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Category — Building Character

A Woman Walking in A Man’s Shoes

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant puts a feminine stamp on a traditionally male role in A Walk in the Woods

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

A famous old adage says if women ruled the world, there would be no war. So it stands to reason that one of the two envoys attempting to negotiate an arms treaty in A Walk in the Woods is female—only that’s not the way Lee Blessing’s play was originally written. Loosely inspired by a real-life meeting between the U.S.’s Paul H. Nitze and the then U.S.S.R.’s Yuli A. Kvitsinsky during the 1982 Geneva peace talks, the 1988 Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated drama initially starred two men. But over the past quarter century, as more women have become high-profile players in international politics, some theatre companies have opted to change up the characters’ genders. And that’s exactly what Keen Company has done by casting Kathleen Chalfant as seasoned Russian diplomat Andrey (rechristened Irina) Botvinnik in A Walk in the Woods at the Clurman Theatre.

This isn’t the first time the Obie Award-winning actress has played a part that was meant for a man. Her diverse and illustrious career is filled with performances that blur gender boundaries. “I feel like I do this all the time,” she says with a small chuckle. “I have played a number of characters who are actually male, like in Angels in America, [affecting a flawless Russian accent] Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, which was also my first Russian role. In Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, I played Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan—that part can be portrayed by a man or a woman, but it’s mostly been done by men. And I also played Clov in Beckett’s Endgame. So I had no hesitations when Johnny [Keen Company artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, who also helms the production] asked me to play Botvinnik.”

Of course in this mounting, Botvinnik is no longer a male character, which meant some slight script adjustments were necessary—mostly pronoun switches. But Blessing, who was present during the rehearsal process, was happy to oblige. “I’ve formally been asked for my approval to change the gender of one or the other negotiator in A Walk in the Woods four times, that I recall,” he says. “In each case I gave it. I think the gender change can wake us up a bit more to a play that discusses issues that haven’t been on the front burner in quite this way for decades. It reminds us that more and more women are finding their way into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions.”

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September 18, 2014   2 Comments

Once, Twice, Three Times Your Savior

Arthur Aulisi, Daryl Lathon, & Donald Warfield

Arthur Aulisi, Daryl Lathon, & Donald Warfield

The actors in 3 Christs find truth in insanity

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

It’s not every day you sit down with three Jesus Christs. Wait, what’s the plural form of Jesus? Jesi? Jesuses?

“Jesees!” says Donald Warfield, one of three actors playing the son of God in 3 Christs, now at Judson Memorial Church in a production from Peculiar Works Project.

When the audience enters Judson’s grand church hall, they see three men onstage, sitting with their backs to each other in a triangular formation—a trinity. In the background, above the set, stained glass windows of Peter, Paul, and John gaze upon them. It’s a striking tableau about an unsettling subject.

3 Christs, adapted S.M. Dale and Barry Rowell from a real-life medical study, follows the two-year experiment of Dr. Milton Rokeach, who in 1959 brought together three schizophrenics (Leon Gabor, Joseph Cassel, and Clyde Benson). All three believed they were Jesus Christ, and Dr. Rokeach hoped that by encountering each other, they would be shaken of their delusions.

This scenario creates a fascinating acting exercise for the actors playing the Christs (as they’re called by the crew). How do you make sense of insanity? [Read more →]

September 16, 2014   No Comments

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

How Do You Perform a Stephen Adly Guirgis Play?

Stephen McKinley Henderson & Ray Anthony Thomas

Stephen McKinley Henderson & Ray Anthony Thomas

Ray Anthony Thomas tackles the gruff poetry of Between Riverside and Crazy

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

There are so many pronouncements and jokes and wild, thundering feelings in Between Riverside and Crazy that you may not think about the poetry until you leave the theatre and catch your breath.

The latest from Stephen Adly Guirgis, now in its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company, the play follows Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a recently widowed police officer who’s suing the department, trying to motivate his ex-convict son, and nursing a drink any chance he can get. Life hasn’t licked him, though, and eventually, he starts shedding the memories, the people, and the dark private thoughts that have pinned him down.

We especially feel his fire when he speaks. Whether he’s scolding his son Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), telling cop stories, or just making a salty observation about church ladies who eat too much, he delivers beautifully sculpted speeches. Yes, they’re peppered with curse words and slang, but their artistry is easy to hear.

It’s like that with all the characters. Guirgis, whose earlier plays include The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Motherf—er With the Hat, is well known for giving powerful voices to even the most disenfranchised people.

“The characters live in a poetic place, even though they’re not poets,” says Thomas. “The way they express their lives is almost musical, and when we were in rehearsal, all of us were just trying to find that common musical language.” [Read more →]

July 21, 2014   No Comments

The Sweetest Crazy Clown

Jessica Frey

Jessica Frey

The woman behind Clown Bar‘s twisted ingenue

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

Considering all the gunfights and sex and dirty jokes in their show, you wouldn’t think anyone in Clown Bar would base their performance on It’s a Wonderful Life. But that’s one reason this raucous play has become such a downtown hit. It never met a vintage reference it couldn’t use.

Written by Adam Szymkowicz and presented by Pipeline Theatre Company, the show is a noir parody about the gangster underworld of professional clowns. Dressed in full makeup, the hardboiled characters gather at their seedy local watering hole, pausing between songs and jokes to make threats, run rackets, and occasionally kill each other. Even Happy, the local cop who’s trying to clean up the scene, is a former gangster clown, and there’s no guarantee that the life, the power, and the dangerous dames won’t pull him back in.

But like any good noir, Clown Bar has an angel among the devils. Or at least, she’s about as angelic as it gets with this twisted show, which plays on Saturday nights at The Box. Her name is Petunia, and even though she’s a prostitute with a foul mouth, she’s still a swell dame.

That’s why actress Jessica Frey’s performance is inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life—specifically Gloria Grahame’s turn as flirty bombshell Violet Bick. “I was trying to use the style of that era as a baseline, and then pump it up,” she says, adding that even though Petunia is a hooker, she’s not a hopeless case. “She’s so sweet, and she’s just trying to do her best by everybody. I think that makes her very endearing. It potentially makes her the audience’s ally in the show.”

Frey adds, “In her mind, this clown bar is nothing seedy. It’s nothing disgusting. She’s trying to spin horrible things that have happened to her into positive things. She makes light of her STDs. She makes light of being a prostitute. She has to remain positive, or the audience won’t root for her as much.”

Not that Frey has always been the good clown. Last year, when the play had its first successful run, she was cast as Popo, a sociopathic enforcer. But when Kelley Rae O’Donnell, the original Petunia, couldn’t return to the role, Frey changed characters. “I have such respect for Kelley, and her performance was intimidating from the beginning,” she says. “I couldn’t get it out of my head, and during the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’ve made a horrible mistake!’ [Read more →]

July 8, 2014   No Comments