There he was, Martin Freeman himself, choking his wife mere feet from us.
Were we in a tabloid paparazzi dream? No, we were sitting in Trafalgar Studios in London, mesmerized by madness.
Bilbo Baggins was nowhere in sight. Neither was Dr. John Watson. Instead, my family recently beheld Richard III in all his hump-backed, black-hearted villainy.
Freeman delivered the goods.
In an electric performance as the plotting usurper to the British throne, he ordered the brutal murders of his brother, young nephews and a former ally. He strangled his wife on a desk with a telephone cord. He slumped in his chair, raving and unraveled, consumed by his demons and teetering on the brink.
And in the bloody, climactic battle, ending with his famous wish for a horse, he slew his henchmen in a final spasm of insanity.
If all that wasn’t enough for our West End night, we were treated to a brilliant set constructed for the modern take on Shakespeare’s historical play. It re-created an English government office circa the late 1970s, complete with elevators, folding lamps and a fish tank.
Our three hours with Freeman and his gripping castmates ranked as one of our trip highlights, right up there with seeing a tower of giraffes galloping across a Tanzanian plain and standing in the middle of Stonehenge as the sun set.
We’re invited back for more.
At home, we discovered emails from Trafalgar Studios and the Phoenix Theatre, another West End venue where we caught the Tony Award-winning musical “Once” the night before our encounter with “Richard III.”
The notices promised half-price tickets for future shows — tempting if only the offers included free airfare.
Sadly, we’re not in the income bracket that allows for trans-Atlantic weekend jaunts. Nor can we afford to pop into New York on a regular basis.
But that doesn’t mean we have to suffer stage withdrawal.
Here in our backyard this month, we’re fortunate to have a vibrant, talented theater community cooking up a wealth of upcoming productions. Even better, they’re all playing at the State Theatre, our homegrown jewel for the arts.
Thursday to Saturday, FUSE Productions and Centre Dance are teaming to present the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical extravaganza “A Chorus Line,” featuring local and Broadway dancers.
Another classic is set for Aug. 14-15, when the State College Community Theatre stages the musical comedy “Bye Bye Birdie,” a rock ’n’ roll satire.
And then comes the heavyweight. The Nittany Valley Shakespeare Company will perform “King Lear” Aug. 21-24, starring Charles Dumas, a retired Penn State theater professor and veteran TV, film and stage actor.
Let me extend my own invitation.
Too many people view the theater as something they should do more, like healthy eating or exercising. It’s true that in London, at least, you can lose a lot of pounds — sorry for that — but going to see a musical or play shouldn’t be an exercise in self-improvement.
As my younger son says about reading, it’s not a “have-to,” it’s a “get-to.”
You get to watch the craft of acting up close: subtle gestures, nuanced expressions, smooth timing, explosions of raw emotion. You get to absorb the illusion of sets and lights, and the miracle of dancers whirling, twisting and darting in sychronicity.
You get to experience the tightrope tension of live performances, where anything can happen but the show must go on no matter what.
And when things click, you get to feel the synergy between the actors and the audience, the energy that infuses a theater and lifts each side with every passing minute. Deep down, it’s a communal joy, the mutual thrill of art being made.
You even may get to enjoy a bonus no cinema, no matter how exciting the film, can provide.
Between acts at “Once,” the tale of an Dublin busker and Czech pianist that features live music from its cast, audience members could step up on stage and buy refreshments from a bar set turned into the real thing.
During intermission at “Richard III,” the audience could descend from stadium-style seating to the checkered floor of the ersatz office for an ice cream or a drink — and the chance to stand where Freeman stood, malice in his eyes.
Theater builds connections. You share a time and place with actors and the audience, a few hours to step into other worlds together and explore our common humanity. You’re linked to an ancient tradition of storytelling, perpetuating it with your patronage.
Best of all, locally, you get to have it all without Broadway or West End prices. You don’t need stars. Just step up for a ticket and step into a culture steeped in laughter, grief, love, lust, greed and other declarations of the heart.
Chances are, you’ll wind up applauding your choice.