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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

How Do Dancers Recreate the Cotton Club?

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (center) and co-stars

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and co-stars

Inside the lives of two After Midnight stars

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

Since previews began last October, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has danced and sung her way through almost 250 performances of After Midnight, the Jazz Age revue at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre that celebrates the legendary Cotton Club. Whether she’s tap dancing on a set of rotating stairs or belting the apartment-life blues in “Raisin’ the Rent,” she’s channeling the essence of the iconic Harlem nightspot.

But it takes serious work to conjure that spirit. For one thing, Sumbry-Edwards isn’t often asked to deliver the same show eight times a week. “In my line of work, a lot is improvised,” she says. “When I go tap dance [at] places, I very rarely have a set routine. I sometimes don’t even go in for a sound check. ‘I don’t want to see the band. I don’t even want to know what kind of band it is. Let me just go and feel it out.’ But this is not that kind of party.”

Instead, After Midnight, whose seven Tony nominations include a nod for Best Musical, is a consciously sculpted tribute. The setlist zips from classic songs (“Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) to splashy dance numbers to spoken excerpts of Langston Hughes poems, and the onstage band (better known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars) serves every riff like polished pros.

That’s not to say the show feels stodgy—quite the opposite, in fact—but it does feel precise. It’s clear we’re watching a crafted event, not a free-form improvisation.

“But it’s wonderful to be able to work this way, too,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “We’ve settled into the characters and the storytelling, and of course the camaraderie that we have with each other is growing.”

Desmond Richardson echoes that idea. Another of the show’s featured dancers, he solos during a seductive ballet set to Duke Ellingston’s “The Mooche,” and when the band performs a ditty called “Peckin’,” he’s part of a fully synchronized quintet. It’s hypnotic to watch the five men move in unison with each other and also in time with the music, and it’s no wonder Richardson’s connection with his fellow performers has grown so intense. “It’s so spontaneous and so real,” he says. “We tend to listen to the band, and they listen to us. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. When they’re up there with you, you can find the energy you need.” [Read more →]

May 29, 2014   1 Comment

The Life and Times of Matilda’s Second Dad

Matt Harrington as Mr. Wormwood

Matt Harrington

How Matt Harrington assumed a major Broadway role

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

Every night before Matt Harrington goes on stage for his first scene as Mr. Wormwood in Matilda, he does a little dance in the wings.

Matilda’s television-loving, car salesman father makes his first appearance in “Miracle,” the opening number, and shortly after his wife gives birth, he bounds in wearing a checkered green suit. “Wormwood’s got to come in at an 11,” Harrington says. “So I’ll start bouncing around and getting into the rhythm of the song.”

Based on the beloved children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Matilda follows the title heroine as she grows up among adults who don’t understand her intelligence, her sensitivity, and eventually, her telekinesis. Worst of all are The Trunchbull (her school’s headmistress) and her parents, who are alternately furious and disappointed that she’s not, well, stupider.

Harrington has been playing Mr. Wormwood since March, when he replaced Gabriel Ebert, who won a Tony for the role. He didn’t want to mimic his predecessor’s performance, however, so he refrained from seeing the show until he was far along in his own rehearsal process.

Director Matthew Warchus and assistant director Thomas Caruso gave Harrington permission to make the role his own, which helped take the pressure off. “If I went in there and tried to watch Gabe and do his bits, it would get in the way of me finding my own organic actions to play and finding my relationship with Matilda and with my family,” he says.

The rehearsal process for a replacement presents the challenge of not being able to work with the company, who are in performances. Instead, Harrington rehearsed with Caruso in a studio far away from the Shubert Theatre. There were no sets and no tech elements, and stage managers played Matilda and the other characters.

He did have a few opportunities to work with Lesli Margherita, who plays his wife, and Taylor Trensch, who plays his son, but other than that, the only time Harrington rehearsed with the full cast was during his put-in, which is a replacement’s one shot to perform the entire show in costume with full tech elements. “I had weeks to prepare little bits, but once it comes time to jump in, it becomes a very fast process and you really are learning on your feet,” he says. [Read more →]

May 13, 2014   No Comments

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   2 Comments