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.

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