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When She Lectures, You Laugh

Mary Louise Wilson in On the Twentieth Century

Mary Louise Wilson in On the Twentieth Century

Broadway veteran Mary Louise Wilson breaks the fourth wall and brings down the house in On the Twentieth Century

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

When Mary Louise Wilson urges the audience to “Repent, repent, repent!” in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the screwball musical comedy On the Twentieth Century, everyone bursts out laughing. That’s because her character, a seemingly sweet little old heiress, Letitia Peabody Primrose, lets us in on some secrets, including the fact that she, too, was once a hellion. As she sings, “Until one night I saw the light, and heard salvation’s call. I’m so glad I didn’t hear it, until I’d done it all!”

That last Betty Comden and Adolph Green lyric could also apply to Wilson herself. Born in 1932, approximately the same year On the Twentieth Century is set, she’s made her living as a character actress for more than 50 years, earning an Obie as fashion icon Diana Vreeland in the solo show Full Gallop (which Wilson also cowrote) and a Tony as bedridden eccentric Big Edie in the musical Grey Gardens. But 2015 may be her busiest year yet: In addition to performing on Broadway, she’s releasing a memoir, My First Hundred Years in Show Business, and is the focus of the documentary She’s the Best Thing In It, which is currently making the film festival rounds. It’s no wonder she slept through our original morning interview time.

“Once I get home after the show at 11pm, I can’t go to sleep before 2am!” she explains. “We’re all exhausted doing eight shows a week. For any actor it’s a killer. It’s very, very hard to keep the joie de vivre all the way through.” Of course, that becomes even more difficult as one gets older. Yet Wilson isn’t one to let her age get in the way of working—when asked if she’ll ever retire, she jokes, “Lust doesn’t die; neither does the wish to perform!” Still, she admits she initially had qualms about taking on Letitia. “Imogene Coca, who did the role originally, was a soprano, so I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to hit the high notes?’” she remembers. “I’m like a baritone normally. But the musical director, Kevin Stites, helped me to vocalize and enlarged my range. I also told Scott [Ellis, the director], ‘I don’t think I can do the matinees.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can. We’re going to have a little chair to sit in here, a little chair to sit in there.’ He had faith I could do it. I did get on the treadmill more. And I started learning my big song ["Repent"] way before rehearsals began because my memory isn’t as quick as it used to be. But I seem to be fine, knock wood.” [Read more →]

February 25, 2015   2 Comments

Looking for the Light in Our Country’s Darkness

The Insurgents at the Labyrinth Theater Company

The cast of The Insurgents

In The Insurgents, Lucy Thurber fuses personal and political history for an examination of what ails us

On the surface, Lucy Thurber’s new drama The Insurgents, now at the Labyrinth Theater Company, recalls her previous work. Like last year’s Obie-winning five-play cycle The Hill Town Plays, which chronicled the turbulent life of an author who (like the playwright herself) escaped an upbringing of poverty and strife in a small northeast town, The Insurgents is about a young woman—injured college athlete Sally (Cassie Beck)—struggling to break her ties to where she was born. But though Beck enters brandishing a large rifle and righteous anger, she immediately breaks character and the fourth wall to let the audience know that everything’s going to be alright. She even says the evening will end with a sing-along of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light.”

There’s an optimism here that feels novel for Thurber, despite the play exploring some of the most incendiary issues of our time, including race relations, immigration, and income inequality.

“Sally doesn’t kill everybody or herself, that’s true,” Thurber laughs when asked if her outlook is indeed a bit rosier than in the past. “Maybe I’m becoming Pollyanna in my middle age. I feel like the irony for me is that I am a very deeply patriotic person. The mark of patriotism is loving your country enough to talk about what’s wrong with it in the hopes you can make it better. No one in our country at this point really knows what to do about these problems, but maybe there’s a chance for us to be better versions of ourselves.”

Also new for Thurber is her use of historical figures. As Sally tries to reconcile her white working class family’s racist and xenophobic rants with her more progressive but still disgruntled worldview, she’s visited and lectured by the spirits of four American-grown revolutionaries: abolitionist John Brown, slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, Underground Railroad bigwig Harriet Tubman, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

“I wanted to look at what causes violent insurrection,” Thurber says. “People have different ideas of who’s a hero and who’s a terrorist. We gained our country by terrorism, even though we romanticize it as standing up against injustice. McVeigh got in there because he’s more modern and addresses the frustrations of today. He was actually a highly decorated war hero from a rural working class environment. I could see Sally possibly becoming him, so I wanted to give her options. If you read what McVeigh said about economics and America, it’s really amazing how much of it the average person would agree with if they didn’t know he was the one who said it. I found that interesting and frightening.”
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February 18, 2015   No Comments

Are You Sure You Want to Do That?

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Constellations

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Constellations

All the creative elements in Constellations, even the set, suggest infinite possibilities

Director Michael Longhurst isn’t big on naturalism—at least not for the shows he helms. That’s part of why he and playwright Nick Payne work so well together. Over the past three years, the British compatriots have collaborated on a number of thought-provoking productions. Now they’re both making their Broadway debuts with Manhattan Theatre Club’s Constellations, a remounting of their first project together in England.

The time-bending two-hander explores the notion of the multiverse by replaying key moments in the romance between a beekeeper (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a theoretical physicist (Ruth Wilson, of Showtime’s The Affair) in various ways. Exchanges end abruptly only to start over with subtle differences that change their outcomes. Sometimes it’s a tweaked line or situation, or maybe just a new intonation or attitude. Its structure is anything but realistic, and that’s why Longhurst went for a symbolic aesthetic.

“I wanted to celebrate the theatricality of the piece,” he explains. “The only props are a wedding ring and a piece of paper, and there are no scene changes. The design challenge was, how do we show they’re jumping universes? Tom [Scutt, the scenic and costume designer]‘s elegant set taps into the larger themes of the play. They’re standing on a slice of honeycomb floating in the galaxy. They’re atoms colliding and re-colliding, so they’re surrounded by balloons, which are delicate and can burst at any time, a wonderful metaphor. The balloons delicately rub against the ideas of the show in a way that was better than if we had hung up a bunch of stars. I nearly went to art school so the visuals are very important to me. The set should be a device to frame the actors, a playground for them to work in.”

Though Longhurst brought most of his West End creative team with him, including Scutt and lighting designer Lee Curran, both Gyllenhaal and Wilson are new to the show. However, Longhurst had worked with both of them previously, which he says is essential for such an intimate production. “I directed Jake in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet [Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre], and I directed Ruth in a student production of The Crucible when we were at the University of Nottingham. Constellations is incredibly intense, both its subject matter and its acting challenges. You want to know that you have actors who can go to the places they need emotionally, have the skills to deliver a stage performance, and are people you want to be in a rehearsal room with!” [Read more →]

January 14, 2015   No Comments

When Horsing Around Turns Deadly Serious

Olivia Macklin in Horse Girls

Olivia Macklin in Horse Girls

Playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner uses broad comedy to explore the drama of preprepubescent girls

While most dark comedies about adolescent angst take place in high school (see Heathers, Mean Girls, et al), playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner thinks the anxiety sets in before the teen years. Even now as an adult, she still finds tweens totally terrifying. “When I see a group of middle schoolers walking down the street, I have heart palpitations!” she says with only a trace of sarcasm. “I feel like they’re going to make fun of me all over again.”

Weiner grew up in suburban Florida, just like the gaggle of unhinged 12-year-olds at the heart of Horse Girls, her brazen and bloody coming-of-age satire at the Cell Theatre. However, at their age Weiner wasn’t into steeds at all—she was fixated on theatre. “I was obsessed with the stage and playing make-believe and Barbies, but that wasn’t always acceptable,” she recalls. “Most of the other girls were into straightening their hair and going to the movies and meeting boys. I felt this sadness about losing my childhood, but I was also so excited to grow up.”

Horse Girls explores that fraught nexus between being a little kid and a young adult through the members of the Lady Jean Ladies, a tight-knit group of riders whose fierce love of horses makes the kid in Equus seem sane. Ruled with an iron fist by Ashleigh (the richest, blondest, and bitchiest of the bunch), the club is thrown off balance by the arrival of a stranger and a disturbing rumor about the girls’ beloved animals. At a breakneck gallop, the meeting devolves into chaos with lots of laughs, karaoke anthems, and social commentary along the way. [Read more →]

January 6, 2015   No Comments

Making a Joyful Political Noise

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Whether protesting climate change, racial injustice. or overconsumption, Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping do it in glorious song

It’s going to be a very busy Thanksgiving weekend for the Talen family. For the holiday, Bill Talen, better known as political performance artivist Reverend Billy; his partner and longtime director, Savitri D; their young daughter Lena; and their Stop Shopping Choir are heading to Saint Louis, Missouri to enjoy an organic Thanksgiving feast on the lawn of the world’s largest biotechnology seed company, Monsanto. Afterward, they’ll bring food to nearby Ferguson activists, who have been protesting nonstop since a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. Then it’s back to their home base of New York City on Sunday, where this self-described “radical performance community” continues their five Sunday Joe’s Pub holiday run of Monsanto Is the Devil, equal parts evangelical church service parody, musical extravaganza, town hall meeting, and call to action.

While those may sound like independent events, Reverend Billy sees a very clear through line. Although the Church of Stop Shopping’s original focus was counteracting rabid consumerism, Reverend Billy and his cohorts have spent the past year using their unique brand of musical activism to spotlight corporations’ insidious role in climate change, including a 15-minute protest/performance at a Manhattan JPMorgan Chase bank last fall that got the reverend arrested, not to mention lots of international media attention. To Reverend Billy, all of these happenings are theatre, whether they’re taking place on a stage, out on the street, or in the aisles of Walmart, and it’s a compelling way to bring the group’s message to the people. I talked with Reverend Billy and  Savitri D about connecting various sociopolitical dots, how they come up with their shows, and what they hope audiences take away from the experience.

Raven Snook: Consumerism used to be the Church of Stop Shopping’s core issue, but you’ve been very concerned with the environment of late. How did you segue from one to the other?

Reverend Billy: We didn’t! Consumption is among the primary causes of climate change: consumption of energy, consumption of fossil fuels that become products, etc. I would say that [the Church of Stop Shopping's] turn toward this end of the spectrum, concentrating on environmental issues, began in about 2005 around Hurricane Katrina. But we’ll always continue with our main mission. When we’re down in Ferguson, it will be Buy Nothing Day [a.k.a. Black Friday]. So we’re going to have to buy everything ahead of time and make sure we don’t break the boycott. These issues are never separate. Everything is connected.

Savitri D: We try to be current with what’s going on right now and still address our core issues. Consumerism hasn’t gone away. Americans and people in other countries are consuming as much as ever. The crisis has escalated in such a way that we have to tackle things more directly. There’s a larger issue they fall into: citizenship. The fact that there’s police violence in our city, that we’re still blowing up mountains in West Virginia, these things are connected by our not being able to respond through the normal democratic process. We are addressing climate change very directly now and we have in our shows for the past couple of years. In a broader sense, we’re trying to activate people. Don’t let this be normal! It’s not normal to just turn away from police violence, to accept mountains being blown up, so we’re trying to de-normalize those kinds of things. The problem right now for most people is not a lack of information. We all know about climate change, so that isn’t the focus of our work as activists. We want to inspire people to take risks in their lives, to change their lives and the lives of people around them.

RS: So you’re trying to find the intersection of art and action.

RB: Well, action is theatrical. Action is anticipated, framed, and packaged, but it’s hard to make one that people notice. I think the challenge of our time is how do we break not the fourth wall, but the 400th wall? We’re all dazzled in a hall of mirrors. This modern information age is making us passive and we don’t know where to look. So when something like Ferguson happens, when a bunch of teenagers in a little part of Missouri that nobody’s ever heard of rise up and say no and break that 400th wall and everybody looks over at them, they are theatrical. We went [to Ferguson] back in October on Moral Monday and now we’re going again. It’s the same feeling I had when we went to the Wisconsin protests in 2011. Our daughter, Lena, was six months old, and we held her up in the roar of people who had taken over the state capitol. That first day in Zuccotti Park: it was theatre, and I was floating on air. We look for it now, where is this kind of activist theatre taking place? The anti-war march in Moscow, the protests in Burma, the students down in Chile who did that massive “Thriller” dance. The activists of today have to find a way to break the wall. We have an imperative. We’re not sure the life systems of the earth will continue. Scientists are telling us we’re in trouble. 2030, 2050 2070, choose your apocalypse. Right now we’ve got a tremendous requirement as activists to run down the middle of the street and be planet criers.

RS: It’s one thing when audiences come to see you in a theatre and pay for tickets. But when you’re performing outside of a traditional setting, what kinds of reactions do you get from viewers?

SD: We’ve had people join the choir from the street! One Buy Nothing Day, we had a guy get off a public bus and walk back two blocks to join us—that’s one end of the spectrum. The other is extreme defensiveness of hyper-consumerism. We get where that comes from. Brand loyalty is deeply ingrained in the spirit of the American people. The response we always hope for is to open someone’s mind. In NYC, there’s an expectation of street magic. In other places, people are surprised, not just at our message but that we’re good at what we’re doing. We use our chops to open up doors. Of course, delivering any message in a public space is upsetting to some people, never mind what the message is. We’ve been mistaken for an actual Christian choir with people saying, “Don’t talk to me!”

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November 26, 2014   No Comments