Thursday, January 31, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Rudolf II

Yvonne Roen and Timothy McCown Reynolds in Rudolf II
Yvonne Roen, who played Katerina in Rudolf II, the mistress to the emperor and the mother to his children, writes about the experience.  You may also remember Yvonne from Pangs of the Messiah, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Velvet Oratorio, and many other UTC61 productions.


The first step into the theater at the Bohemian National Hall was marked by the sound of shoe leather hitting elegant parquet. The tap echoed against the high ceilinged walls and my eyes traveled to the airy crystal chandeliers. This room invites reverence. Here was enough space for epic lust. Here was enough space for war. Here was enough space for heartbreak. So when Edward Einhorn wrote a script that encompassed power, sex, religion, astronomy, art, and alchemy, within a crumbling empire, here was perfect. Edward had been working on Rudolph II for several years. I first saw it at a table read in 2005. I fell in love with the script and with Katerina, the role I read in it.

The script underwent revisions over the next few years. We finally had a public reading of the script in 2008. Timothy McCown Reynolds came to play the title role and Henry Akona signed on to direct. We staged another public reading, this time at BNH, and in March 2010 we finally got to bring the play to production in that amazing hall. Timothy is a supple and powerful actor. Henry applies fierce intellect, genteel manners, and a naughty wit to directing, and he led us beautifully through rehearsals. By the time we got there, Edward’s script was already strong and he made it stronger through the process. The rest of the company of actors, musicians, technicians, and designers brought life and beauty to each day of building and performing Rudolph II. That ballroom lived up to it’s possibility. Nightly, I eschewed the reverent tap of shoe leather and scampered barefoot through the back stairways and over the red carpet that defined our playing space, wearing nothing but a long, sheer, silk nightgown. It was perfect.

You may be sensing about now that this is a love letter, and, if you are, you are right. Building and performing Katerina von Strada is an unmatched pleasure in my career. I literally squealed with joy and gave Timothy a full body embrace upon entering the first rehearsal. I could not believe we were actually finally going to do this. My anticipation for this production was immense. UTC61 came together, matched my anticipation and then produced a show that outstripped it on every level. Rarely do I get the chance to spend years letting a script and a character grow in my mind. Rudolph II afforded me that opportunity. Katerina was sexy and intelligent, heartbroken, politically saavy. She  moved with the confidence of a woman in full control of her body and the care of a person whose lifelong residence at an empirical court had taught her the nuance and manipulations of all forms of politics. She was a mother, a lover, an artist. She was close to me in many aspects and she forced me to stretch for so many others. I’ve not felt sexier, smarter, more playful, and more bereft in any other role. Henry plotted a line between the emperor’s mistress, his intimate friend, the mother of his children, and the emperor’s loyal servant, subject to his laws and whims. Then he helped me navigate its curves. Timothy’s Rudolph rapidly switched from one side of that line to the other, speeding along the curves and forcing me to follow or perish. Eric Oleson’s Rumpf provided an avuncular ally in the politics while attempting to turn a blind eye to the sex. Joe Gately played Tycho Brahe’s crass jokes with appropriate self importance and dismissiveness. Jack Schaub’s Philip was always a threat even when I saw the only other person at court who could understand my position. I didn’t interact directly with either Adriana Disman or Shelley Ray who played Lisbuse and Elizabeth Jane Weston, respectively, but we shared a dressing room and like the male company were talented and generous partners.

That’s the thing about Rudolph II, everything about it was a partnership. We each did our part and the result was the stunning collective breath of a company. I cannot think about this show without recalling the feel of Carla Gant’s silk nightgown, or Candace and her nightly knock on the door asking if I needed help lacing my corset; remembering the sound of Katherine Boynton, Rosalynd Darling, Mike Hill, Parker Scott, Phoebe Silva, and Sandy York singing on the balcony above the stage, or their quartet of instruments punctuating a half lit sex scene; calling to mind Ian Hill carefully plotting lighting instruments to moodily illuminate a thirty foot run of carpet, without blinding the audience who sat tennis-court style on either side of the playing space. I think about the huge and richly draped bed that provided our only set piece and still marvel that it appeared and disappeared nightly so that the embassy could have its ballroom back. I remember Karen Ott bringing in reams of historical research and seriously reviewing it one moment then laughing at human nature and sex the next. Berit Johnson fully appreciating and participating in the vigor of work and gently reminding us, like a good stage manager, that we had a timeline to stick to. Tom Berger weighed in with questions, thoughts and excitement. Lindsay Carter, James Isaac, and Romo Hallahan always had a joke or wink or hand when needed. This was truly a collective. Each moment was the work of everybody. Edward Einhorn reached into history, churned it through his imagination, and produced a sheaf of papers in the form of a script. Little by little, each of us gave our bit of vitality to this idea. The collective breath filled it up and expanded it to full resonance until each tiny moment was big enough to fill a two-story ballroom. We created gold. I believe they call that alchemy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: From Trav SD

Trav SD in Guardian Angel
"Downtown Impressario" Trav SD (as the reviews for seemed to always call him) tell his memories from the Havel Festival and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

When I was in school, in response to a fellow student’s remark to my acting teacher (“Ya know, he [ -- meaning me --] writes too, he writes really good plays”), the professor’s reply was short and apparently intended to be definitive , if not downright possessive: “He ( -- meaning me -- ) should act”. Dan Van Bargen (Basic Instinct, O Brother Where Art Thou, etc etc) liked my performance in Sam Shepard’s Action so much he came over specifically to tell me so on two separate occasions. As Treplev in The Sea Gull, I produced the requisite weeping from the audience, and as Crow in Tooth of Crime, the intended heebie-jeebies.

It had always been my intention when I moved to New York to sort of pursue all my interests simultaneously. I would produce my own plays, and act in them, too, etc. And while I’ve begun to get traction in certain areas of this multi-headed (one might say monstrous) career, I’ve begun to realize that acting, as a career aspiration for me, has somewhat begun to languish. It’s not hard to diagnose the reason. I think of myself as a sort of plate-spinner, career-wise. While I’m busy twirling the sticks to keep these five plates going, unavoidably the sixth one over there starts to wobble. And, as a practical matter, acting has indeed wound up being about sixth on my list.

And then there are stumbling blocks. I won’t audition, and I don’t seek roles out. I either act in my own plays (almost two years since the last one, and who really kicks their own ass, I mean all the way? Not me, baby!), and when I’m not acting in my own shows, I’ll sometimes get cast in shows by colleagues, where the challenges tend to be less emotional and more mechanical (less ‘acting” in other words, than negotiating an obstacle course, at least that’s how it can seem.). The fact that I spend a good deal of my time on stage performing light entertainment in variety shows also probably reinforces the perception that that is what I “do”, or prefer to do, which isn’t the case at all.

But, for the record, I also act, can act, would like to act. I’d like to do more of it than I have been doing, at any rate.

A lengthy preface, but I include it to shed light on how happy I was on the two occasions I got to play roles in UTC61 productions. Although, for those who worked with me, “happy” may not be the word that first springs to mind. Because I’m not a full-time actor day-in, day-out all the year round, I took both assignments with an absurd amount of seriousness. The first occasion was in 2006’s Havel Festival, in a radio play called Guardian Angel, directed by Jeff Lewonczyck. I wrote about that experience on the festival’s blog at the time, so I won’t rehash it here, except to reiterate that it was a highly rewarding challenge…and somehow we actually managed to rehearse it (almost) enough to where I was comfortable in performance. The piece consisted of pages and pages of what were essentially monologues (with short interjections by my scene partner Richard Harrington). I like a lot of rehearsal under the best of circumstances, and we actually had more than the usual amount. It’s just that I had a phone book’s worth of lines. Anyway, whatever anxiety I had, I “used it” (as the acting gurus say), and I certainly hope I came across as psychotic as I actually felt.

Now, the more recent occasion, 2010’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a bit of stunt casting. I’ve actually conducted hundreds of interviews on podcast and public access tv, which actually in some ways prepared me for the role. Edward Einhorn cast me as Buster Friendly, the smarmy, slightly Orwellian talk show host in an odd future when no one is certain who might be human, or what humanity even is. (The book gives a strong impression that Buster may be an android himself). At any rate, in this play I had a handful of lines for a combined total of about five minutes of stage-time (although I was onstage, not speaking, for a good bit of the play, as well).

You would have thought that this would be a “falling off a log” type assignment for me. But, NO! Whew, boy, I worried the hell out of that part. Initially, I had a grand idea to do Buster as David Frost, but with only a week or two of preparation, I chickened out on the English accent. You might think that that would be like throwing some ballast overboard, right? Smooth sailing after that? But, NO! I lived in constant terror that I would go up on my handful of lines. The script was never out of my sweaty hands for a minute during the run (except when I was onstage of course). I just stood alone backstage, running them, running them, running them. Then, in performance, I kept worrying about acting “truth”, which was probably the last thing in the world to fret about for this particular character, who was written as an insensitive phony. Only Edward can answer if he was expecting (hoping for) more slapstick and foolishness from me, but all I could think about was “Serious Play! Ideas! Opera! Important people in the audience!” In retrospect, I think I should have been more of a freight train, for, truth be known, that can be a vital aspect of acting too, though they do tend to beat that out of you in theatre school. Trying to harness that energy and keep it under control simultaneously can feel like busting like a bronco, sometimes.

Does that sound harrowing? It was! And you might think, “Well, what’s someone like you want to act for?” And all I can respond is, “Well, shit, it ain’t only me.” In 1995, I got to see F. Murray Abraham, Helen Mirren and Ron Rifkin do Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at the Roundabout Theater. By happenstance, I actually got to talk to Abraham in the lobby after the show. I spoke from the heart, “You were so great!” But he, a bundle of nerves and self-recrimination, was like, “Yeah? Really? No! No, man, I wish…I wish I could nail it, but I can never fuckin’ nail it, ya know? I just wish I could fuckin’ nail it.”

All that anxiety and pain comes from actually caring about what you’re doing. And I am immensely grateful to UTC61 for trusting me with some work that I cared that deeply about getting right.

Iphigenia in Aulis: Director's Note


art by Eric Shanower
The Director's Note for Iphigenia in Aulis, starting February 14 at LaMaMa:

A few years ago, when reading my friend Eric Shanower’s comic, Age Of Bronze (his epic retelling of the Trojan War),
I came across the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice.  I vaguely
remembered Euripides' play, but Eric's version highlighted themes that I found both compelling and surprisingly resonant. “It's all in Euripides,” he told me. Reading the text again, there was much more in it than I remembered.

Eric and I started a graphic novel version of the play play, using images from Age of Bronze—and are still working on it. But once I had finished the translation, I wanted to stage it using images from Eric’s work.

Iphigenia in Aulis is an examination of the power of the mob. The antagonists are not onstage: neither the soldiers that force the murder of Iphigenia, nor the prophet Kalchas who incites them, nor the rabble-rouser Odysseus who leads them. Instead we see Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, struggle against fate—a fate determined not by the gods, but by an “angry horde of mortal men.”

As a playwright, Euripides expresses an unusual level of doubt. Doubt about democracy, which is often a small step away from ochlocracy (mob rule) and doubt about religiously inspired violence. Such doubts resonate today, most recently in the revolutions of the Arab Spring and their mixed consequences. Is democracy an unqualified good? When does it become a tyranny of the majority, or worse, a bloodthirsty force of a communal beast?

Although the antagonists are offstage, we see and hear a representative of the mob—the Chorus. The women of the Chorus straddle the border. They are part of “the masses,” yet they also represent the oppressed—women raped or murdered in times of war. Their songs are violent, sexual, and raw, and rock is the obvious style to convey that energy. As a fan of Aldo Perez’s music, I knew his style would allow the Chorus to be visceral, and even bestial, but also sexy and witty.

I deliberately mixed the language in this translation and gave the principals a heightened diction to set them apart from the Chorus. Their masks provide further distance, creating “second selves” that they serenely present in public, even while boiling with emotion inside. Jane Stein designed them to double as objects—a staff, a walking stick, a sword—that also conveyed status. For the faces, she transformed Eric’s images into three-dimensions that play on the historical links between masks, puppetry and comic art.

Euripides’ subject is surprisingly contemporary, and so is the way he tells it. The gods are mentioned, but their existence is ambiguous. Instead he focuses on men and the terrible acts they force each other to commit. This production intermingles the contemporary with the classical because Euripides’ ideas are alive for us today, and just as deadly, as they were 2,400 years ago.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Doctors Jane and Alexander

For this entry, we have two actors from Doctors Jane and Alexander writing their memories of both the original one act and the full length version...and also a little of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Velvet Oratorio. First, Alyssa Simon, who played my mother, Jane:

In the winter of 2006, Ian W. Hill, the artistic director of GeminiCollisionWorks, cast me in Edward Einhorn’s Drs. Jane and Alexander for Untitled Theatre Company #61’s, NEUROFest, a theater festival of plays exploring neurological conditions. The only things I knew going in was that the play dealt with senile dementia and I would play Jane, a woman at three stages of her life; high-school age, adult and elderly. It was a fascinating script based on interviews Edward conducted with his mother, Dr. Jane Wiener Einhorn, after she suffered a stroke and subsequent verbal aphasia.

Her father, Dr. Alexander Weiner, together with his colleague Karl Landsteiner, discovered the RH factor in blood, crucial in curing Rh disease, a cause of infant fatality, and increasing the safety of blood transfusions. Jane, following in her father’s footsteps, became a doctor as well, in psychology, conducting experiments on children’s conceptions of ethics and honesty.

It was the first time I would play a role based on a person who was still alive, but I had no expectation of meeting her in her physical condition. She was wheelchair bound and her vocabulary was severely reduced since her stroke. My research came from my memories of my grandfather who had also suffered a stroke and my elderly neighbors with whom I grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida. We had about three performances under our belt when Edward announced his mother would be able to attend the show. Jane sat with her nurse in the front row.

In one section of dialogue I have with my son (played in the 2006 version by Jorge Cordova, Jason Liebman played the role in 2009), I reminisce about a wonderful friend I had for years. The character Jane can’t recall her friend’s name, but the real Jane reminded me, calling out her name from the audience. It was a very touching moment. In the 2009 version, Edward included the character of his brother, played by Peter Bean, who also comments on the action from the audience. I wonder if Jane inspired that as well.

And now Timothy Babcock, who played the other title character, my grandfather.  He exaggerates both his own difficulties with the piano and my grandfather's a little for comic effect...though I know the piano was a struggle.  Henry's arrangements are beautiful, but difficult.  I should probably have not put him through the pre-show, where he played some old tunes from the 20's and 30's, but I had such fond memories of my grandfather tinkling on those ivories.  He may have occasionally hit an off note (don't we all), but he had a true love for music...

Back in 2008 I did a solo show at the Fringe and the talented and charming Henry Akona saw me in it. He suggested that I audition for the upcoming production that UTC was planning, Doctors Jane and Alexander. Much to my pleasant surprise, I was cast as one of the titular characters, Dr. Alexander S. Wiener. I think one of the reasons Henry suggested I try out was because he knew I was a composer and, to a certain extent, pianist. At least he assumed that I was a pianist. And herein lies the significant first for this show. And it ain’t pretty. Dr. Alexander S. Wiener was a world-famous scientist (and grandfather to UTC61 Artistic Director and Founder, Edward Einhorn), and an amateur composer/pianist. I would be required to play the piano onstage, both as the pre-show music and as accompanist to the really challenging score Henry had arranged from the Doctors’ own compositions. I hadn’t played the piano in many, many years. I told Henry and Edward this, but both assured me that it would work well, since Wiener was not supposed to be a professional. I took the liberty of re-arranging some of Henry’s really great arrangements, so that I could at least accompany onstage without too much difficulty. That helped somewhat, for at least I only had to play small intros to the big chorus numbers that I was also a singer in. And the shorter, easier pieces I simply practiced and got down as best I could. But the pre-show music was a different matter entirely. My fellow cast mates and I were all onstage while the audience came in and Edward had me play songs of the era of his grandfather--great old standards from the 20’s and 30’s. I was awful. Really awful. I felt so bad--not just for my fellow cast members but for the audience as well. How were they to know that my character's piano play was supposed to have an...unaccomplished quality? Ideally when asked to perform something poorly, one is actually good enough to make it sound bad without it actually being bad. Not so with me. To this day I shake my head in shame at the poor poor job I did at being a bad piano player!

The other two memories are much happier ones.

Playing Mercer in the highly acclaimed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was my first experience with live video feed. Actually with ANY video feed. And I got to work with a green screen for the pre-taped stuff, although I still wonder if the brilliant video designer Jared Mezzocchi really needed to have people throw fake rocks at me, or if he was doing it just because he could. Hmmm.

Finally, the very brilliant The Velvet Oratorio afforded me the distinct honor and pleasure of performing at both the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center and the beautiful Bohemian National Hall, fro the Czech Ambassador and other high-ranking dignitaries associated with the actual Velvet Revolution. Being a part of history is always pretty special.

SO, that’s my experience with UTC61. I should definitely add that, bad bad piano playing notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed working on Doctors Jane and Alexander, as I thoroughly enjoyed working on the two subsequent productions. Everyone I have encountered while working with the company have been not only fine actors, designers, directors and technicians but really, really great people to boot. And THAT is what makes doing theatre truly enviable and wonderful.