Your passport to life behind the curtain!

Category — Building Character

The Transvestite in Patrick Page’s Mind

Patrick Page

Patrick Page

How he connects with his character in Casa Valentina

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

When Patrick Page was playing Cyrano de Bergerac at the Old Globe, he would walk the streets of San Diego imagining he really was a man with an enormous nose. He wasn’t wearing a prosthetic, but in his mind, everyone noticed his schnoz. “Everything people did or didn’t do as I walked past, I took personally,” he says. “If they looked at me, I got mad. If they looked away, I got even more mad.”

That exercise has also been handy for his turn as the title character in Casa Valentina, the new Harvey Fierstein play now on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Page stars as George, the proprietor of a Catskills resort that caters to male transvestites in the early 1960s. Like his customers, George has a female persona, and when everyone gathers for the weekend, their feminine identities take over. In lovely gowns and wigs, they drink, dance, and give each other makeovers, and most importantly, they do it without fear of retribution.

Most of the guests can toggle easily between their personae. Just like the real-life men on which this play is based, many are in heterosexual marriages, and even if they prefer their feminine selves, they can still slip into “male drag” without much of a problem.

For George, however, the transition is not so simple. Though he’s married to Rita (Mare Winningam) and swears he’d be lost without her, he’s become increasingly connected to Valentina, his female identity.

“The truth for George is that being George has become almost impossible,” Page says. “Val knows how to handle things, whereas a lot of George’s brain is given over to pretending, pretending, pretending.” [Read more →]

April 23, 2014   No Comments

Angela Lansbury and Her London Ghosts

Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati

Angela Lansbury

In the West End’s “Blithe Spirit,” Angela Lansbury’s past is always present

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to welcome London critic and reporter Mark Shenton to TDF Stages. From time to time, he’ll file reports on West End shows that have special ties to New York. His exclusive interview with Dame Angela Lansbury is a perfect place to start.

The channels between Broadway and London’s West End can be remarkably fluid, and some artists seem to belong to both communities at once.

This season, for instance, Shakespeare’s Globe traveled from London to score a New York smash with its repertory of Twelfth Night and Richard III, and right now director Michael Grandage is at the Cort Theatre recreating his sell-out West End production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.

In return, The Book of Mormon scooped the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical just last night, with star Gavin Creel also taking the award for Best Actor in a Musical. As Creel told one interviewer, “I’m very much an American to the core, but I really love being here and pretending it’s home!”

Meanwhile, Dame Angela Lansbury has come home at last. Though the 88-year-old legend was born in London in 1925, she hasn’t appeared on the West End in decades. Instead, she’s been starring in plays and musicals throughout the world, including four Broadway shows in the last seven years.

One of those Broadway triumphs has carried her back to London. At the Gielgud Theatre through June 7, she’s recreating her 2009 Tony-winning performance as Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s 1942 comedy Blithe Spirit. And she couldn’t be more pleased.

“I think it’s one of the best parts I’ve ever had in the theatre,” she says. “Honestly, that is the prime reason I’m here. She’s an extraordinary character. I adore playing it, and I love going out on stage every night to do it. If you’re that happy in a role, you want to repeat it, and what better place to repeat it than London, the place of its origins and of my origins. So here we are, anyway, and I’m terribly excited and very proud to be coming back.” [Read more →]

April 14, 2014   1 Comment

Stephen Spinella Will Give a New Performance Tonight

Estelle Parsons & Stephen Spinella

Estelle Parsons & Stephen Spinella

Inside his work on Broadway’s The Velocity of Autumn

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

“The thing that draws me to new plays is the speech,” says Stephen Spinella. “Does the writer have a good ear for the way people talk?”

His acting career has certainly been marked by thrilling language. From originating the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America to delivering a one-man adaptation of The Iliad, he’s mastered torrents of roof-shaking words.

The trend continues with The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble’s tragicomic play about Alexandra, an elderly woman threatening to blow up her Brooklyn apartment if her children try to move her to a nursing home. Spinella plays her son Chris, who climbs a tree to get through her window and coax her outside. Mother and son have been estranged for decades, but as they navigate their various disappointments and a roomful of Molotov cocktails, they’re as honest as they’ve ever been.

And the more they say, the more eloquent they become. If the opening of the play, which is now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, is all pauses and stammers, then the finale is flush with arias. Both characters say rough, beautiful things about getting old, being forgotten, and finding reasons to keep going.

“All of that means character to me,” Spinella says. “The thing I like about Eric’s writing is that the language is kind of clumsy in places. The syntax is odd. The jokes can be awkward and bad. But then there are these long passages that have a wonderful kind of music to them. The task [as an actor] is to figure out the guy who does all of those different things.” [Read more →]

April 11, 2014   No Comments

Have You Seen this Side of Lear?

Michael Pennington & Lilly Englert

Michael Pennington & Lilly Englert

Michael Pennington finds new facets in Shakespeare’s tragic king

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

“I’ve always noted that most Lears are either good in the first part or the last part, but not always in both,” says Michael Pennington. “It’s difficult to catch the autocrat and the tyrant in the first half and then the pitiful old man in the second half.”

And if any living actor’s in a position to evaluate a Shakespearean performance, it’s certainly Pennington. In his native England, he’s played almost all the major roles, often with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s also toured extensively with Sweet Will, his solo play about the Bard, and written several books on performing Shakespeare’s work.

Now he’s applying his decades of knowledge to his first performance as King Lear, in the production currently running at Theatre for a New Audience.

Asked which part of the play comes more naturally to him—the tyranny half or the senility half—Pennington laughs and says, “The senility half. I’m of an age where one fears forgetting people’s names and does forget people’s names. One fears for one’s short-term memory.”

All joking aside, his performance in King Lear is nuanced throughout. He’s blustering and powerful in the early scenes, when Lear foolishly disowns his devoted daughter Cordelia and divides his kingdom between his perfidious daughters Regan and Goneril. Later, when a chain of tragic events leaves the king mentally broken, Pennington brings palpable emotion to his downfall.
His performance is partially animated by his new discoveries about the play, which continues to surprise him.

Take Act 2, Scene 4, when Lear tries to lodge with Regan after Goneril has turned him away. The king wants to bring a retinue of at least 100 knights to his daughter’s home, but as the scene progresses, the sisters wheedle him out of bringing any followers at all.

“I hadn’t realized what a complex piece of reasoning it is,” Pennington says.” You sort of know what’s going to happen, because you’ve seen it with Goneril. You know what the issue is, and you know that Regan’s going to reject him. In a way, the scene almost looks overwritten.” [Read more →]

April 7, 2014   No Comments

Will They Laugh At This Strange Creature?



Chivas Michael & Jonathan Cake

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