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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

Melissa Errico Is Going “Crazy”

Melissa Errico

Melissa Errico

Inside her new cabaret at 54 Below

Recently, on a chilly April afternoon in her downtown studio/office, Broadway veteran Melissa Errico prepared for At the Corner of 54th & Crazy, the cabaret she’ll perform tonight and Thursday-Saturday at 54 Below.

As she set up her music stand and shuffled through loads of sheet music, she was relaxed but focused in that striking NYC power-mom way, laughing while sharing anecdotes about her young daughters.

But when she started singing, Errico transformed, replacing the casual parent in yoga pants with a fully committed performer. Rehearsing “No More,” the usually-male duet from Into the Woods, her head seemed to dip back instinctively with ecstatic energy before her eyes focused intently ahead. She swayed when the tune swelled, and her voice, somehow both earthy and ethereal, lent an almost magical richness to the song’s melancholy story.

A few moments later she presented a third self, the intent scholar, when she stopped to discuss the thorny lyrics, working through a slew of ideas with accompanist Tedd Firth.

Errico will present all her facets in her cabaret, which will mix well-known favorites and lesser-known tunes, all within a rotating set list to render each show dynamic and unique. “What I love about cabaret rules is that there are no rules,” she says. “I’ll be telling theatre war stories, as it wouldn’t be a Broadway career without disasters. And as a mother of three kids under seven, married to a traveling husband, you need a sense of humor. But when you have a home life, you realize how bumpy show business is. It’s all crazy. And wonderful. This is my way of telling my story. That’s where the title of the show came from.”

The daughter of a pianist, Errico often listened to her father at the famed Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. She started her own career not only by being signed to a major record label, but also by performing at Café Carlyle and Birdland, as well as downtown with her brother. This legacy of musicianship, plus years on Broadway in hits and misses alike, have now led Errico to create her production with a renewed focus on storytelling.

“I’ve wound my way back and returned to the core of my interest in theatre,” she says. “That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a tasty jazz player or rhythm somewhere: I was a nightclub rat, and I want my kids to experience that, too—seeing mommy in her crazy pantyhose and lipstick. But I’m not trying to make a musical statement like I was when I was single and downtown. Now, I’m going back to my roots as an actress, with a lot more life experience.” [Read more →]

April 22, 2014   No Comments

I’m Lost On the Set, and It’s Good for the Play

Beowulf Boritt's set for Act One

Beowulf Boritt’s set for Act One

Inside Beowulf Boritt’s remarkable design for Broadway’s Act One

People have actually gotten lost on the set of Act One.

Now on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont, the show adapts Moss Hart’s landmark memoir about his childhood in the Bronx, his early love of theatre, and his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman, which launched the playwriting partnership behind You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

That’s a sprawling story, and playwright-director James Lapine tells it on a massive scale. His play covers dozens of years and features over 30 characters, including Hart himself at three different ages.

And the set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, reflects the scope of the script. Built on a 60-foot, 70,000-pound turntable—which was created specifically for this production—it’s a three-story colossus that’s essentially divided into six wedges, each with its own set of playing spaces and rooms. Throughout the show, as the story changes locations and time periods, the turntable revolves among the wedges, swiftly transitioning us from one area to the next.

That gives literal propulsion to the plot. For instance, when twentysomething Moss walks from his tenement apartment to a Broadway theatre, we might see the actor Santino Fontana stroll across several wedges while the set turns. By the time he exits into the Broadway section of the structure, the tenement section has receded into the darkness.

As smooth as they look from the house, however, these transitions require an enormous amount of coordination, and it took the performers and crew quite a while to get their bearings. “It’s incredibly confusing when you get inside because it’s so big and moves so smoothly,” Boritt says. “You can be in the middle of the thing and be spinning and not really be aware of it, because you’re surrounded by the set on all sides. In the first couple of weeks, continually, people would walk off thinking they were stage right and actually they were stage left. We ended up hanging colored lights—green on the stage left wing and red on the stage right wing—so that people have something to orient themselves with.”

But for Boritt, a less ambitious design would shortchange both the story and the production. “We did talk about, ‘What if we do it with two tables and ten chairs?’” he says. “And we did do workshops of it that way. But we felt like the Beaumont is such a grand theatre, you can’t strip the show down that much and still have it fill the space.” [Read more →]

April 21, 2014   No Comments

6 Hours, 48 Playwrights, and the Entire Bible

Colin Waitt & cast

Colin Waitt & cast

How dozens of writers came together to create The Mysteries

When invited to pitch a new project to The Flea Theater following his epic staging of These Seven Sicknesses—a five-hour, 40-actor adaptation of Sophocles’ seven surviving tragedies—director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar suggested something modest: Nothing less than “the entire history of the salvation of mankind,” he says.

Flea artistic director Jim Simpson and producing director Carol Ostrow had been considering another marathon event, perhaps around the subject of Christmas, to once again showcase the Bats, their youthful resident acting company. Iskandar picked up on their Biblical cue and suggested refracting the Old and New Testaments through the lenses of an eclectic group of living playwrights.

“I got a green light within 45 minutes,” he says. “I thought it was the maddest thing I’ve ever dared.”

Clocking in at nearly six hours and featuring 54 performers and 48 playwrights, the resulting project—The Mysteries, running through May 25 on The Flea’s mainstage—borrows from the so-called “mystery plays” phenomenon of the Middle Ages, when Bible stories were performed in vernacular style from open-air wagons in towns across Europe.

Iskandar and his primary partner on the project, dramaturg Jill Rafson, drew from the York Cycle of 47 playlets, the most complete surviving texts of the mystery form, to create an organizing template for their show. But even though the York Cycle, created in 15th-century England, narrows the 66-book Christian Bible to a digestible structure, Iskandar and Rafson were still flirting with dramaturgical chaos as they prepped the project.

“It’s a little bit like herding cats, just trying to keep in contact with this many playwrights,” Rafson says. “Our schedule is so incredibly complicated that I have to be their main source of communication. Every time we did a big run-through, I sent notes to 50 playwrights, individually.”

And that’s just the tip of the collaborative iceberg. According to Iskandar, recent rehearsal reports went out to 161 people.

“You have to be organized, but you also have to surrender,” he says. “You can’t fret that somebody didn’t get a draft in that afternoon, in time for rehearsal. You find something else to do. If you started fretting like that, I think you would feel the anxiety of trying to birth 50 babies simultaneously and making sure that they all try to make sense together.” [Read more →]

April 17, 2014   No Comments

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