The Idaho Shakespeare Festival's Greenshow the play before the play, produced by Tom Willmorth and Joe Golden, the comic geniuses behind the Fool Squad is a Treasure Valley institution. For 22 summers, it has created lively comic entertainment before an ISF play.
Whether the main event was comedy or tragedy, the Greenshow gave you a chance to laugh at the art you were about to see or about living in a place where school districts ban books and no Ada County Highway District project goes unscrutinized.
"We celebrate Boise," Golden says. "We follow the news - yes, we read the Statesman - the letters to the editor, the bike lanes, JUMP (unfortunately we're not going to be around for that) - but keeping up with the news is part of the job. We are the town criers."
Willmorth and Golden somehow manage to teach you something about the play you're about to experience and sprinkle in the truth of the moment - whether or not you're aware of it. For example, for the Greenshow before this season's "Les Misérables," Willmorth and Golden put together a skit all about retiring their signature Fool Squad spoofs and send-ups.
"No one believes us," Willmorth says with a chuckle. "You can see question marks floating above the audience and maybe one or two people will ask me about it. They just laugh it off, but we're telling the truth. It's time for us to go."
So, yes, Virginia, this season will mark the end of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Greenshow as we know it. What comes next at ISF is another big floating question mark - one that ISF producing artistic director Charlie Fee has yet to puzzle out.
The reality is that everything changes, "So, what's a comic to do?" Golden asks. "They've filled in The Hole, Larry Craig has retired, the Flying Wye is finished and Tom Luna isn't running for anything - I think our work is done here."
For the record, the Greenshow Guys, as they're lovingly called, aren't leaving town or going to work for U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, Golden says. They'll still pick up emcee gigs as the Fool Squad occasionally and stay busy with teaching and family. You may even see one or both of them in the acting company from time to time. But the momentous task of researching, writing and rehearsing a Greenshow and getting to the theater six nights a week - whether they're in the play or not - needs to end, they say.
Through their wit and theatrical skills, Willmorth and Golden have created an ongoing narrative on life in the Treasure Valley, a mirror that reflected our foibles and triumphs, cultural mishaps and scandals, punctuated by the goings-on of a long line of former and current Idaho political figures that gave them fodder: Brent Coles, Dirk Kempthorne, Helen Chenoweth, Butch Otter - and then there was that little incident in 2007 when a senator from Idaho was arrested in a Minneapolis airport restroom.
It turned out to be one of their finest moments.
"I remember Tom called and said, 'Turn on the television.' I asked what channel. He said - in a total deadpan - 'Any channel,' " Golden says.
They sat at their computers while on their phones, watched the Larry Craig incident unfold and rewrote that night's Greenshow.
"All I had to do was start tapping my foot," Golden remembers. "You could hear the rumble of laughter roll through the house."
The ability to be that nimble and improvise served them well, and the Greenshows will be missed, Fee says.
"It's been a huge asset for us. It's part of our brand," he says. "People come thinking they're going to experience high art, which can be intimidating. Then the first thing they get is this wacky comedy show. It puts them at ease. And people just love it - mostly."
Over the years, Fee has supported Willmorth and Golden, never asking them to pull punches when, say, Craig was in the audience. That doesn't mean Fee didn't have a stressful moment or three.
"We've had more than a few letters and emails complaining about the Greenshow's political content," Fee says. "And there have been nights when I would hold my breath because I just didn't know what was going to happen."
But whatever did happen resonated with the community. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter gave the Fools the Mayor's Award for Excellence in Art Education in 2009.
Both Willmorth and Golden are teachers - Willmorth has taught at several Treasure Valley schools, including Capital High in Boise; Golden is the head of the theater department at Caldwell's College of Idaho, which has sponsored the Greenshows since 2004.
Bieter has had a joke or two cracked about him more than once over his years in office.
"It's an honor to be made a fool of when it's them," Bieter says. "Not only would they tease me in the actual show, but they would come pick on me right at my seat."
Bieter made a guest appearance in a Greenshow via cassette tape in 2010. Tom and Joe came to his office to capture him singing in Basque and used it as a bit - "Mayor Dave Bieter Sings Basque Favorites."
Equal opportunity jokesters, they went for Idaho Republicans and Democrats alike - it's just that there were never many Democrats, Willmorth says.
"It's been so incredibly wonderful to have had this platform and to have an audience that's so into what we were doing," he says. "I can't think of anywhere else they have a Greenshow like this."
Greenshows are a tradition in the Shakespearean world. Back in The Bard's day, audiences arrived hours before a play and expected to be entertained. Jugglers, balladeers, strolling minstrels and more would comply. The ISF Greenshows started for that same reason before the festival had an ampitheater with reserved seats.
However, over time, ISF's Greenshows evolved into something different. They got closer to the idea of the court jester, or fool. Those fools were never really foolish - except that they told the truth, which, in some situations, was very foolish, indeed.
Looking back, there was no reason for this to work, Golden says. "We didn't picture it starting, much less lasting this long."
But the connection between these two actors and comedians fueled their success.
They clicked on their first meeting.
Willmorth, 51, started in the festival company when he was a junior at Caldwell High School. He returned to ISF each summer while at college in Pennsylvania. Then he spent five years at Chicago's Second City, an improv-comedy theater and training ground where many "Saturday Night Live" cast members got their start. He moved home in 1992.
Fee hired Golden, now 48, out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's master's program that same year. That also was Fee's first year as artistic director.
Willmorth and Golden met the next year when they were cast as Demetrius and Lysander in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." They kept coming up with gags and cracking each other up - much to the chagrin of director Kirk Boyd, who wanted a straight take on the characters, Willmorth remembers.
But Fee loved it and asked Willmorth and Golden to put together an introduction to his production of Moliere's "Tartuffe," a play about religious hypocrisy that had been censored and banned in its time.
The "Tom and Joe Show" replaced the madrigal singers that were a regular feature at ISF during its ParkCenter Boulevard days. Since it started in 1977, the festival floated to locations such as the lawn at the Main Street Bistro (now Angell's Renato) in Downtown, the Plantation Golf Course and off ParkCenter on property lent by Ore-Ida. Then in 1998, ISF opened its current home on Warm Springs Avenue.
It was back in 1993 that Fee asked the two to explain the history of "Tartuffe." New to the community, Fee was concerned about the non-Shakespeare play's religious content.
Golden played a palace guard trying to get the audience to stay for the show; Willmorth played a priest who wanted them to leave this bastion of evil.
That first Greenshow set the tone for the shows they produce today, Golden says.
Willmorth went into the house, searching for sinfulness among the audience, such as gluttony and drinking, and then proceeded to imbibe himself. He pulled out a Polaroid camera and took '90s-style selfies with the ladies in the audience. Willmorth and Golden wove popular culture into the mix, saying they had edited out the scene where the bishop gets eaten by a Tyrannosaurus rex while sitting on a confessional. ("Jurassic Park" was the big summer movie that year.)
"Right from the start, we were irreverent. We were looping in popular culture, and we were eating the audience's food," Golden says.
After that first show someone called the festival office and asked if "those Greenshow guys" did parties. The Fool Squad was born. They added emceeing and corporate and holiday parties to their repertoire.
"We called it a squad so other actors could join in," Golden says.
It became a point of pride and fun for company actors to be in the Greenshow.
The sketch before 1999's "Titus Andronicus" featured 10 company members as The Citizens for Value Based Theater, Nampa Auxillary, led by Thomas Tea-Garden (Willmorth). He and his followers descend on the festival to demand that it edit the play's violence. Actor Dougfred Miller got to do his impression of William Shatner doing "Hamlet."
"You don't often get a chance to do something like that," says Miller, who tried to do the Greenshows when he had enough time to get ready for his first entrance in that night's play.
"The shows had such vitality. It lifted the audience back from their chicken and wine to a place of entertainment," Miller says. "The magnitude of what Tom and Joe did is mind-boggling. I can't imagine writing it, coming up with the scheme and then connecting it to the show and the community."
Working in the Greenshow is often like working without a net, says longtime company member Stitch Marker, who is a semi-regular in the Greenshows.
"It was so exciting," he says. "You were lucky to get a script a few days in advance, and they were working on it right up until opening. Those guys are so funny. I learn every time I'm on stage with them just step back, relax and get out of their way."
Marker appeared in dozens of Greenshows, including playing the title role in "King Phycus," Willmorth's epic four-part Greenshow. Though not quite a success in its original form - "We didn't realize that people would be seeing them out of order, so it didn't always make sense," Willmorth says. It's now a play that's been produced in Chicago and Los Angeles.
"It was all in verse," Marker remembers. "I couldn't get my reading glasses on, it was opening night and I dropped the F-bomb. Poor Charlie (Fee) about had a heart attack."
Some of the popular recurring Greenshow characters and skits include Tea-Garden and crew, Marcus Braintree's Love Free Institute, the Theatre Police and "The Wooing Game," a "Dating Game" send-up featuring Hamlet, Richard III and some guy from the audience as eligible bachelors. Ophelia was the bachelorette.
The Greenshow also offered opportunities for the apprentices and young actors who carried props in the plays to have a moment on stage, says Kate Mueller, who was an apprentice in 2001 when she appeared in "King Phycus."
Though she now works in film development and production, she fondly remembers her start on stage at ISF.
"I was a wide-eyed high school student who won the lottery when Tom invited me to take two roles in the Greenshows that summer," she says. "Tom and Joe took me under their wing, and my years performing with them were, by far, the best times I've ever had on stage."
NOT JUST THE GREENSHOW
First and foremost, Willmorth and Golden are actors. Besides the Greenshows, they took on a variety of roles in the ISF repertory company.
Willmorth is most know for his turns as Puck in Fee's Beatles-inspired "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the title role in "Scapin." Both were serious tour de forces. Willmorth pulled out all the stops with multiple voices and characters, performed with remarkable physical dexterity.
Golden stood out in roles such as Nick Bottom, who is magically transformed into a donkey in "Midsummer," the oafish Cloten, who wore a costume as if he were riding a horse in "Cymbeline," and one of four actors in the multicharacter comedy- mystery "The 39 Steps."
The two were paired as sets of wacky twins in "The Comedy of Errors" (2003), and along with Danny Peterson they were the go-to guys for "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" - a send-up of Shakespearean plays that includes a high-speed "Hamlet" done forward and in reverse.
Their work also flowed over to Boise Contemporary Theater. They did several multicharacter plays there, including "Stones in His Pockets," where they take on every character in a small Irish town, and "Fully Committed," a Christmas show directed by Golden and starring Willmorth, who played about 20 characters.
For ISF, they starred in "Greater Tuna" and "A Tuna Christmas," multicharacter plays about a small Texas town.
"Tuna" pokes fun at a community with the truth, says Gordon Reinhart, who directed the duo in both "Tunas."
"Those shows exemplify how good these guys are," Reinhart says. "They're acting techniques are so clean and they do it with such heart - not the sentiment but the muscle. They're the full package."
The full measure of their abilities came into focus in 2003 when they played Estragon and Vladimir in Becket's absurdist masterpiece "Waiting for Godot," co-directed by Michael Hoffman and Matthew Cameron Clark.
Their comic timing elevated the shtick that makes up the context of the play and magnified the pathos in every moment - humor and despair were side by side, born out of basic human misery.
WHAT MAKES THEM TICK?
How this comic partnership works is a bit of a mystery - in the way that all great theater is. It's skill, technique, timing and that touch of personal alchemy that transform words on a page into theater.
But with these guys, the answer is more clear, says Clark, who is Boise Contemporary Theater's producing artistic director.
"They're brilliant," he says. "Individually they're impressive, but what stands out is the way they work to make each other laugh and meet each other's standards. That drives them to make work that's better than either would have done on their own."
In 2010, Clark commissioned them to write an original play. "The Krumblin Foundation" featured multiple characters, and their particular brand of comedy mixed with Idaho cultural references and politics.
For Clark and Reinhart, the fast-paced speed at which Willmorth and Golden think together was at the heart of their success. That allowed them to have a free-wheeling feel to what they do, even if it was highly scripted, Clark says.
"They work with this open, improvisational vulnerability and they're willing to jump in full on," he says. "That takes a lot of bravery. You honestly don't know what's going to happen next. Sometimes in the Greenshow, they're completely off the rails. But it works. Audiences can be super terrifying and they just love it."
For Willmorth and Golden, their legacy is in the connection they felt with their audience - the people who recognize and thank them for their work when they're in the community, the personalities who take their ribbings with humor, and the other actors who were influenced and inspired by what they did on stage.
"I've listened to the Greenshows from backstage for years and there's a kind of laughter you don't hear very often," Reinhart says. "It's the laughter of recognition, of knowledge. Tom and Joe have lived here for so long and have the skills to put it in a form that tickles people. That's rare."
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Blogs.IdahoStatesman.com/ArtsBeat.