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He’s Not Really Acting, So Why Is He Crying?

The cast of "Eugene O'Neil..."

The cast of “Eugene O’Neill…”

The New York Neo-Futurists find the power in O’Neill’s stage directions

What do actors have to do to make us feel something? Do they need to cry? Do they need to speak? Do they even need to make expressions? Or can the simplest gestures, the most benign movements, pierce something inside us?

Those questions simmer beneath The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 2, the latest installment of the New York Neo-Futurists’ ambitious series, which begins performances on Thursday at Theater for the New City.

And yes, the company will only enact the stage directions from early O’Neill’s plays like The Sniper and Recklessness, not the dialogue. Crucially, though, they won’t perform like they’re in a naturalistic drama. We might hear a narrator read the cues and watch the actors embody them, but we’ll never think we’re at a “typical” show.

For one thing, the New York Neo-Futurists don’t work that way. They reject the idea of acting as “pretending.” When they’re on stage, they always acknowledge that they’re who they are and where they are. No one tries to convince us they’re “actually” a German duchess or a 19th-century doctor.

So with two artifices stripped away—both O’Neill’s dialogue and the pretense of becoming a fictional character—we’re left with the raw basics of the scripts. The company must decide how to bring those pieces to life.

“It’s addicting,” says Christopher Loar, a Neo-Futurist who also wrote and directed this production. “Every rehearsal was like an act of mystery. It was thrilling to get in the room and say, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but we’ll try.’”

But that’s not to say the show lacks discipline. In fact, the company tries to honor O’Neill’s strict instructions. “The particular plays have a list of commands that very much tell a person how to move, think, and feel from the outside in,” Loar says. “They’re given a lot of commands to take physical attitudes with their bodies and faces.”

The surprise is what happens when the actors perform those commands without putting on a traditional character. [Read more →]

April 15, 2014   No Comments

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

The Deepest Scar is the One You Can’t See

Leigh Silverman in rehearsal

Leigh Silverman in rehearsal

In the Broadway musical Violet, director Leigh Silverman trusts your imagination

“Every choice I made comes from the very first choice, which was not to show the scar.”

So says director Leigh Silverman about her production of Violet, the 1997 musical by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley that is finally making its Broadway debut at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. If you know the show, then you know why her decision is so important.

Based on a short story by Doris Betts, Violet follows a young woman in 1964 who takes a cross-country bus ride from her home in North Carolina to see a TV evangelist in Oklahoma. She’s desperate to be healed at one of his tent revivals because when she was a little girl, she accidentally got hit in the face with her father’s axe blade. It left a deep, terrible scar, and Violet is convinced that if the healer can just make her pretty, then her life will change forever.

When the musical premiered at Playwrights Horizons all those years ago, the team also decided not to show Violet’s scar, and for Silverman, that’s the only way to go.

“We wanted a much more theatrical journey as opposed to a literal one, and not seeing the scar—that’s the metaphor of the show,” she says. “It’s a manifestation of something that I think everybody can understand, which is something that’s happened to you at an early time in your life that you have carried with you and that you feel has disfigured you.”

And if Sutton Foster, who plays Violet, had an actual gash running down her face, that universal meaning might be lost. We might just fixate on her scar makeup. Instead, Foster doesn’t wear any makeup at all in this production. She only wears one simple dress, and instead of a wig, she sports her actual hair, hiding behind it like a curtain when Violet feels self-conscious. That’s a far cry from the brassy dames she played to such renown in Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie, but it suits a production dedicated to subtlety and restraint.

“It’s about as vulnerable as you can be,” Silverman says. “Plus, everyone on stage recoils with horror when they see her. In the face of that, she as a performer and Violet as a character stand in that make brave choices.” [Read more →]

April 3, 2014   2 Comments

Video: Meet Target Margin Theater

From time to time, TDF Stages will highlight exciting Off and Off-Off Broadway theatre companies with exclusive “getting to know you” videos. Today, we’re featuring Target Margin Theater, where the stories are never realistic (but always true). This video features artistic director David Herskovits and John Del Gaudio, as well as associated artists Greig Sargeant and Asta Bennie Hostetter.

Target Margin is currently presenting Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!, a new adaptation of one of the most important plays of the Yiddish theatre.

Meet more theatres!

This video was directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor, and shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.

March 25, 2014   No Comments

Is It Finally Time for Paula Vogel’s “Gay Family” Play?

Constance Zaytoun & Susan Bott

Constance Zaytoun & Susan Bott

Decades after it faced homophobic derision, And Baby Makes Seven returns

Maybe now, after all these decades, we can see the show with new eyes. When it was produced in the 80s and 90s, Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven was met with so much hostility—and so much outright homophobia—that she said it was cursed and declared it her “Scottish play.” She didn’t want it to be mounted in New York City ever again.

Eventually, though, she met Constance Zaytoun and Marc Stuart Weitz, the married couple who lead Purpleman Theater. They were passionate about Vogel’s script, and they wanted to produce it. After several years of conversations and encounters through mutual friends, the playwright finally gave her consent, and now Purpleman’s production is running through April 12 in partnership with the New Ohio Theatre.

“I haven’t seen it in a long, long time,” says Vogel, who hasn’t been involved with this remount but plans to attend opening night. “It’ll be very interesting to see how it feels, now that the Queen has given gay marriages her blessing.”

For those who don’t know: And Baby Makes Seven follows Ruth and Anna, a lesbian couple about to have their first child. The baby’s father is their gay friend Peter, but before any of them can face actual parenthood, they have to deal with their imaginary children.

See, Anna and Ruth sometimes pretend to be kids. Anna plays Cecil, a 9 year-old genius, while Ruth vacillates between a feral orphan and a French boy named Henri. The women slip into these personae all the time, the way some people use funny voices to impersonate their mothers, but they don’t know if the imaginary kids should be allowed to survive.

As the characters shift their allegiances, Vogel delivers a fascinating look at how adults relate to the idea of parenthood. “It’s about the invention of your life and your family, and I think that’s where it’s incredibly rich,” says Zaytoun, who plays Anna. “It’s just so wonderfully complex.”

But several decades ago, that’s not what people were talking about. Critics were mixed on the major New York productions (one in 1984 and another in 1993 that starred Cherry Jones and Mary Mara), but more perniciously, audiences and even artists across the country rejected the portrayal of out gay characters with a baby on the way. “We’re talking about a time when people fled the Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street because Mary Mara and Cherry Jones were kissing,” Vogel says.

During a production of the show in Los Angeles in the early 90s, the playwright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, was even harassed by her own colleagues. “My journal and day book were seized, and there were erect penises drawn all through my book,” she recalls. “You assume that you’re safe when you’re working in the theatre.” [Read more →]

March 19, 2014   No Comments