Category — Building Character
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
Malik Yoba navigates the complex staging of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
Malik Yoba plays two characters in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and they both have strikingly emotional scenes. In rehearsal, though, emotion was often the last thing on the company’s mind.
“We first worked on the staging, really,” Yoba says. “We didn’t really work on the acting until the end. We worked on, ‘You’re gonna move here, move there. This panel moves. That panel moves.’ It was very much from the outside in.”
That might seem like a counterintuitive process—and for many actors, it is—but once you see the play, which is now at Atlantic Stage 2, the attention to movement makes sense.
Adapted by Roy Williams from Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story, the show follows Colin Smith (Sheldon Best), a black London teenager who’s arrested for robbing a bakery. Once he’s in a facility for delinquent youth, he’s told he can have a lighter work load if he wins a long-distance race against boys from more privileged backgrounds. This will supposedly prove that the system can elevate troubled young people, but for Colin, playing by the rules feels like ignoring how his Socialist father taught him to live and abandoning the community where he was raised.
The conflict tears at Colin as he runs the race, and throughout the play, his memories keep breaking onto the stage. With a single light adjustment or the quick tilt of a wall, the running path can become Colin’s living room, the yard of the juvenile facility, or the street outside the bakery. The transitions need to be quick and precise, lest the production lose its relentless energy, so every step and costume change must be perfectly calibrated.
“In some ways, it feels like being a member of a sports team, where if your timing’s off you’re gonna miss the ball” says Yoba, who plays both Colin’s deceased father and a man who later dates Colin’s mother. “But when you’re no longer thinking about the mechanics and you’re just responding, the game slows down. Athletes talk about that, and the same thing is true with this. As you keep doing it, it feels like it slows down, and you can continue to find those emotional beats.”
In fact, Yoba has found that the blocking gives him insight on what those emotional beats mean. As Trevor, the man dating Colin’s mother, Yoba is physical with Best, clapping his shoulder and looking him squarely in the eye. It makes Trevor feel like a real and present threat, even if he’s just in Colin’s memory. But during a crucial scene where Yoba plays Colin’s father, he stands behind co-star, meaning Best mostly responds to the sound of his voice. The two actors don’t even make eye contact, even though Colin’s father is trying to give him important advice about how to live in the world. [Read more →]
January 23, 2014 2 Comments
What Brían F. O’Byrne, the star of Outside Mullingar, has learned from audience response to the play
When Brían F. O’Byrne starred in Doubt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Patrick Shanley play about a priest in a 1960s Catholic school who may or may not be molesting a student, he made a conscious effort to counterbalance the energy from the other side of the footlights. If the audience seemed to trust his character during his opening monologue, O’Byrne would approach the role as a sexual predator that night; if they seemed to look at him askance, he would play Father Flynn as an innocent.
O’Byrne’s reunion with Shanley, the whimsical Irish romance Outside Mullingar, requires no such triangulation. This time, O’Byrne says, the trick is peeling away those layers of calculation to reach a simpler state.
“The first thing that appealed to me about this piece was the absolute lack of irony,” he says of the play, which opens tomorrow at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a production from Manhattan Theatre Club. “There’s a real naïvete to my character that’s a lot of fun to play.”
Mullingar pits Anthony Reilly (O’Byrne), an excruciatingly shy misfit with a good heart, against his strong-willed next-door neighbor, Rosemary Muldoon (Debra Messing). As the fate of their adjoining farms in the titular region of rural Ireland becomes an issue, both characters are forced to acknowledge feelings—both good and bad—that have been simmering for decades.
“Her persistence and his pain really shine through,” O’Byrne says of Anthony and Rosemary, “but at the same time, there’s a buoyancy to the piece.”
This mixture of effervescence and heart-on-the-sleeve emotion has prompted an unexpected response from preview audiences, O’Byrne says: “A lot of people have been crying, which was very surprising to me. You go out there sometimes thinking you’re telling one story, and then the audience tells you, ‘No, this is the story you’re trying to tell.’” [Read more →]
January 22, 2014 5 Comments
John Ellison Conlee plays multiple Watsons, including a machine
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
This season, several actors are playing multiple roles in the same show—Jefferson Mays in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder for Two both spring to mind—but at least all their characters are human beings. In The (curious case of} the Watson Intelligence, however, John Ellison Conlee is playing three people and a machine, which adds a distinct new wrinkle to the challenge of crafting several performances at the same time.
Conlee’s roles in Madelene George’s witty play, which is now at Playwrights Horizons, constitute a tour of famous Watsons: There’s John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ assistant; Thomas Watson, who was on the receiving end of the first phone call made by Alexander Graham Bell; and Watson the IBM supercomputer, which defeated two Jeopardy! champions in 2011. (There’s also Josh Watson, a computer repair guy that George invented herself.)
Asked how it feels to be part of this season’s multi-role trend, Conlee says, “I think it’s probably just a coincidence in that there seem to be [actors playing multiple roles] right now, but I think it’s a thing that exists so much in the theatre because it’s genuinely theatrical. It is one of the few things that we in the theatre can do in terms of storytelling more effectively than I think film and television can do. It’s not like a sitcom that we put onstage. We use very theatrical devices, and I think that’s the reason that so many great playwrights like to use that tool. And it’s so much fun for actors.”
Conlee’s co-stars, Amanda Quaid and David Costabile, also play multiple characters, but for Conlee, the show is actually defined by its sense of unity. “What we’re meant to take from all of these different stories in different time periods is not their differences, I believe, but their sameness,” he says. “People’s search for connection and assistance and help, and the way that we all want love and connection, but also independence and the battle for that. All of these different stories and different time periods are essentially the same story. So I think it’s valuable and helps bring that point home that you’re seeing the same people, even though they’re in different time periods or clothes.” [Read more →]
December 11, 2013 No Comments
In showstopping performances, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Adriane Lenox evoke the legends of jazz and blues
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
There isn’t a cigarette girl or a cigar in sight, but you can almost imagine spectral blue smoke surrounding the two Tony Award-winning actresses currently evoking a bygone era of African-American nightclub culture on separate stages in New York City. In Broadway’s After Midnight and Off-Broadway’s Lady Day, Adriane Lenox and Dee Dee Bridgewater, respectively, exist in an atmosphere so thick with moody jazz and hazy blues that their stages seem set for the conjuring of spirits.
In Lady Day, writer-director Stephen Stahl’s backstage musical about tragic blues singer Billie Holiday, Bridgewater (who won her Tony for playing Glinda in The Wiz) makes her star entrance through the stage door of a London theatre where Billie is rehearsing in a bid for a 1954 comeback. Thunder, rain, and lightning accompany her into the space, eerily suggesting the emotional tumult to come. In between songs (the score includes “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Strange Fruit,” “All of Me,” and 23 others), Billie loses herself in scenes that recount her broken childhood.
Does Bridgewater (pictured above right) feel Billie’s presence at the Little Shubert Theatre, or does the actress not go there?
“Oh, I go there,” Bridgewater says. “When I’m getting ready to go on, I say, ‘OK, Billie, let’s go.’ My deal with Billie this time is that she can share my body, not take it over.”
In the 1980s, Bridgewater played an earlier version of the show in Paris (in French, no less!) and London. The actress explains, “In London, she kind of took over. Toward the end of my run at the Picadilly, I was getting fan mail addressed to Billie Holiday. People who had seen her or knew her would come backstage and say, ‘I did not see you, I saw Billie.’ That was pretty traumatic. Now I try to leave her at the theatre and join her at the theatre when I go into my dressing room.”
Bridgewater’s turn is part of her career-long commitment to exploring the heritage of jazz singers. She won a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, and an earlier Ella Fitzgerald tribute disc was also Grammy-anointed.
Still, Bridgewater admits that when she first heard Holiday’s gravelly voice on LPs, many years ago, the sound turned her off. “I thought her voice was small, too nasal,” she recalls. “I was of the impression that if you’re gonna be a jazz singer you have to know how to scat, and she didn’t scat.”
But then Bridgewater stumbled across Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. She admits, “I was really struck by her life and…I could identify with a lot of the pain that she had gone through. That’s what grabbed me. [When] I was asked to do Lady Day in Paris, I did a lot of investigative work. She’s been in me since then, been a part of me.” [Read more →]
October 29, 2013 No Comments