The demanding, delicate craft of the one-actor play
By its nature, powerhouse or otherwise, the one-actor play is a very specific theatrical craft. The actor has no buttress for support if a cue is missed; there’s no one else to pick up the slack in a scene. Simply put, there is no respite. Once the player is on stage, there’s no escape.
There’s been a spate of one-person plays in the Milwaukee theater scene of late. Last year, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater did two. Uprooted started with one by staging Beauty’s Daughter in July. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre hosted Sarah Day in the one-woman stage reading of Desert Queen.
This season, there are at least three shows scheduled — two are opening this weekend and next; Clarence Darrow by David Rintels (opens 9/29) the Boulevard Ensemble Studio Theatre and Tea at Five by Matthew Lombardo (opens Oct. 9) at In Tandem Theatre. Both productions are regional premieres. ThirdCoast Digest recently attended rehearsals for both and spoke with the actors and directors involved to learn more about the methodology behind the process.
Can you picture Clarence Darrow? Many might know the name or have a vague idea about his historical importance in constitutional law, but there’s no celebrity association. This point alone allows the actor and director free rein to create and interpret the man as a character. As scripted, Rintel’s play consists largely of excerpts from actual trial transcripts along with personal narrative.
And, in this show, the two blend seamlessly. The audience is, in one moment, Darrow’s listening companion, and, in the next, his attentive, rapt jury. The lawyer’s defendants range from anarchists and murderers to Darwinists. In all, ten trials are treated in the play’s two-hour format. David Ferrie relies on his personal experience as a legal investigator in this role.
Halfway through a recent rehearsal, director Jamie Jastrab pretended to play the role of the audience. The pair have established a rapport, while at the same time Jastrab gives Ferrie a fair amount of autonomy.
“If there were recordings of Darrow I wouldn’t listen to them, and I won’t watch Henry Fonda performing the role (Fonda portrayed Clarence Darrow in 1974),” Ferrie says. “I’d be too tempted to imitate and present a cut-out. It’s a great temptation in this genre and in this case, there’s no need. TV courtroom shows are popular because there’s drama … like the OJ trial. There’s a plot and a climax. Darrow’s closing speeches are pure performance.”
Besides, the work is well-written, Jastrab says. “It’s an orchestration with dramatic range of light to serious,” he adds. “As director, I give the actor a lot of autonomy but ultimately I have the final say. As the professional audience, I’m able to see what works and what doesn’t. I’m also able to regulate the actor’s tone and vary delivery … so my job is to correct. If delivered well, the audience will follow the modulations like a musical composition.”
Aside from occasional line calls, Ferrie rehearses without interruption. Jastrab indeed becomes an audience and reviews his observations during a break. Ferrie’s character has already set a compelling momentum and the director appears careful not to break it.
Tea at Five‘s character and process are at the opposite end of the spectrum. This show is about a very well-known character with a long, familiar career. Her quirky styles detailed in many films are etched into the minds of movie buffs and pop culture. So, unlike David Ferrie as Clarence Darrow, the role demands that Angela Iannone becomes Katherine Hepburn.
The play’s two acts focus on two key moments in Hepburn’s life: In the first half, she’s 31 and box-office poison after a series of flops. In the second half, she’s 75 and at the dusk of a brilliant and successful career.
With such a high-profile impersonation at stake, Iannone was cast accordingly. She’s physically appropriate; her slim form is reminiscent of the tall, angular and athletic Hepburn, and Ianonne is a requisite powerhouse personality on her own.
“Ultimately, you have to play yourself,” she says. “Acting is not lying. The audience will know if you’re lying.”
It’s the end of the first week of rehearsal for Ianonne’s one-woman show. She is on book and director Chris Flieller is wrapping up blocking. His wife, theater co-founder Jane Flieller, is stage manager and assists with the overall process. The set is a mock up and props are imaginary at this point.
This rehearsal picks up during the second half of the play when Hepburn is in her mid-70s. Ianonne speaks in the shaky Hepburn voice that the movie On Golden Pond made so familiar. Flieller delivers a flow of comments, directions and blocking revisions. Ianonne moves accordingly and asks about another movement at a certain line. There are brief discussions, asides and jokes. There is a palpable ease and flow between these two.
“We’ve known each other for twenty-something years and worked on a [stage] reading together a decade ago,” Iannone recounts.
But this is the first staged play they’ve done as director and actor. The plan has always been to find a suitable play for them both.
“We read some terrible plays [before finding this one],” Iannone insists.
In the end, Flieller says that the success of the production depends on collaboration because “the audience comes convinced it’s about to see Kate Hepburn and expects a magical experience,” he says.
Iannone agrees. “There’s a danger of a one-person show becoming a history lesson,” she says. “But, if set up’s in the first few minutes, hitting that familiar pose, the audience comes along, and I don’t have to do too much.”
The “magical experience” grows out of the actor-director interplay, these two reiterate. Ianonne has also directed and Flieller has acted before. Yet, however interactive their exchanges may be during rehearsal, according to Flieller, “[The director] comes to the play with ideas. The vision ultimately comes from one person.
“Kate Hepburn was illuminated from within, and Angela has found Kate,” Flieller concludes.
For ticketing information about Clarence Darrow, visit the Boulevard Ensemble Studio Theatre’s website or call 414-744-5757.
Ticketing information about Tea at Five can be found on the In Tandem Theatre website or by calling 414-271-1371.