is she picks herself up and meets the world with her heart full still. I mean, that’s the beauty of that character. The fact that Gabrielle’s path seems to be the peaceful way and Xena continues on a warrior’s path, it made for a very compelling argument for Najara to give to Gabrielle, which we needed. Because, you know, Gabrielle’s no dummy, and while she’s willing to give people a second chance, there has to be something behind it. The argument Najara makes for their paths needing to be divergent because Gabrielle’s not into violence and Xena is helped us sell Gabrielle’s belief in [Najara’s] change. That, and the fact that she said she was a follower of Eli’s, now, that carried enormous weight with Gabrielle.” (“The Convert” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Kathryn Morris (Actor, Najara): “Trying to swing in at the right angle and say your lines and kick the way you should kick… It’s all very technical. It wasn’t funny at the time, but when I was doing the vine fighting, I was so bad at it that… it just became a big comedy routine, me swinging back and forth like Tarzan… and everybody’s waiting and I’m just swinging back and forth going, ‘Oh, I missed it!’ That was a really fun fight to do because it was so ugly and primal, I was grabbing her leg and putting blood on my face. It was just insane.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #2 – December 1999)
R.J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “We wanted to bring Najara back… because of two reasons. We really liked Kathryn Morris and thought, ‘Why not bring her back?’ And I really liked… “Crusader”… and we also thought it was a way to explore more of Gabrielle’s quest… I think [Joxer’s first kill] came out of a place of just thinking, ‘Gosh, this guy is comedy relief but he does live in this incredibly violent world. Ted’s a pretty good actor, so why don’t we challenge the character and the actor to deal with the consequences of living with these violent people. I think it worked fine and I think that was a nice touch. And I think Ted did it terrific. [But] ultimately the character of Joxer is always going to be more satisfying as comedy relief as opposed to a warrior. But I think it was a nice coloring of his character and helped what we were going to do as the series went on with Joxer.” (“The Convert” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Chris Manheim (Writer/Producer): “Joxer ended up having his first kill this episode, quite honestly, because Ted Raimi had expressed an interest in deepening his character. We certainly used Joxer to fullest extent in terms of the comedy – especially the broader comedy beats. I think, as an actor, he wanted to show another side of Joxer, a deeper layer of Joxer, a stretch and so we thought, ‘Well he’s been such a braggart about his heroic deeds. Why not put him to the test?’ Cause we all agreed that Joxer had not killed anyone before this episode. And this was going to be his ‘rock his soul’ episode to kill someone in.” (“The Convert” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Donald Duncan (Director of Photography): “One of the interesting things in [this episode] is that it’s Joxer’s first kill, which is a very strong story point and a very strong psychological moment for him, which we spent a lot of time pushing to the close-ups and Ted [Raimi] played that up beautifully. And it’s kind of the crux of the whole episode… [This] was Andrew Merrifield’s first episode as a director that season… Andrew did a great job. He was always a fantastic, challenging director to work with. He really liked to put DPs on the spot and put them in hard places and never make it easy for them. And you never wanted to say ‘No,’ to Andrew… You’d always try and figure out a way to do it because just the look on your face if you said, ‘Oh, that’s going to be expensive,’ or ‘Oh, that’s going to take a long time’—you didn’t want to see that look on Andrew’s face.” (“The Convert” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code Film Friday!