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In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s take on Antony and Cleopatra, Chivas Michael plays an odd, rich role
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has relocated Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to late 18th-century Haiti, when the country was on the brink of its slave-led revolution. For classically trained African-American actor Chivas Michael, who plays a variety of supporting roles in the production at the Public Theater, that’s a relief.
“Every time I step on stage to do a classical piece, I always feel I have to wiggle my way into a part because of how we see black bodies in America,” Michael says. “In this setting, I found a commonality with these characters. I know these people: They are oppressed and they are afraid and they are fighting for country and land and honor. I know what that feels like.”
Hailing from the South and an alumnus of New York University’s graduate acting program, Michael originally met McCraney—who recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant—while still in school. “Back in 2008, we were housemates in Florence, Italy while I was there doing a production of Romeo and Juliet with some of my classmates,” he recalls. “We sat up drinking wine all night in the Tuscan countryside and became fast friends.”
When McCraney, who’s also directing this production, began working on his stripped-down and recontextualized Antony and Cleopatra, he immediately reached out to Michael. “He sent me a message about a year ago that said, ‘There’s this eunuch character that I think you’d be great for,’” Michael laughs. “I did the reading at New Dramatists and have been with the show ever since.”
The show is a unique collaboration among three theatres: England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, where it premiered last fall; Miami’s GableStage, where it played in January; and the Public, where it will run through March 23. The international cast has been the same throughout, and although many of the actors play multiple parts, McCraney instructed Michael to portray his three roles—Cleopatra’s singing eunuch Mardian, Antony’s aide Eros, and a soothsayer—as if they were one person. [Read more →]
March 5, 2014 No Comments
In Broadway’s All the Way, director Bill Rauch finds thundering drama in LBJ’s presidency
Robert Schenkkan’s politically-charged saga All the Way chronicles the first 11 months of Lyndon B. Johnson’s unexpected presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The major historical plot points—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the launch of the War on Poverty, a successful run to actually be elected POTUS—revolve around LBJ (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in his Broadway debut). So it’s interesting that the three-hour play’s most gut-wrenching scene is one of the few in which LBJ doesn’t appear.
As real-life Congress for Racial Equality leader David Dennis, Eric Lenox Abrams delivers an impassioned speech at the memorial service for three young civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan [the same incendiary incident inspired the 1988 Oscar-nominated movie Mississippi Burning). "Are you sick and tired of this stuff like I am?" he cries out from the stage left box of the Neil Simon Theatre. "I'm not feeling forgiveness... I've got vengeance in my heart and I ask you to feel angry with me… We got to stand up! DEMAND our rights!"
Bill Rauch---who originally commissioned All the Way for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he serves as artistic director---says that intense monologue has consistently been one of the most potent moments in the show. (He's directed it three times: At OSF in 2012, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 2013 and now on Broadway). "I think part of why it's so powerful is the perspective it gives," he says. "LBJ is the central figure, so he's the one we focus on most of the time. But it's incredibly important to get a fully dimensional sense of the situation he's working in. When we feel the anger and the grief and the desire for social justice, the pressure LBJ is under has a whole different emotional weight."
In fact, the monologue is reminiscent of a Shakespeare soliloquy, with Dennis unleashing his raw, uncensored thoughts, and it turns out that's by design. [Read more →]
February 26, 2014 2 Comments
Inside the show-stopping nude scene in The Clearing
In an age of rampant thongs, plunging necklines, and burlesque everywhere you turn, onstage nudity is rarely shocking anymore. But when Allison Daugherty takes her clothes off in The Clearing, an emotionally-charged drama by emerging playwright Jake Jeppson, you hear the audience collectively catch its breath.
Part of that is because her character, Ella, is a modest, religious mom to two grown sons. She’s not the type to disrobe in front of anyone, let alone a virtual stranger like Peter, who is both her son Les’ lover and a photographer who wants to take her nude portrait. But it’s the intimate vibe of the scene that really makes you feel like a voyeur as you watch Ella strip herself naked both literally and figuratively.
“It stops the show every night,” says director Josh Hecht. “Watching her undress is like watching a text-less monologue, with its beat changes and turns, as we see a dozen thoughts go through her head with total clarity.”
In a strange way, it’s also a scene of seduction. Peter seduces Ella into doing something far beyond her comfort zone. Ella seduces Peter into sticking with Les, who, like his mom, desperately needs to come out of his shell. And, above all, it’s a seduction of the audience.
Although Ella’s age is never given, it’s fair to say that she’s at least a decade older than Daugherty herself. But agreeing to a nude scene is a big decision at any age, especially in a culture obsessed with youth and physical perfection. “My first thought was now I’m taking my clothes off, after two kids—you’re joking!” says Daugherty, who also played Ella in an earlier incarnation of the play at Pleasantville, NY’s Axial Theatre in 2012. “But in the very next show I did [after the first production], Tales from Hollywood at the Guthrie, I had to do the same thing. I was nude except for a scanty apron. In both cases it wasn’t about being sexy; it was about bearing the soul more than the body.” [Read more →]
January 29, 2014 No Comments
Why Paul Huntley’s wigs are vital for Broadway stars
Clothes may make the man but hair makes the character. So believes Paul Huntley, the veteran hair and wig designer with more than 200 Broadway productions to his credit (and that doesn’t include his extensive Off Broadway and film work).
Currently represented by Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Mamma Mia! , Huntley was born and trained in London, England where he began working professionally in 1949. He relocated to the U.S. four decades ago at the invitation of Mike Nichols to work on a revival of Uncle Vanya. That production was short-lived, but nevertheless, Huntley quickly became one of the Main Stem’s most in-demand hair designers, working on a slew of high-profile productions (Cats, Les Misérables, Hairspray, The Producers, Anything Goes twice, Hello, Dolly! twice) with some of the theatre’s biggest divas (Carol Channing, Donna Murphy, Patti LuPone, Sutton Foster, and Angela Lansbury, to name just a handful).
Despite hair and wig design falling under the auspices of the costume designer, Huntley has managed to become a superstar in his own right. Many costume designers demand his services, notably the legendary William Ivey Long, with whom he’s had a long and fruitful collaboration. Huntley has also been showered with accolades. In 2002 TDF’s Irene Sharaff Awards gave him the Artisan Award, and he’s also earned special lifetime achievement honors from the Tony and Drama Desk Awards.
And while he could certainly retire and rest on his laurels, the strikingly youthful senior shows no signs of slowing down. He’s already at work on several upcoming Broadway productions, including Bullets Over Broadway and The Velocity of Autumn.
Although much has changed in his field since Huntley’s career began, he believes his mission remains the same: “[I'm here] to help give the actor all the confidence in the world,” he says. “Even when you talk about being a purist about a particular era, if an actor says, ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly look like that,’ well, then they don’t have to. You can never alienate them. Often what I say is, ‘Well look, let’s try this, and if you hate it we’ll change it.’ You have to remember, it’s the actor that’s going out there, and they have to feel self-assured. So if a style isn’t strictly period, it never worries me.” [Read more →]
January 3, 2014 No Comments
The comic collapse of a puppet in The Pigeoning
Read more on this month’s mini-boom in puppetry for adults
Puppet shows aren’t just child’s play. From the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q and War Horse to the genre-busting works of Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning Basil Twist, many puppet performances are being created for grown-ups these days. That’s one of the reasons Twist—a third-generation puppeteer whose work has been seen both on Broadway and off—partnered with HERE to found the Dream Music Puppetry Program. He wanted to help incubate innovative, multidisciplinary puppet works aimed at adult audiences.
The program is housed in HERE’s intimate Dorothy B. Williams theatre, which was constructed with puppets in mind. (In a lovely testament to his family history, Twist’s grandfather’s vintage marionettes are on permanent display just outside the door.) Twist’s iconic underwater puppet show Symphonie Fantastique christened the space in 1998, and every year since, he has presented imaginative productions that explode any lingering notion that puppets are only for kids.
The program’s current offering, The Pigeoning, was created and directed by Robin Frohardt. A Bay Area transplant now based in New York City, Frohardt has extensive experience as a puppet maker and set designer, and she has collaborated on a wide range of projects like the Empire Drive-In art installation (late of Queens’ New York Hall of Science) and the site-specific subway saga IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations. But The Pigeoning, an insightful comedy about Frank, an ’80s office worker who slowly descends into madness, marks her first full-length puppet show.
Frank has actually existed in different incarnations since 2006, when he debuted at Oakland’s Apocalypse Puppet Theater, a traveling troupe founded by Frohardt, composer Freddi Price (who supplies the live soundtrack for The Pigeoning), and two other local artists. “We were doing these 10-minute puppet pieces about the end of the world,” says Frohardt. “We had this crazy old man character with a ‘The End Is Near’ sign. He didn’t say anything; he just came out when we were changing the scenery and was like our mascot. I always had this idea of writing his back story, how he ended up that way.” [Read more →]
December 10, 2013 No Comments