If you're heading to London, forget trying to see any of the glitzy American screen names currently treading the boards in the West End. While Gwyneth Paltrow rehearses on stage for her upcoming role in the Miramax screen version of Proof, critics have been less than kind in assessing the stage acting abilities of Matt Damon (This Is Our Youth) and Madonna (Up For Grabs). Besides, unless you're prepared to fork over 500 pounds to a scalper, you'll never get to see Madonna kiss another woman--not on a London stage, at least!
Rather than give further publicity to any or all of the above, TheaterMania talked with two of New York's most accomplished stage actors: John Ortiz and Myra Lucretia Taylor, who are also in London, displaying their considerable talents in remarkably different venues and plays. Here are some notes on their experiences, based on in-person interviews in London in mid-May.
John Ortiz is the co-founder of the LAByrinth Theater Company and is in London with that troupe's critically acclaimed production of Jesus Hopped the A Train. Myra Lucretia Taylor, an accomplished veteran of Broadway (Macbeth) and Off-Broadway (Byrd's Boy) as well as film (Unfaithful), is the first African-American actress to be hired for a season of rep by Britain's illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company. Both have played in London before--she in an American touring production of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, he in a tour of Peter Sellars' The Merchant of Venice--and both had to deal with British and American Equity to get to the West End this trip, but there the similarities end and the differences begin. First and foremost, Taylor is on salary through November for her appearance in two RSC productions in rep while Ortiz and company must earn enough to stay through June 22, when their eight-week engagement is scheduled to end.
During our first interview, at the Tottenham Court "Y" café, Taylor explains, "It was actually through my working with director David Leveaux on Broadway in Electra [starring Zoe Wanamaker] that the RSC offer came about at all. Matthew Warchus decided that he wanted a black American actress to play Paulina in his 'Americanized' version of The Winter's Tale." Two other Americans in the cast were Warchus' wife, Lauren Ward (Violet), and an expat named Rolf Saxon who came to London 2o years ago to study and stayed. "David recommended me and gave Matthew my reel. I was on a very short list and the whole process was quick. I was told I might not have to audition and then Matthew and I talked about his concept by phone. I had several trepidations: I have a dog, I get homesick, but most importantly, I worry about my culture. I didn't want to misrepresent my country and I certainly didn't want to travel across 'the pond' to play a maid!"
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Winter's Tale, here's a thumbnail sketch to put Paulina into perspective: She is lady-in-waiting to Hermione, the pregnant wife of King Leontes of Sicilia, who is throwing a farewell party to wish his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, a safe journey home after a lengthy visit. During the festivities, Leontes breaks into a jealous passion, suddenly accusing his wife and his best friend of having an affair and swearing that the baby she's carrying isn't his. Polixenes escapes but Hermione is tried for adultery and sentenced to prison. When she gives birth, Paulina brings the babe to Leontes who proclaims it a bastard and sends Paulina's husband Antigonus off to abandon the child on "some desert place." Paulina, one of the strongest females ever created by the Bard, then becomes the play's conscience as the only courtier who will stand up to Leontes and his irrational behavior. It is she who reunites friends, husband and wife, father and abandoned daughter, and claims the happy ending of this strange "comedy."
Warchus' concept sets the first act of the play in his own imaginary America of the 1940's, with Sicilia located somewhere in California, and the second act puts Bohemia somewhere in Tennessee--an excuse to bring a bluegrass band on stage. Because there are no kings and therefore no courtiers in America, Paulina might easily be construed as a maid; hence Taylor's fears. But Warchus felt that the way Taylor voiced her strong opinions to him was just the way Paulina behaves in the play. She got a call from her agent 10 minutes later saying, "You're going to London!"
After the show, Taylor and I retire to a local hangout to talk further about her background; that includes a degree from Yale, where she majored in Afro-American studies but also took theater classes with the late Nikos Psacharopoulos, father of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. When she graduated, Nikos invited her to join the "Second Company," which included the likes of Sigourney Weaver. Taylor remained at Williamstown for the next ten years, but neither Yale nor Williamstown nor her wide list of credits on stage in New York and across the country (from The Actors Theatre of Louisville to Goodspeed to the White House) prepared her for the RSC way of working.
"First of all there's the long rehearsal period," she explains. "We started on February 1 for an opening on April 12, with a week of previews. And because it's repertory, not all the cast members can rehearse together at the same time. I'm starting rehearsals now for Pericles [directed by Adrian Noble, outgoing RSC artistic director] in which I play the evil Queen Dionyza, about as different from Paulina as you can get. This is my first time doing rep and I'm very excited."
During her down time, Taylor's been able to see quite of bit of London theater, including a rehearsal of the above mentioned Madonna show (her university chum, Deborah Weston, is co-starring and was, ironically, also considered for Paulina). Director Leveaux invited Taylor to see the new Neil LaBute play From a Distance, which he directed, and old friend and former acting buddy Philip Seymour Hoffman got her tix to his London hit Jesus Jumped the A Train. She even chunneled to Paris for a long weekend, but this luxury of free time is about to end.
"We have three more weeks of Winter's Tale plus 11 performances of Pericles here in London [at the experimental Roundhouse, an old train station in trendy Camden Town]. Then we move to Stratford in mid-July for what may be the last season at the current Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. [Noble had proposed a completely new theater at Stratford, which became the central issue of his leave-taking.] On November 2, we play the final matinee of Pericles and the last evening of The Winter's Tale." Taylor smiles and says with an impish grin: "You know, this almost didn't happen at all. British Equity had said okay but American Equity insisted on certain items involving health care, per diems, and housing that were not exactly standard. I'll be staying in my own cottage in Stratford," she enthuses.
"I'm certainly no great Shakespearean actress," Taylor concludes, "but I wish all my actor friends could come over to the RSC to see how to demystify Shakespeare. You just do it!"
For John Ortiz, the route back to London was far longer and more roundabout--392 years and at least 360 degrees from Shakespeare to Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, set in present day Riker's Island. The play originally debuted on December 26th, 2000 at LAByrinth's small Center Stage space, directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who also directed the LAByrinth's production of Guirgis first play, In Arabia We'd All Be Kings.
In London, as in New York, Jesus has attracted rave reviews: "Powerful, edgy, ferocious... American acting at its most dangerous" (TIME OUT London); "Surpasses all other performances on the West End Stage...a raw and fascinating play powered by high voltage emotion" (The Evening Standard); "Shocking, shattering, stunning...the theatrical event of the year!" (The Daily Telegraph). Odd that, despite a two-week extension of the initial New York run and six additional weeks at the 13th Street Theater, plans for a much-hoped-for transfer to a larger Off-Broadway venue fell through.
In a café on Great Newport Street, Ortiz lights up another cigarette (he's rarely without one on- or off-stage) as he traces the progression of moves that got him back into the role of Angel Cruz. "We were invited to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August last year while I was shooting The Job [for ABC television] and I couldn't go, but the rest of the cast went and it was crazy," he says. "They had another LAB member, Joe Quintero, playing Angel and another director [Charles Goforth]. The show got picked up by the Donmar Warehouse, where it played for four weeks." The current production is also without original cast member David Zayas, who is currently shooting a new season of OZ for HBO; his role is being played by Nestor Serrano. Although the list of co-producers is still headed by original producer (and LAB member) John Gould Rubin, it now includes one Madonna Ritchie, who came on board after seeing it at the Donmar.
The plot in brief: a very cocky Angel finds himself in lock-down for shooting a religious huckster ("in the ass") as a last-ditch attempt to rescue his best friend from the minister's cult. What should be an open-and-shut case with little or no jail time escalates and Angel winds up serving time with Lucius Jenkins, a charismatic death row inmate played by Ron Cephas Jones. Their interactions form the moral center of this play about the possibility of redemption. Both roles put the actors performing them on an emotional rollercoaster eight times a week but, says Ortiz, "I had to do this because we're setting a precedent for our theater. This is the first real commercial venture for us, the part was written for me...and this is probably our last chance to get the show back to New York! Look, there's Topdog/Underdog on Broadway, so why not JHTAT? We've all made tremendous sacrifices to stay with this play because we believe in it and in the LAB."
"Intense" doesn't begin to describe Ortiz when he speaks about the group he co-founded 10 years ago. He and Hoffman met on the Merchant of Venice tour that played in London (at the RSC's Barbican space), Paris, and Hamburg in '94. "Phil and John [Rubin] decided we should try and raise the money ourselves this time and so far, so good," he says "Whether or not this show gets back to New York, on or Off-Broadway, Stephen's definitely working on the screenplay; it will be a sort of prequel about how the two guys [Angel and his best friend, who never appears in JHTAT] came up together. And the play is constantly evolving." As to the experience of playing the show night after night, he says that, "Working together with Ron for so long, the two of us have gotten to a point where we can step out of ourselves for a second or two. Ron compared it to marathon runners being in the zone...that juice that makes you fly! I've learned how to be present with this role and I've learned mostly through my mistakes. It takes so much to be so honest and to let go with the other person. We've turned all the play's ugliness and pain into trust and admiration for each other."
A very private person, especially for an actor, Ortiz says candidly that "This is the most single I've been in my life," and you can almost feel the homesickness emanating from him. He's just learned that they will finish all eight weeks of the run; at the matinee I attended, the house was packed with an extremely appreciative, almost totally British audience. And he's already locked into a July-August commitment to do José Rivera's new play at La Jolla, which will reunite him with director Jo Bonney (References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot).
"The LAB's next project," Ortiz informs me, "is a new play by Stephen that Phil will direct. It's called Our Lady of 121st Street, about a group of school friends in Harlem who have a reunion when their former teacher, a nun, dies. I'd like to find a way to balance theater and film in my career; the last two years have been very theater heavy. And I want to write. I started a while ago, but I'll probably direct sooner." How wonderful to have a LAB in which to try it all.
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Jesus Hopped the "A" Train
Myra Lucretia Taylor
Taylor with Douglas Hodge in The Winter's Tale at the RSC
(Photo by Manuel Harlan)