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She’s Standing Next to Herself

And I and Silence

Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks

Samantha Soule is one of two people playing her character in  And I and Silence

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Crafting a character is always a collaborative process, with the performer, playwright, director, and designers all informing how a person moves from the page to the stage. But in Naomi Wallace’s intimate drama And I and Silence there’s an additional variable: a second actor.

Named for a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,” the ’50s-set play, now at Signature Theatre, traces the risky relationship between two imprisoned female teens and their valiant attempt to forge a life together after they’re released. Two sets of performers portray the African-American Jamie (Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks) and Caucasian Dee (Emily Skeggs and Samantha Soule) in 1950 and 1959 respectively, and though they’re far from dead ringers, their performances are similar enough to suggest you’re watching the same characters at different ages.

While it’s rare to have two actors tackle the same part in one show, Soule has actually done it before. “Karen Allen and I did a play called A Summer Day about two years ago at the Cherry Lane,” she remembers. “I played her younger self. It was about a woman who was stuck in the remembrance of one particular day and was more of a classic memory play. Naomi specifically didn’t want And I and Silence to be a memory play. Both realities are living simultaneously.” Though they start out as distinct, the two eras begin to bleed together à la Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with all four actors inhabiting the stage simultaneously. So the pairs needed to be in sync in order to maintain the illusion of being one woman.

To that end, “Emily and I worked a bunch together in terms of crafting this person,” Soule says. “I think Caitlin [McLeod, the director] picked us because we inherently echoed each other. In rehearsal, we did a fair amount of mirroring exercises and improv. Caitlin would let us play for 20 minutes at a time and at the end she’d say, ‘This is what I saw you both instinctively choose to do.’ She had us hone in on places where we interpreted the character in the same way.”

But being identical was never the goal. “There’s definitely a distance between the younger and older selves,” Soule says. “As much as the core of who you are can remain the same, incarceration changes you. That gave us permission to be different. As Dee, Emily has a vivaciousness and openness and wit. I have more of what I call the ‘avocadoness:’ my exterior is a little tougher and the softness is held back.”

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August 19, 2014   No Comments

Beauty Queens (With a Sweet Little Secret)

Pageant - Davenport Theatre

The cast of Pageant

Why the men in Pageant are sincerely playing women

Though the Off-Broadway musical comedy Pageant could be described as a beauty contest with drag queens, you should banish all images of RuPaul’s Drag Race from your mind. While it’s true that the show’s six sparkly contestants, all vying for the coveted title of Miss Glamouresse, are played by men in women’s clothing, they’re not outrageous, in-your-face characters. Instead, they’re serving female realness.

According to director Matt Lenz, that was by design. “We had guys come into the audition, show us a male head shot and then a photo of their drag persona, Femme de la Fierce, or whatever it was, and that was decidedly not what we were going for in terms of tone,” he says. “I was looking for really inspired comic actors who could get beyond the dress and actually play the stakes. Their enthusiasm is what makes it work. To the characters, this contest is as serious as a heart attack.”

Lenz had been a fan of Pageant, written by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, with music by Albert Evans, since catching it during its original Off-Broadway run in 1991. “I went because my good buddy David Drake was in it,” he remembers. “Then for the next 20 years, whenever I saw a funny show I’d think, ‘I haven’t laughed that hard since I saw Pageant!’” So Lenz jumped at the chance to direct the first NYC revival.

The production started out as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at the Red Lacquer Club, housed in the same space as the (recently closed) drag restaurant Lucky Cheng’s, and right next door to the Neil Simon Theater, where Lenz had worked as an associate director on Hairspray starring Harvey Fierstein in drag. So clearly there was some serious cross-dressing mojo happening on the block. “We announced four Monday nights in February and sold out almost right away,” he says.
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August 11, 2014   No Comments

These Tragic Puppets Are Hilarious

Puppet Titus Andronicus

Puppet Shakespeare performers

Puppet Shakespeare Players turn Titus Andronicus into Comedy

Drunk Shakespeare, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, the Accidental Shakespeare Company:  the Bard’s plays are constantly being reinterpreted in unusual ways. Even in this offbeat company, however, the Puppet Shakespeare Players stand out. In Puppet Titus Andronicus, now at the Beckett Theatre, one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously bloody tragedies is reimagined by kooky felt creatures with googly eyes.

However, Puppet Shakespeare is much more than an extended joke. Founded in 2012 by a trio of Marymount College theatre arts grads, the troupe has a lofty goal: to bring the Bard back to the masses where he belongs.

“Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings covered in dirt, not the kings and queens,” says company cofounder A.J. Coté, who designs all the puppets and plays multiple puppet characters onstage. “Now his plays have become these hoity-toity things you’re supposed to read in high school and then forget. But so much of his stuff is so f—ing funny and dirty and raunchy. We accentuate all that to make his poetry more accessible to today’s audiences.”

Puppet Shakespeare was actually inspired by a (comparatively) traditional mounting of Hamlet by the American Globe Theatre that Coté and fellow cofounder Ryan Rinkel were involved in. “It was so funny and the cast had such fun with the language,” Rinkel says. “We kept saying that the guy who played Polonius was ‘such a Muppet.’ And then we thought, ‘Wait, what if we just did Hamlet with puppets?’”

That tragedy became their inaugural show, and then came Romeo and Juliet. But Titus is the company’s most ambitious production to date. It’s the first time they’re working Off-Broadway (thanks in large part to co-founder Shane Snider’s rock star dad, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, who’s coproducing), and everything is being realized on a heightened scale, especially the puppets and the performances.

That over-the-top quality suits Titus. The revenge saga is often called Shakespeare’s worst play and is definitely his most nauseating, filled with rape, murder and the amputation of many body parts. “If you try to do it seriously, you can’t,” says Rinkel, who also directs. “I mean, Titus gets his hand chopped off and then turns around and does a soliloquy!” [Read more →]

August 6, 2014   1 Comment

Drag Queens: Icons for the Whole Family

Billy Porter as Lola and the cast of Kinky Boots

Billy Porter as Lola & the cast of Kinky Boots

Raven Snook on Kinky Boots, Taylor Mac, and drag for kids

Last year, after also seeing Matilda, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and the revival of Annie, my then-seven-year-old decided her favorite Broadway show of the season was Kinky Boots. Considering the Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein musical about a footwear-designing drag queen won six Tony Awards, it wasn’t surprising that she loved it so much. What struck me was the fact that drag queens—in all their sass and subversiveness—had clearly arrived as acceptable family entertainment.

While the act of cross-dressing is a long and storied theatre tradition (from Shakespeare to vaudeville to any comedy looking to get easy laughs), a drag queen is more than just a man in women’s clothes, and kids sense that. Drag queens challenge so-called gender norms and societal conventions, are generally outrageous and outspoken, and forge their own unique personae. In many ways, drag queens and children are a lot alike: They’re both toying with identity, say what’s on their minds, and love playing dress up, to boot (just please make that boot glittery with a five-inch heel).

Until recently, most shows featuring drag queens weren’t thought of as kid-friendly. They were deemed too risqué (like Charles Busch) or too obscure (like Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company) or just too out there (many of the works of Taylor Mac, the first-ever recipient of P.S. 122′s Ethyl Eichelberger Award, named for the late influential drag performer and playwright).

How wonderful, then, that a few of these same “for adults only” drag artists are now creating theatre aimed at families that maintains their singular sensibilities. Last year, Charles Busch, who came to fame as the writer/star of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, adapted Bunnicula, a children’s book about a bloodsucking bunny, into a family musical for TheatreworksUSA (complete with lots of camp and even a drag sequence). And just last month, NYC’s lauded theatre for family audiences, the New Victory, announced that Taylor Mac was selected for its LabWorks Artist Residency Program, which helps develop innovative projects. He’ll be working on The Fre, “a queer love story for multigenerational audiences” that, I suspect, will have quite a bit of gender-bending. [Read more →]

August 3, 2014   No Comments

Return of the Gargoyle Woman

Everett Quinton & Jason Cruz

Everett Quinton & Jason Cruz

Everett Quinton finally plays another shady lady

Although the Peccadillo Theater Company’s new comedy Drop Dead Perfect sends up a wide range of American cultural touchstones—from The Glass Menagerie to I Love Lucy to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—its greatest inspiration is arguably the high-camp, cross-dressing work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As with Ludlam classics like The Mystery of Irma Vep, Drop Dead Perfect is a smorgasbord of high- and lowbrow references, and it stars a leading man decked out in glorious drag.

In this case, the gender-bending star is Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s longtime artistic and romantic partner and a Ridiculous fixture during the company’s heyday in the 70s and 80s. When Quinton enters in a fitted 50s gown, meticulously coiffed auburn wig, and jungle red nails, he seems absolutely in his element. It’s as though the part of Idris Seabright—an overbearing matriarch who’s keeping a major secret from her beautiful ward, her long-lost Latin nephew, and her pill-pushing lawyer—has been written just for him.

And perhaps it has been, though the credited playwright, Erasmus Fenn, isn’t saying. That’s mostly because he doesn’t exist. “If I may be slightly coy about it, I’ll say he speaks only to me,” says director Joe Brancato, the founder and artistic director of upstate New York’s Penguin Rep, where Drop Dead Perfect had its world premiere last summer. (It’s currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clements.) “He was born and raised in the Bronx, just as I was, but he’s agoraphobic. He doesn’t want to besmirch his life with the business of the theatre like doing press; he’s a child at heart.”

Brancato, however, gleefully reminisces about going to see Ridiculous shows. “The abandon was amazing,” he says. “They were just breaking all rules and at the same time saluting everything that was great on film and on stage, and that always stayed with me. I remember Everett so clearly, which is why I asked him to do this play.”

Though Quinton forged his career playing what Brancato calls “gargoyle women,” he hasn’t trod the boards as a broad since 2010′s Devil Boys From Beyond. “I had been praying for a role that was as meaty as things I had done in the past,” Quinton says. “I cut my teeth on big juicy parts like Idris, and I wonder if that gets in my way at auditions. The whole ‘tone it down’ thing is my dilemma. I object to terms like ‘over-the-top.’ To me it’s just high comedy. It’s like the Restoration comedy of our time, all these fabulous extreme characters.” [Read more →]

July 22, 2014   No Comments