Dec 8, 2016

TBT: Weeden's Othello, OSF's Company

Derrick Lee Weeden and Anthony Heald in Othello at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1999. (Photo by David Coooper)

I'm about to take in New York Theatre Workshop's new production of Othello, directed by Sam Gold, and in anticipation I began to think back on the best production I've seen of that play--I saw it twice, in fact, in 1999 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For Back Stage West's annual "Actors We Love" issue that year, I wrote about the extraordinary actor who played the lead, his take on the role, and about the world-beating acting company of which he was a part (and still is to this day). The story is reprinted in full below.


Firing the Canon

There's no star system in Ashland's peerless acting company, but there are stars.

by Rob Kendt
Forget, if you will, our culture's purported current love affair with Shakespeare, and also the ongoing discussion about the American vs. the English approach to the Bard's timeless verse. And please, please set aside the rancorous debate about "non-traditional" casting in classical roles, and the claptrap pronounced on the subject by everyone from John Simon to August Wilson.

All these fleeting sideshows fade in the face of a stunning and inspiring, and too little known, matter of fact: that the leading actor at the leading Shakespeare company in the United States is a statuesque African-American man of extraordinary prowess and sensitivity who is, with his seasoned company mates, doing some of the best classical theatre anywhere at the moment.

Hyperbole? On the contrary, Derrick Lee Weeden and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland have raised the artistic bar for themselves, and the past few seasons have represented a creative peak for both: In last year's sweeping mainstage production of Lorraine Hansberry's seldom-performed Les Blancs, Weeden nailed the meaty role of Tshembe Matoshe, a brilliant, Western-educated African with a Hamlet-like calling to return to his homeland and avenge colonial wrongs.

And this year he is playing the role: Shakespeare's earnest military fool, Othello, whom Weeden steeps in a warrior's pride and a lover's anguish and renders with a voice like a cello in Tony Taccone's spare, heartrending production.

"I've worked on this play for 20 years," said Weeden, off-stage a tall but not overbearing man with a Greek mask of a face and huge, sad eyes; he played Othello once years before, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. "Othello is basically the hardest role in the canon to make work. It's overclimaxed; his arc is so long. There's a reason that Stanislavski focused his book Building a Character on Othello, for arcing and modulation and restraint. For me, it's really about how to stay it, how not to blow it, how to keep it going in different forms."

For Weeden, it's not a play about jealousy per se. Echoing the insights of James Earl Jones, who called Othello's plight not jealousy but "tragic confusion," Weeden said, "The key for me is in the lines, 'Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee! and when I love thee not/Chaos is come again.' Again—all the early stuff in the play is about how Othello has been a soldier since he was seven years old, he's been in slavery, he's had all these horrific things happen, he has all this scarring, so that's the life he knows-and then he has this light in his life, Desdemona. Then to have it turn, as he believes, means he's going back to all that stuff, and he can't go back. In killing her, he's killing himself."

Such a psychologized reading belies Weeden's training in Southern Methodist University's M.F.A. acting program under Jack Clay, where the stress was on voice and body work and the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Shepard. And while I've seen few actors onstage upon whom a character's inner life registers as richly and spontaneously as on Weeden, he is clearly an actor versed to his marrow in speech, text, and movement.

In repertory with Othello, he's also playing Hedley, a crazed, pathetic old street vendor in 1940s Pittsburgh, in August Wilson's Seven Guitars—a boldly unlikely casting move by director Kenny Leon. Costume and makeup aside, Hedley is played by a physically different actor altogether; articulate arms and a noble if unclear head seem to be the centers of Weeden's Othello, the broken-down Hedley's center is in his clogged, tubercular chest, as he hunches intently stocking his cart or furrowing a small garden.

But all these roles—Othello, Hedley, last year's virile Matoshe—have something in common. While he's played his share of classic urban or Southern-inflected African-American roles, and more than his share of Shakespearean parts of all kinds, Weeden brings a unique onstage power, rooted in his voice and physiognomy, to larger-than-life Mediterranean, Caribbean, and African characters, and this quality is nowhere more unexpectedly resonant than in Shakespeare. Weeden seems to tap some ancient stream in which the classics are not merely European or American or Greek, and in which the voice of the African Diaspora clearly and deeply belongs.

No Fluke

"For years, as a younger actor, I read reviews by people like John Simon that we, African-Americans, shouldn't be doing Shakespeare," recalled Weeden, a military brat born in Panama and raised all over the world by his African-American/Cherokee father and West Indian/Irish mother. "My sense of dealing with that is to say, Hey, we have a tradition. My mother speaks English in a wonderful way; you hear phrases that are directly Shakespearean phrases, the semantics and everything. That's what my ear hears.

"And I think of all the great African-American Shakespeare actors—James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, James Marshall, Ira Aldridge. I look to those people as much as I do to the thrill of hearing Paul Scofield speak. It's as if to say that these plays are from one country and one time, and we weren't there. But in 1600, Elizabeth banned all Negroes, Negresses, octaroons, etc., because there were so many in England. All the first black people in America came from Spain and England and Portugal before they came from Africa. We were there.

"The more I've worked on this play, the more I believe one thing: Shakespeare knew Africans. Also, that Othello is Shakespeare; it's so close to the bone. You read the sonnets—his jealousy, the dark lady. It's him. And I never saw it until a few months ago."

Company Man

Theatre and its practitioners often seem starved for self-worth. Even among much good theatre I see, there is an indefinable quality of it not being enough somehow-not for the people onstage, and certainly not enough for us in the audience. In L.A., it's easy to spot the culprit in actors' need for a showcase to the local industry; in New York, it is the feeling of high-volume trade, and in regional theatre, there is often the attenuated air of politically correct controlled experiments. The only place I've consistently felt that theatre was an end in itself, both aesthetically and professionally, was in my two visits to Ashland.

As much credit as I should give artistic director Libby Appel and her associates, Tim Bond and Penny Metropulos, and the vigorous artistic staff there, I get this feeling of belonging in the festival's large and loyal audience most viscerally from the actors, who look like they belong on the stage. Maybe that's because they do: A company of more than 60 actors, they're on Equity LORT contracts almost year-round, working in as many as three plays apiece-many of them for many years now. Weeden estimated he's averaged between 200 and 250 performances a year for the last 12 years (nine of those at OSF), so one believes him when he says, "I've gotten to grow here."

And if Weeden exemplifies the stage-worthiness of the OSF actor, there are so many others in whose work I've experienced as much awe, delight, intellectual pleasure, and pure entertainment value as I've ever gotten from any so-called movie stars. There are the comic powerhouses: the impossibly gleeful Catherine Lynn Davis, whose hyperventilating giggle makes her Roxie Hart, in this year's Chicago, seem somehow diabolically innocent; the snappily droll Tony DeBruno, who even when he uses broad strokes—as the cynical reporter in Chicago, as a befuddled vendor in The Comedy of Errors—remains a study in comic delicacy; the remarkably malleable G. Valmont Thomas, a meek, clumsy Flute in last year's Midsummer and a show-stealing Red in this year's Seven Guitars, and tall, preposterous David Kelly, last year's daffy Bottom in Midsummer and one of the officious gods in this year's The Good Person of Setzuan.

And there are dramatic masters, starting at the top with Weeden, and including Anthony Heald, whose plays a fiesty, feral Iago to Weeden's Othello and a hollowed-out, melancholy John Rosmer in Rosmersholm, and Robynn Rodriguez, a rueful Emilia in Othello and a tart landlady in Good Person.

Of course, such distinctions melt away with these versatile actors. Was Ray Porter's scruffy, effrontive Puck in Midsummer entirely a comic creation? Not if you count his moving closing speech. And how to classify a performance as full yet human-scaled as BW Gonzalez's achingly beatific Shen Te/Shui Ta in Good Person? How to bottle the infinite variety of an actor like Dan Donohue, who gave us a glam Prince Hal, a comically impatient Ezra Pound, and a simpering Restoration fop, all last year?

Weeden himself is the first to attribute his own onstage power to the collective bonding of the company.

"What you're seeing here is a company for real," Weeden said. "It's not about a performance, it's not about how I can make the audience laugh. The aesthetic is about the script-how do we tell the story? At our best, that's what we go for; otherwise, I'd rather be doing something else. If I can't take this great script by this great playwright and try to tell it fully with 20 other people-if it's just about me showing off or getting my laughs or trying to get an agent-it makes no sense.

"What I love is when people leave talking about the play."

Sep 20, 2016

A Goat and Two Lizards

Patrick J. Adams, Cynthia Mace, Brian Kerwin, and James Eckhouse in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Mark Taper Forum in 2005.
I've seen a fair amount of Edward Albee's work in my time, indeed the majority of his major plays, in one production or another, and Virginia Woolf in several (I loved the most recent Broadway revival, and I also share Ben Brantley's awe for a special out-of-time staged reading with Uta Hagen, Jonathan Pryce, and Mia Farrow, though on the West Coast I saw Peter Gallagher as Nick; I talked to Hagen about it here).

I think I must have reviewed his work elsewhere (and I did speak to him to this one brief, memorable time), but it turns out that the only instances I can recover from the Internet quicksand are a pair from 2005, during the summer of which I moved to New York after years in L.A. So the first is of a great production of The Goat at the L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, the second of a very fine Broadway revival of Seascape. I'm hard pressed to think of two more different plays in his oeuvre; in any case it's an unalloyed pleasure to recall them, and of their residing, synchronistically, on other side of a major cleavage in my own life.

I find myself agreeing with Tracy Letts, who in a lovely tribute for American Theatre wrote, "The real reason you pay money to hear what he had to say is because of Mr. Albee’s aching, generous love. It is the bedrock of his work...It might be the disappointed love of a crushed romantic, the bitter love of a neglected child, the angry love of a victim of injustice, but as reflected by his characters, that love was pure and primal and it burned hot."

Feb. 14, 2005, L.A. Downtown News

Getting Your Goat

Albee at the Taper Is a Conversation Starter

I always wince slightly when theatergoers or critics praise a play primarily for being a conversation starter, as if the theater's highest purpose were to send us chattering, even arguing, out the door. Surely this can be among the pleasures of any art form. But mere conversation-worthiness is an unreliable barometer of artistic substance or merit; whether you have a good long chat after a show is as much a matter of your company as the subject. And who hasn't delighted in a good kvetch about a terrible play, concert or film?

Still, it must be said that as a bald-faced dare and a provocation, the likes of which we seldom see in mainstream theater--or mainstream anything, for that matter--Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is a corker. A one-act play about a successful middle-aged architect and family man who is in unashamedly carnal love with the animal of the title, it is the very definition of play-as-conversation-piece.

It also happens to be an incisive, brilliantly modulated comedy of middle-class American mores strained to their ultimate extremity, and director Warner Shook's sharp new production at the Mark Taper Forum plants it firmly in the toxic domestic soil which is the unnatural habitat for all of Albee's marital scrimmages (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance). It is a topsy-turvy place where the humor hurts and the horror heals.

We see this immediately in the stony expanse of Michael Olich's set: a purgatorial living room, coldly furnished with tasteful ethnic art and immaculate, unlived-in furniture. It is not a homey haven but an in-between place, a neutral zone where Martin (Brian Kerwin) and Stevie (Cynthia Mace) cross paths to talk innocuously about evening plans, friends' children and the office, and to josh each other in the well-worn way of long-married couples.

But Martin is especially absent-minded, even befuddled today - so much so that he can't even get through a puffy TV interview with his friend Ross (James Eckhouse) without losing track of his thoughts.

What's on Martin's mind, of course, is his new mistress of the pasture. With excruciated equivocation and almost endearing vulnerability, Martin unburdens himself to Ross about Sylvia - his name for the goat he happened to glimpse while house-hunting in the countryside, whose look apparently so powerfully attracted him that he couldn't resist getting more closely acquainted.

This is so absurd that laughter is the only response, at first - until we, along with Ross, Stevie and the couple's teenage son Billy (Patrick J. Adams), realize that Martin is quite earnest, and so is Albee. Then laughter becomes even more desperately needed, as a release of tension and as a shield. "Be serious," Martin pleads with Stevie after a singularly rude and cutting joke. "No, it's too serious for that," she replies. Past wit's end, with nothing to lose, comes wit's second wind.

Albee's own wits never desert him; every time the play threatens to become a one-joke riff on bestiality, or merely a crude twist on the male midlife crisis, he pulls back and takes another angle. A penultimate father/son scene culminates in a rather self-consciously weepy breakdown, but it's the only misstep in the play's deft juggling of the grotesque and the empathic. The cast, particularly the querulous Kerwin and the tightly wound Mace, match the play's unrelenting dissonance note for note.

One might question whether the family's pre-goat life must be portrayed retrospectively as an idyll of happy wedlock and supportive parenthood. This may be Albee's version of a sick joke on "normalcy" - that such fulsome domestic bliss must portend something radically amiss. But the main function of his sketchiness about the family's past is to heighten the contrasts and keep our focus on the present conflict rather than trying to second-guess motivations or back-story.

It also bolsters one of the play's more dubious and unsettling themes: the absence of causality, of consequence, of meaning. "Nothing is connected to anything else," Martin says near the end. "Things happen." This is as bleak as Albee has ever been, and once the squirms and the jokes about "animal husbandry" subside - once we're done, in other words, with all those lively conversations about the play - we're left with the sulfurous aftertaste of apocalypse.

Far from a talking point, that's a conversation stopper.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is at the Taper through March 20, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or

Frederick Weller, Elizabeth Marvel, George Grizzard, and Frances Sternhagen in Seascape at the Booth in 2005.


Nov. 22, 2005,

Can a lizard cry? That we find ourselves wondering this, let alone forming such a thought in the first place, is a testament to the uncanny artistry of Edward Albee, whose 1975 oddity Seascape has the writer’s signature blend of provocation, pretension, and put-on. Director Mark Lamos’ splendid new Lincoln Center revival adds another shade that helps this strange, lopsided meditation blow by as smoothly as a sea breeze: playfulness.

The light tone seems proper, since Seascape is essentially Albee’s vacation play, in which he takes the sort of long-married couple his plays usually confine to domestic purgatory and sets them loose on an unidentified beach for a little R and R. This being Albee, these letters could stand for regret and recrimination, as Nancy (Frances Sternhagen) and Charlie (George Grizzard) rehearse a familiar argument over how to spend their twilight years and, by extension, their lives. It’s never too late in the day, though: Michael Yeargan’s set, a furrowed dune with grassy and rocky outcrops, is lit in perpetual afternoon brightness by Peter Kaczorowski.

And while Grizzard and Sternhagen expertly nudge this sweet-and-sour badinage close to an emotional brink or two, the usual notes of marital discord are not the play’s main agenda. Instead, with assured imaginative perversity, Albee introduces a younger couple to the dialogue--of another, quasi-fictional species.

When Sarah (Elizabeth Marvel) and Leslie (Frederick Weller) make their entrance, in Catherine Zuber’s resplendent Komodo Dragon-like costumes, a buzz of absurdist comedy enters the air of the play and never leaves it, even if Albee dances close to the edge of dorky science fiction. These two lizard-people come off less like less literal earthly creatures who’ve crawled from the slimy deep than like aliens from a 1950s film, arriving with a selectively articulate command of English and lots of questions about human behavior, all the better to shine a clarifying light on it.

Watch Leslie’s withering reaction to the news that humans keep their young with them for “18 to 20 years,” or Charlie’s too-eager pouncing on the lizards’ disdain for fish as a form of bigotry. This is observational shtick on the level of a children’s book. Fortunately that’s not all the play has up its sleeve: It makes a case, tenuously but movingly, for a tragic view of human progress, linking the first act’s marital squabble with the lizards’ sense of not belonging, of needing to change but not knowing how.

Lamos’ extraordinarily sensitive cast brings out all these levels, and still more. Grizzard, his gut filling out a blue polo shirt and his voice rasping like a rusty yacht, conveys in Charlie a bone-deep peevishness which has encased his despair like a barnacle. Flitting and poking at it until it’s lanced, as only a loved one is authorized to do, is the bird-like Sternhagen, who brings an unfakeable aplomb to Nancy, even in what she apologetically calls her flare-ups of “petulance.”

Weller and Marvel, coached by movement coordinator Rick Sordelet, slither and preen in a more or less convincing anthropomorphic simulation of reptilian watchfulness and hauteur; there’s an admirable lack of showoff’s fussiness in their performances. Weller works his eyebrows for maximum irony, while Marvel uses her wide, plaintive eyes to accent Sarah’s pathos.

And yes, she’s the one who makes with the tears. While we’re none the wiser by play’s end whether lizards actually do cry (crocodiles, maybe), Seascape does manage to suggest, in its persuasively irrational way, the terrible unknowns and crushing losses they might cry about if they could.

“Seascape,” by Edward Albee, directed by Mark Lamos, at the Booth Theatre.

Aug 31, 2016

How Sondheim Writes

The hoariest question songwriters get asked is: Which comes first, the words or the music? Stephen Sondheim’s answer has always been: the dramatic situation. (With all apologies to Merrily We Roll Along’s Charlie, whose cynical answer is, “Generally, the contract.”) Anthony Tommasini’s tantalizing new story in the Times, posited as “something he’s always wanted to ask,” is a sort of high-toned version of the words-or-music question: Will Sondheim ever write a purely instrumental work?

The student concerti he wrote at Williams, well covered in Steve Swayne’s How Sondheim Found His Sound, are mentioned, as are his film scores for Stavisky and Reds (though not the diverting incidental music he contributed for two plays by Arthur Laurents captured on this collection). Tommasini’s new piece gets from Sondheim a roundabout answer why he won’t be writing a concerto any time soon: He says it’s because he loves the theatre, and so, in much the same way his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II never wrote a novel because he loved the theatre too much, Sondheim doesn’t feel the need to write a symphony, a concerto, a fantasy, etc.

Tommasini gets a little sidetracked by the question of “words qua words,” as Sondheim puts it, which are maninfestly an obsession and a gift of his. But Sondheim quickly wrenches Tommasini back to basics:
He insisted that it was not really the words that generated his musical ideas. “I express the character,” he said. “Let’s see what happens to him. I express it musically. The reason I love Puccini so much is because he understands how music expresses character, which I’m not sure very many opera composers do. They write beautiful tunes. That’s different.”
This reminded me enough of my conversation with Sondheim for American Theatre that I thought it was worth revisiting. Essentially, I think I figured out a version of how Sondheim writes his scores that makes sense to me, and proposed it to him, and he seemed to agree. Film scores are one key to the answer.

He’s talked a lot about how he writes his famous accompaniment figures first (think of “The Little Things You Do Together,” or “A Bowler Hat,” or “Johanna,” for starters), then composes melodies on top of them, rather than working the other way around, as many popular composers do. He also talks a lot about hunkering down with the given dramatic situation, the character, etc., a bit like an actor might. So here's how I got there:

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You’ve also said that you approach playwriting-in-song from an actor’s point of view. Is that always your main way into the material?
STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Yeah, getting to know the character the playwright’s created, and then becoming the character. I’m sure that’s what every songwriter who writes my kind of stuff does. I mean, you have to be an actor—how else do you get inside a character? You act the character, even if you’re just doing it in your living room, even if it’s just in your head. Somebody sets up the pattern of the way the character talks, then there’s a situation: “Okay, this is who she is, now her house has caught fire.” You become that character, and what do you do when a house catches fire?

What interests me is, how do you get from inhabiting that character to writing her music? How do you get from behavior to song?
It’s just that’s the way I think. I don’t really think like a playwright; I really think like a playwright who writes songs. A lot of it has to do with sitting with the book writer and getting the idea of how a scene could be all musicalized, so that by the time I get to writing it, it’s already been plotted to some extent. I don’t even remember how “Chrysanthemum Tea” came into being, but we decided we needed a scene that told what happened after the warships sat in the harbor waiting for a reply. There’s no scene to be written there; in the movies, it would be a montage; and, in fact, what you’re talking about in all these cases is montages, the way you’d do it in a movie. That’s exactly what “God That’s Good!” is, and “Chrysanthemum Tea” and “A Weekend in the Country." These contain scenes that take place over a period of time and occur in different places.

Since you bring up film technique—and you’ve talked about how the first thing you come up with in a song is the accompaniment, not the vocal melody—I wonder if what you’re doing is essentially imagining these scenes like they’re in a movie, and then you start scoring it. Is that a way to think about it?
I think that’s it. Until this conversation, it hadn’t occurred to me. I’m not so much thinking like a playwright, but like somebody writing or directing a movie. That’s exactly right. It’s because I was brought up on movies.
For another illuminating Tommasini take on Sondheim, it’s hard to beat this video from 2010, on the occasion of Sondheim’s 80th birthday.

Jun 3, 2016

The Stew Files

I first saw Stew performing in the mid-1990s with a band improbably named Crazy Sound All-Stars at the Onyx coffeehouse in Los Feliz; I was invited by a college friend, Carey Fosse, who was playing guitar with the band. I distinctly remember a few things about the set: There was a song in 7/4; there was a song, as Stew explained in a bit of signature preamble patter, about an ex-girlfriend's attempt to make him stick around by using an old hoodoo spell that included her putting her menstrual blood in his food; and there was Stew's strong, unmistakeable but lightly worn trickster presence.

I didn't actively follow his and Heidi Rodewald's band, the Negro Problem, in subsequent years, but I almost didn't have to; his raised-eyebrow visage and the band's signature post-Beatles power pop were all over L.A. in the late '90s/early aughts. By the time Passing Strange came around, he and Rodewald were no longer Angelenos, but that city's suburban smog and sunshine still seemed to pulse through their music, and that give me a common frame of reference with them; add in the rock reference points and theatre reference points, and you have a recipe for a long, deep affinity that culminated with my recent piece for the Times about Stew & Heidi's current Public Theatre show The Total Bent.

That's just the latest in a string of pieces I've scribbled about Stew and his work over the years. It began when I was writing for TDF, for whom I interviewed Heidi on the eve of Passing Strange's opening on Broadway, who told me "We're at this point because we didn't think of Broadway," and one of the show's sensational stars, de'Adre Aziza, who said she identified "more as a musician than as an actor" (which sells her talent a bit short---she's great at both). Around the same time I mused in this space about the surprisingly logical convergence of "indie" rock and nonprofit theatre.

Then at American Theatre I wrote this big, honkin' cover story about "band musicals,", in which Stew and Heidi were primary sources, naturally. My conversation with them was so rich, in fact, that I later serialized it in its near-entirety in this space, kicking it off with one of my most popular posts ever, "Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)." The following summer they were preparing an original musical for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Family Album, and I had the chance to write a lengthy piece about that for the OSF subscribers' magazine Illuminations; none of that material is online except for this taste (click the "more information" line).

For the piece about The Total Bent for the paper of record, I had more long, searching talks with Stew about rock, theatre, and religion. In the Times piece I closed this way:
Another pet topic of Stew’s that gets a workout is the intersection of rock and religion, the ostensible battle between God and the devil that’s long been a blues trope. Stew said he “never really got the whole sacred/profane duality. I connected church to rock ’n’ roll so early. There wasn’t like one side or the other.” As one character says in “The Total Bent,” “Blues is just gospel’s last name.”

This is more than simple music criticism; the metaphor is reciprocal. To Stew, the notion of “going into a place completely clean, and coming out all sweaty and filled with the Holy Spirit” aptly describes both a sanctuary and a rock club.

“That makes it impossible for me to criticize believers,” he said, “because I, too, believe in this invisible thing that I can’t point to or explain but I know is there. I can’t point to the chord that made me a better person. It’s not that different.”
The full exchange that was taken from went as follows. Stew explained that the church he grew up in, Messiah Baptist on Adams Blvd. in Los Angeles, was the kind of place where "the Holy Spirit visited; he checked in, but not every Sunday. I think the Holy Ghost spent more time at the storefront church." Messiah's more chilled-out Christianity ("All the questioning, all the gender stuff, the healings---those didn’t happen at my church") meant that's Stew main takeaway was
this idea that I’m going into this place completely clean, and coming out all sweaty and filled with the Holy Spirit. So I never really got the whole scared/profane duality. I connected church to rock 'n' roll so early. There wasn’t like one side or the other. The music was always rockin' in my church. I learned to sing in church, I learned to play guitar. All my church friends were black rock geeks; on the surface, they were good boys, but they were smoking pot and listening to white rock music. I mean, my first joint was passed to me in the basement of that church. I had a little church band for a minute where we were seeing how much we could get away with. One time we did the Velvets' "Sunday Morning." We wrote some original songs. We weren’t heretics.
That rang with me for a lot of reasons, the most immediate being that the Sunday after Lou Reed died, I sang both "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" with my own little church band in Brooklyn. As LP records taught us, it all comes full circle.

Apr 11, 2016

Dangerous Nerves: Laurie Metcalf

This interview originally appeared in the April 12, 2001 issue of Back Stage West.

"How's my light?" asked Laurie Metcalf as the cover photo for this story was being taken, and then she realized aloud: "That's the first time I've asked that in my career. My characters are never the kind who worry about their light."

That's a double-edged testament to the niche this brilliant fortysomething actress has carved out for herself, first at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, of which she was an original member, then on New York stages, in film, and in series TV, most notably Roseanne and currently Norm. On screen, her barely contained manic energy gets her cast consistently as the sister, the co-worker, the sidekick, the nutty lady next door—she's made her career as a character actor, in other words. And like most great character actors, Metcalf honed her talent on the stage, so that even when she's cast essentially as "herself"—as so many actors are in TV—she delivers more than a bundle of quirks and nerves. Her acting conveys a strong point of view, a perspective on human striving and failing, that comes through whether the role is a big departure from her personality.

That strong point of view would seem to have been with her from the start, and it could emerge in the most unlikely ways: Her Steppenwolf colleague Glenne Headly told Back Stage West last fall that she first saw Metcalf do one line as a maid in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound: "All she had to do was say, 'Black or white, madam?'" recalled Headly. "She conveyed so much about that character with that one line. She was a very hateful maid, and it was so funny. I thought to myself, This person has comic genius. And I hadn't really ever seen it in person, onstage. I got scared for a second because I thought, She's that good—and on just one line."

Indeed, while Metcalf won three Emmys for playing Jackie, Roseanne's comically neurotic sibling on that long-running sitcom, there's a sense that folks without regular access to a Chicago stage over the past two decades haven't seen her best work. We've read about her take on Laura in The Glass Menagerie (as a clumping, slightly deranged cripple), about her searing portrayal of the young hooker in Balm in Gilead, and about her legendary double-casting in Libra as both Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Marguerite, and Oswald's frightening associate, David Ferrie. However, L.A. theatre audiences have only seen her sympathetic turn in Garry Marshall's Wrong Turn at Lungfish and in a handful of unlikely roles in Justin Tanner's stoned screwball comedies at the Cast Theatre.

Now, at last, we get the chance to see Metcalf assay a meaty role in a world premiere at one of L.A.'s major resident theatres: She'll appear in Jane Anderson's Looking for Normal, starting this week at the Geffen Playhouse, as Irma, the wife of a man (played by Beau Bridges) who undergoes a sex-change operation. "It has a chance of being a really, really interesting production," she told me, early in the rehearsal process under director Ron Lagomorsino. And, while the roles of Jackie and of Laurie Freeman (on Norm) are essentially versions of the real Metcalf, Irma, though Midwestern, has qualities and views "that are very hard for me to identify with, so that's interesting to work on."

Interesting to work on—this could be the phrase that sums up this Midwestern former secretary's work ethic and questing intelligence. When we met with her recently at the Geffen, where her Steppenwolf colleagues Randall Arney and Stephen Eich serve as artistic director and managing director, respectively, we mentioned another Steppenwolfer, John Mahoney, who recently appeared at the Geffen in The Weir. She mentioned the many projects Mahoney has going and called him good-naturedly "a workaholic." That seemed as good a place to start as any.

Back Stage West: Are you a workaholic, too?
Laurie Metcalf: Yeah, I am. I'm getting away from it now, though. I guess it started coming straight from college, when we all formed the company and had tons of energy. We just weren't happy unless we were rehearsing a play during the day and performing a different one that night, overlapping constantly. We didn't know what to do with ourselves when we weren't doing that. It probably comes from that. But as I've gotten older, I've mellowed a little in my workaholicism. I'm able to enjoy some time off, y'know?

BSW: I've read that you started acting when you were young, putting on plays with neighborhood kids.
Metcalf: They weren't even plays; I'd never been to a play. They were sort of lip-synching to records. The choice of records was very limited. For some reason we had an album of the musical Gypsy, and so I learned the songs from there and would lip-synch them and charge money.

BSW: So you've felt the urge to perform since you were young?
Metcalf: It is odd that I was doing that at such a young age—under 10—because I was so shy. When I went to high school, there was a drama club, and I was too shy and horrified to audition for anything, but I did, finally, in my junior year, work up the nerve to audition. I got in a play. I found the auditioning was the hard part. The play—I just sort of had a connection to it. It was very broad, the character, which I guess sort of colored how I still go about things. It was a comedy. I got a couple of laughs in a very small part in, I think, Auntie Mame.

I wouldn't say I was hooked, though, because I went to college as a German major, not knowing what the hell I was going to do with that. Being as practical as I am, I thought that I would never, ever major in theatre, because it was a dead-end street financially. I knew what the odds were. When I did hook up with my fellow Steppenwolf actors in college, I was in my junior year. We all formed the company in Highland Park, and I ended up majoring in theatre sort of by default.

BSW: Was that when you got hooked?
Metcalf: By then I was. My daughter is 17, and she's looking at colleges, and she's sort of flirted with the idea of being an actress. I know she could do it if she wanted to, but she wants to find if she likes something better. I sometimes imagine that I was hooked on acting from the beginning—but then I look back and realize, no, in high school it was really a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, because I was focused on what I should major in to make a living.

BSW: Are you encouraging your daughter's interest in acting?
Metcalf: Well, I had a pretty cushy ride. I wouldn't have done it on my own. I did it with a group of people who had all the ambition as a group; there was someone holding my hand the whole way. I know that I would be a secretary in St. Louis right now if it weren't for Steppenwolf. I'm absolutely sure of it. In fact, I did enjoy being a secretary very much. That was my day job when we were starting the company. I could type really fast. If my daughter Zoe does end up acting at all, it'll probably be the same way, just dabbling in it; then if she dabbles in it, she might get hooked.

BSW: You mentioned your broad approach to roles, and I think of the production of The Glass Menagerie I've read about. I wish I could have seen that.
Metcalf: I'd love to see that, too. It fit us to a tee when we did it. I remember my character, Laura, saying, "I'm going to be 23 in June," and that was me. I didn't just play her with the physical defect—we went all the way with it. There was something mentally very, very wrong with her. Sometimes when you see the show done, Laura is very pretty, and maybe if she parted her hair on the other side she'd have a boyfriend. This Laura, when you saw her from the very beginning, had no hope at all. It made it more devastating for everybody.

BSW: But can you talk about your approach to roles? You call it broad, Gary Sinise calls it "wacky."
Metcalf: I do attack roles 100 percent. When I do that, I have a lot of energy. Usually, onstage is when I have the most energy in my life. The rest of the time, I'm pretty… I don't know, I have pent-up energy in me all the time, and when I'm onstage, boom, it comes out. Having all that energy and trying to rein it in a little and making sure that it's at least real, the performance becomes, I guess, in a drama sort of aggressive, or in a comedy pretty out there. I don't know how to do any role I have unless it's just full force. A character like the lead in Pot Mom—y'know, she's all doped up, so physically, in some scenes, I had to be more relaxed than others. But usually I can find some point where all of that physical energy comes out. I like to, technique-wise, put a spin on things, do an odd line reading somewhere—do something when you least expect it.

BSW: It sounds like that would make you a strong auditioner—in terms of making strong choices about a part and committing to them.
Metcalf: Commitment—it's true. If you commit to something, you show the people you're auditioning for how that part should be played sometimes. You change people's minds.

I became a very weak auditioner, actually. I'd been doing theatre with my own company for I don't know how many years before I auditioned for a job outside that actually paid money. We were in New York, doing Balm in Gilead, and I had an audition for my first movie. I didn't have an agent. It was for Desperately Seeking Susan, and it was a fun audition; we had to improv a little. I was relaxed. I'd never had to audition in the 10 years prior because we just cast ourselves. I got the part; that was great. Then I got an agent, and he told me how much the part paid, and it was a staggering amount to me at the time because it was movie money, not theatre money. From then on, I would choke in auditions because I knew what was riding on it. I was a single mom at the time, and it became too important. That importance outweighed the fun of the actual audition. Ever since then, I've had a mental block about auditioning.

BSW: Because of the stakes?
Metcalf: Even though they don't matter to me anymore, something got a little tainted for me back then, and I've never been as loose as I had been before.

BSW: Did you ever have a career plan as an actor—theatre, then film, then TV?
Metcalf: No. I never had a plan.

BSW: So you moved to L.A. when you got Roseanne?
Metcalf: No, I moved out here without anything. I moved out here, granted, not just to do theatre but thinking maybe options would be better for movies than in Chicago. By that time, I had done a couple of small movie parts. The only reason I went in on Roseanne was because it was being cast by two CDs, Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, who cast me in Desperately Seeking Susan, and I really love their casting because they really get out there and see a ton of people and use fresh faces. They said, "I think you'll like this role." But they hadn't even really written the sister's part yet, so I had to audition with Roseanne's material for the show.

TV hadn't crossed my mind. I don't know why. I never had a plan or had my eye on something. I got the part and I didn't really know what I had. Billy and Risa sat me down and said, "This is a great opportunity for you; you're not realizing it right now, but you will. You need to take this job." So I did. I had this stigma in my head about getting locked into one character for five years that you would be typecast in forever. Not that that's a bad thing; it's not a bad thing at all. I would just hear other people say it was a bad thing.

BSW: So how was it?
Metcalf: It was the best job I ever had. It was with a group that was kind of like a little theatre group—kind of raunchy, kind of incestuous, just like the one I was coming out of. We had fun every day. I liked everything about working in TV except for the tape day.

BSW: Why?
Metcalf: I learned to realize that I don't like cameras. I still don't. So, even though we had nine seasons on Roseanne and we've had two and a half on Norm, Fridays for me are just a tiny bit traumatic. I don't like the pressure of it. I love the rest of the week, the rehearsing and the hanging out with people. But tape day. It's just knowing, I guess, that this one take that you're doing is the one they're going to use and it's permanent. That's why I like theatre, I guess. I'll always prefer theatre over anything else. That's just a fact. I think it's because it's where I started and I feel more comfortable in it. I feel more in control in it. I feel more prepared when I do it. I like the instant feedback. I like everything about theatre.

BSW: We interviewed Glenne Headly last fall, and one thing she said about you was, "The funny thing is, Laurie says that she's always really scared. But she seems, definitely, to have the most at-ease performances."
Metcalf: I am actually at ease in a play. She knows I'm ill at ease in movies and TV; I'm doing everything I can to cover up my being totally self-aware, monitoring myself. It becomes not fun. The performance is all about covering up that other thing. I can be free and loose during rehearsals, and then on Friday, half of me shuts down and it becomes a task to copy what I did on those days when I was feeling more confident, and it's all because there's a camera staring at me. After all these years, I can't get past it.

BSW: Even with single-camera work? In features?
Metcalf: Well, a movie is so out of sequence and you probably haven't rehearsed anyway, and if you can't figure out why your character would say a line, they just change it for you. You're like, "Wait, wait, wait! I could figure it out if we maybe could do it in sequence once. But OK, you want to change it, that'd be easier." I guess I also feel more free onstage, more confident onstage, because it's just a one-time-only shared experience between about 500 people and then it doesn't exist again. I can do anything onstage. I can be nude onstage. I can be mean and cruel and anything the part demands, because that's where I feel it's really not me.

Almost everything I've done, at least on TV, which is where I've worked the most, it's kind of just me. I have nothing to hide behind. Jackie dressed like me, looked like me, talked like me; they would tinker with myriad different jobs, and whatever they would see where I had strengths in comedy, they would just accentuate that. But basically it was just me. Same thing on Norm. It's more like having to stand for a portrait. It's you. There's nothing to hide behind like there is, for me, in theatre.

BSW: Glenne Headly also said she felt we hadn't seen the best of Laurie Metcalf—that you're more versatile than we know. Do you think you're too versatile for your own good?
Metcalf: I think I'm probably thought of in film and TV as actually very limited—the comic relief. I've been lucky to do a few small parts that have been dramatic in a couple of movies. Internal Affairs was straight. JFK. But I'm wrapping up my movie career.

BSW: Really?
Metcalf: My God, the competition now for roles everywhere is so strong because there isn't that stigma about TV anymore, so there's major film people coming to work on TV, and jobs are so few and far between, anyway. If I do happen to get offered some small film role, I do think twice about it, because I don't really enjoy the process. What I do enjoy is working with somebody I wouldn't necessarily have the opportunity to work with anywhere else, like Laurence Fishburne [Always Outnumbered]. That becomes the interest to me now, rather than the part.

BSW: How did your association with playwright Justin Tanner start?
Metcalf: I read a little blurb about a play called Pot Mom that sounded funny. I took my daughter and a friend. I love little tiny, 50-seat houses. We liked it so much. And there's one part in the play where the characters are watching TV, and I heard my own voice. They had used a clip of Roseanne and Jackie talking back and forth on TV. I thought, "Now, they didn't do that just because I'm here. That must be part of the play." And it was. In fact, Justin told me later he was thinking maybe he should cut it, seeing that I was in the audience, thinking I'd think it was sucking up or something.

Anyway, we liked it so much that we waited out front to see the actors. I told one of the actors, "I love this little tiny space. Tell the playwright if he ever needs anybody to fill in, any time…" and she said, "Well, he's right here." And there he was; he's so shy. He was like a nervous wreck. We talked for a while. And he took me up on it: He called me, this was a lot later, he was going to remount Pot Mom and would I play the friend, and I said, "Of course." It's a great style, with the overlaps a mile a minute, especially in that small space. I had to work really hard to get up to speed with the rest of the cast.

BSW: Then you took the play to Chicago. How did it fare at Steppenwolf?
Metcalf: Not well. It was kind of an experiment to see if his style could translate to a bigger theatre. It was 200 seats, a big old empty black box, a difficult space. The style is tougher to duplicate in a larger space. The other experiment was to cast kids in the roles of the kids, rather than 30-year-olds. It becomes not as funny. It's a little bothersome. It really changes the tone.

BSW: Do you have any advice to young actors? What do you tell Zoe?
Metcalf: Dabble in it. Get a boyfriend in it. Make a group. Have the group lead you to the next step. I'm not a good person to ask for advice, because I did it the haphazard, cushy, accidental way. No plan, no aggressiveness. Because we were that little incestuous group for so long up in a suburb of Chicago where nobody knew us or came to see us except for relatives for quite a while, we would play parts that we wouldn't get cast in in any other place. And we did get better because of that. I owe a great deal of credit for that to our audiences, for allowing us to play 13-year-olds and 80-year-olds and sort of going along with us, humoring us, in those kind of stabs in the dark. We got to stretch; I played the mom in True West. That did make us all better.

We had a connection through a shared sense of humor and a big willingness to give 100 percent, not knowing what was going to come of it. It was just going to be for the summer. That's another reason I'm a bad person to ask for advice. Who knows if we'd be further along—the company, the theatre itself as it exists in Chicago right now, with its millions-of-dollars budget and great, fabulous, state-of-the-art theatre that we built from the ground up, and the type of directors that we attract to come in and the fact that it's got a worldwide reputation—who knows if we'd be further along if we had, right out of college, planned for all that? I kind of doubt it. We would've busted apart.

BSW: Are there still great roles you want to play?
Metcalf: I've never read a part that I didn't want to play. I want to play them all!

Jan 14, 2016

From the Review Vaults: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children: Alexandria Wailes, Streep, Geoffrey Arend, and Frederick Weller. (photo by Michal Daniel)
Improbably, Brecht's Mother Courage is in the news--the theatre news, at least. If you put a gun to my head to name my favorite plays, this complicated, sprawling, funny, bleak play about the business of war would be near or at the top. So I had a rooting interest as I read about the battle over Classic Stage Company's current production, which Tonya Pinkins departed very publicly (Kecia Lewis has taken her place)--my agenda being that this great play get done, well, and that the discourse around it might reflect what I know and love about the play and about Brecht.

So for American Theatre I tried to contribute to the conversation by talking to composer Duncan Sheik, by publishing a thoughtful piece by McFeely Sam Goodman about the issues raised by Pinkins's protest, and then by speaking to Pinkins herself for our podcast. Whether the discourse has been elevated by these contributions or not, I leave to you.

What's come up often in all these conversations, and in my mind, is the last time Mother Courage rolled her cart around Manhattan (in a major production): In 2006, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, for the Public's starry Kushner/Tesori adaptation. I reviewed it for (back when they had a critic--I was the last of them--long story there), and recently dredged it up from the Internet swamps. Let's just say it brings back fond memories, though I was a bit of an outlier (most critics were much cooler to it than I). (And while I'm backlinking, I will note again here my hearty disappointment with the documentary about the making of the Public's Mother Courage, Theater of War.)

Without further review, from August 2006.

Will Mother Courage and Her Children ever get a better English-language production than the one now at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park? I doubt it—and after this deluxe, definitive rendition of Brecht's much-revered but little-revived masterpiece, it may not need one. But the best news is that a mounting this engrossingly, almost embarrassingly excellent may finally, 50 years after Brecht's death, make the works of the prickly German theatrical revolutionary hot properties on American stages as they really never have been, apart from his musicals with Kurt Weill. 
What this sweeping, impassioned Courage does better than any Brecht revival I've ever seen is to give the author's vision, and his vaunted epic-theater style, its full due, without either mummifying it in purported Brechtian orthodoxy or saucing it up with extra-contemporary seasoning. Just staging a play as rich and rangy as this ought to be enough, but there's an awful temptation for left-leaning artists to use Brecht—and especially this, his most stinging indictment of the link between war and capitalism—as a cudgel against today's ever-sobering headlines. But playwright Tony Kushner, whose new English version has all the bark and bite we could wish and then some, and director George C. Wolfe understand that this towering play resonates backward as much as forward, from the now-arcane Catholic/Protestant/Habsburg skirmishes of the 17th century's Thirty Years War that are its backdrop to the bloodbaths of the 20th century, some of which Brecht knew intimately, up to today's uneasy wartime footing. At its bleak, unflinching best, Mother Courage gives us a sense of war as a state of being, almost a state of nature—a condition much of the world knows far better than we oblivious, forgetful Americans, but for how long? 
For the craven, troop-following entrepreneur nicknamed Courage (Meryl Streep), the war can never go on long enough. Though she shows us heartrending traces of the less jaded firebrand she might once have been, the Courage we meet is every bit the "hyena of the battlefield" one character uncharitably labels her: a cackling scavenger who subsists, barely, on what scraps of opportunity she can find. The children who haul her along in her horseless supply wagon are a sadder, unluckier lot: The strapping brute Eilif (Frederick Weller), the daft Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), and the mute Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes) have not been endowed by nature, nor by Courage's fitfully protective nurture, with the wit or wisdom to survive. Pulled into Courage's arm's-length orbit are a sensitive chaplain (Austin Pendleton) and a cynical cook (Kevin Kline), who compete slyly for her attentions. A wizened prostitute (Jenifer Lewis) with her own well-honed survival skills flits into the tableau at key moments.
The play's vast, near-Shakespearean scope of years and locations (and three-hour running time) belies the fact that it's really just a series of hard-nosed negotiations with ever-diminishing returns. The only respites from this relentless downhill trajectory are Brecht's slashing humor, here given a fresh zing in Kushner's deft translation, and a handful of songs, reset here in Jeanine Tesori's jauntily accomplished new score, which builds on the folksy modernism of Brecht collaborators Eisler and Weill but adds its own special strains of blues grit and melodic grandeur. Tesori does especially well by the jagged rhythms of the lyrics, with terse meters as spiky as barbed wire, particularly in the magisterial first-act closer, "The Song of the Great Capitulation," and its bitter sequel, delivered with fierce precision by Kline, "The Song of Solomon." 
Streep's performance is worthy of its own lengthy treatise. Suffice to say here that she climbs the heights of this complicated, paradoxical role with restless urgency and intelligence, bringing her bottomless reservoir of physical, vocal and emotional shades to bear. It's a virtuoso turn of the best kind—entirely in service to the play's vision and in tune with its rough music. And this is not the Meryl Show; her costars shine in their own right, not only in her reflected light. Pendleton makes his pathetic cleric a crashing bundle of nerves, surprisingly volatile despite his benign mien. Lewis owns her scenes as a whore with a heart of tin, particularly a haunting wrong-note blues number that recalls the wrenching power of Tesori's score for Caroline, or Change. Kline exudes his usual coolly virile presence, but with a starker, more desperate edge. Weller, Arend, and Wailes each etch distinct variations on the theme of pitiably stunted, misdirected youth.
The production's aesthetic is firmly and redolently last-century, with Riccardo Hernández's distressed-wood set suggesting Courage's wagon writ large and Marina Draghici's costumes evoking the sort of makeshift ensembles that could be bought off the same cart. There's a single-mindedness of purpose in this production, in other words, but it's never monotonous because it so fully renders the mottled poetry of rage, irony and defeat that is Brecht's special métier. It's a voice that our increasingly sensation-addled, endlessly self-referential American theater has missed or misheard for too long, and that desperately belongs on our stages in serious times.