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Christopher Evan Welch: Little Big Man

The award-winning actor discusses his collaboration with director Ivo van Hove on NYTW's The Little Foxes. logo
Christopher Evan Welch
The first time Christopher Evan Welch worked with iconoclastic director Ivo van Hove, he knew he was in for an unusual theatrical experience. Even before rehearsals began for the Flemish auteur's 1999 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Welch -- who was cast as Mitch -- was notified by his agent of a nudity clause in his contract, not something one expects when playing a supporting role in a Tennessee Williams classic. But the exposure proved to be worth it, as both Welch and the luminous Elizabeth Marvel, who played Blanche, went on to win Obie Awards for that production.

Now, 11 years later, these two stage favorites are tumbling around the stage again -- albeit with their clothes on -- as the unhappily married Horace and Regina Giddens in van Hove's emotionally intense revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, currently at New York Theatre Workshop through October 31.

"Ivo's a great artist, and he's singular in his commitment to his vision and his aesthetic," says Welch, who has worked with such top-flight directors as Sir Richard Eyre, Rufus Norris, Joe Dowling, Anna D. Shapiro, Doug Hughes, and Michael Greif over the past 15 years. "It's very obviously raw, but also extremely honest and pure. He has a way of getting savage work out of people but in the gentlest of ways. There's something about Ivo's particular vision that I agree with very specifically as an actor and also socio-politically: I think this excavation of what we think of as classic plays is valid and super-important."

Cristin Milioti and Christopher Evan Welch
in The Little Foxes
(© Jan Versweyveld)
Van Hove has described his process as stripping plays down to their essence. For Little Foxes, that means the actors don't do traditional things like use Southern accents -- but they do physically knock each other about on a dimly lit, sparsely furnished stage encased in purple carpeting. Meanwhile, a video monitor displays a combination of live and recorded footage of what we don't see onstage. (Early footage of Horace's corpse-like body is prerecorded, Welch explains, but other scenes, such as one of Horace and his daughter Zan -- played by Cristin Milioti -- are performed live each night, recorded, and played back as 40-second loops.)

Welch -- who is currently starring in AMC's conspiracy drama Rubicon (which concludes its first season on Sunday) and who returns to the stage next month in LCT3's The Coward -- is aware that some audience members (and critics) consider van Hove's renditions masterful reinterpretations of classic works; while others find it an effective form of torture.

"You know people are going to freak out about this, for better and worse," he says. "It's very exciting at the curtain call to see someone standing and applauding next to someone with their arms crossed, sitting there scowling. You're on the front lines of something important and valid, or else they'd all be standing and applauding. That mixed reaction in my mind means you're doing something right."

While the actor is doing something right -- he earned almost universally strong reviews for his portrayal of Horace -- Welch gives much of the credit to van Hove. "He says a lot to actors in rehearsal: You're already there, just keep going. You don't have to come in and show us you understand the character, you are the character," says Welch. "Even though that sounds fairly simple, it's rarer than you think in theater to hear directors talk that way. Very often the onus is on you as an actor to signal to the audience that you're this kind of guy through various behaviors. And it's a scarier place for the actors to be, because you sense that we're in kind of an unsafe place. Ivo has a very elegant way with dread, of keeping you nervous about what might happen next."

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