This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

MEDEA

(photo by Richard Termine)

Real-life partners Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale star in Simon Stone’s sizzling Medea at BAM (photo by Richard Termine)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 8, $45-$195
718-636-4100
www.bam.org/medea

As you enter BAM’s elegantly shabby chic Harvey Theater to see Simon Stone’s Medea, there are two young boys already onstage, one stretched out on the floor, on his laptop, the other leaning against a wall, on his smartphone. Bob Cousins’s dramatic cyclorama set is blindingly white, evoking a heavenly way station, making it look as if the unconcerned brothers are floating in a mysterious void. In this riveting adaptation, inspired by Euripides’s 431 BC original and the true story of Dr. Debora Green, who committed horrific crimes against her family in Kansas in 1995, Stone instantly puts us in the kids’ shoes. It’s a thrillingly uncomfortable moment since, of course, this is Medea, and we know it will not end well for the siblings. And getting there is indeed heart-wrenching.

Contemporary stand-ins for Jason and Medea, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale) and Anna (Rose Byrne) are married pharmaceutical scientists facing a crisis. Anna has just been released from a psychiatric facility after having done something bad to Lucas, who is in a relationship with a woman half his age, Clara (Madeline Weinstein), the daughter of their boss, Christopher (Dylan Baker). Anna plans to simply walk back into their old life with their two sons, Edgar (Gabriel Amoroso or Jolly Swag) and (Gus Emeka or Orson Hong Guindo), but Lucas has other ideas. “I know your trust will be hard to regain. What I did to you,” Anna says. “We don’t need to talk about it now,” Lucas replies. Anna: “No, I want to. It was a breach of trust. Most importantly it was trust that we lost.” Lucas: “I’m not —” Anna: “In all those messy months we lost sight of everything we’d promised to be to each other and both of us did that but I overstepped the line —” Lucas: “We should never have stayed together this long.” A determined Anna later adds, “I’m going to win you back.” That does not go so well either.

(photo by Richard Termine)

Social worker Elsbeth (Jordan Boatman) does not have the easiest of jobs monitoring Anna (Rose Byrne) and her two young sons (photo by Richard Termine)

Medea is ripe for reinterpretation, particularly in a world rife with misogyny and violence. In the past ten years I have seen Aaron Mark’s Another Medea, Limb Hyoung-taek’s Medea and Its Double, and Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, all of which took the central story and reimagined it in unique and compelling ways. Born in Basel and raised in England and Australia, Stone, who moves all around the globe, rarely settling down for an extended period of time, has previously adapted such classics as The Wild Duck, Miss Julie, John Gabriel Borkman, Peer Gynt, Three Sisters, and Hamlet and dazzled New York audiences with his sizzling Yerma at Park Avenue Armory in 2018, infusing his work with personal experience, as he does again with Medea.

The set features one large rectangular white wall that occasionally rises to serve as a projection screen, showing either extreme close-ups of the action, primarily a spellbinding Byrne, her evocative eyes searching for meaning, or live-stream shots by Edgar, who is making an autobiographical film for school. (The video design is by Julia Frey, with bright lighting by Sarah Johnston.) The play was originally performed at live-streaming master and BAM fixture Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep Amsterdam); the video footage can get to be a bit too much, so it’s a relief when the device goes away in the latter parts of the eighty-minute production, when things really heat up.

The cast is all new for this US premiere, with solid support led by Tony and Emmy nominee Baker (La Bête, Happiness, The Americans) and Weinstein (The Real Thing, Mary Page Marlowe) in addition to Victor Almanzar as bookstore owner Herbert, who offers Anna a job, and Jordan Boatman as Elsbeth, the social worker in charge of her case, keeping a close watch on her treatment of Gus and Edgar. At one point Stone makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the finale of The Sopranos that is a wry riff on what ultimately happens in his take on Medea, as two famous families meet their fate.

(photo by Richard Termine)

Anna (Rose Byrne) is none too happy that her husband, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale), is now with Clara (Madeline Weinstein) in contemporary update of Medea (photo by Richard Termine)

Byrne (Bridesmaids, You Can’t Take It with You) plays Anna with a strong-willed vulnerability; she is no mere woman scorned, seeking revenge, but an intelligent wife, mother, and scientist who had the deck stacked against her and refuses to sit back and let everyone walk over her. She has a fiery, passionate chemistry with Cannavale (The Hairy Ape, The Lifespan of a Fact), who also displays a strong-willed vulnerability, allowing the cracks in Lucas’s armor to show through. “She created this instability,” Clara argues to Lucas. “I did too,” he readily admits. This is a Medea that could only be created in today’s #MeToo sociopolitical climate.

The Australian Byrne and New Jersey native Cannavale are real-life partners with two young boys of their own; after going through hell onstage, they head back to their nearby Gowanus apartment to be with their kids. Byrne and Cannavale work together often on television and in film, but this is the first time they are acting opposite each other onstage; later this year they will portray another married couple in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for the Sydney Theatre Company. At the start of Medea, Anna shows Lucas a painting she made while at the asylum, depicting Noah’s ship in a storm, in which all the animals are drowning. “They thought they were safe and then another storm whipped up and capsized the ark,” Anna tells a confused Lucas. She continues, “You see the dead dove floating on the swell over there? With the olive branch still in its mouth?” It’s a metaphor for Anna’s state of mind, but one can also think of it as a kind of peace offering between Byrne and Cannavale as they return to a normal life following the searing heartbreak their characters experience night after night.

CHEKHOV/TOLSTOY: LOVE STORIES

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov) argues with Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) over the social contract in The Artist (photo by Maria Baranova)

Theatre Four at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Through March 14, $35-$65
212-560-2183
minttheater.org
bfany.org

One of the city’s most reliably consistent companies, the Mint, scored successes with its initial two productions of works by British character actor, screenwriter, and playwright Miles Malleson, 2017’s Yours Unfaithfully and 2018’s Conflict. But it’s unable to pull off the hat trick with Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories, a pair of Russian short stories Malleson adapted into plays that have been brought together for the first time, running at Theatre Row through March 14. The Artist, based on Anton Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” published in the April 1896 issue of Russkaya Mysl, takes place in a Russian country house where painter Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov) is staying. After five weeks, he has finally found inspiration, primarily in eighteen-year-old Genya (Katie Firth), who lives on Monsieur Byelkurov’s (J. Paul Nicholas) estate with her older sister, teacher and activist Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu), and their mother (Anna Lentz). While Genya and Nicov share a flirtation, Lidia and the artist battle over social issues.

“Let them have time to breathe, don’t let them spend all their lives at the stove, at the washtub, on the fields — slaving, slaving, slaving just to keep alive,” Nicov, who was portrayed by Malleson in the 1919 original, says of the working class. “Let them have time for the life of the spirit. The highest vocation of man is spiritual activity, spiritual effort — the perpetual search for truth and the meaning of life. And when a man has recognised that vocation he can only be satisfied by religion, by science, by philosophy, by art, by the great things — and nothing else. And then, and not till then, civilisation will mean freedom.” An angry Lidia responds, “These are the things people say when they want to justify their inaction.” Directed by Mint head Jonathan Bank (Unfaithfully Yours, Katie Roche), The Artist is like an unfinished painting, feeling more like a work in progress than a completed piece. It’s difficult to get involved in the trials and tribulations of these people; neither the characters nor the plot is particularly compelling. The Mint is renowned for their sets, but Roger Hanna’s design for the play consists merely of a canvas on an easel, some chairs and a table, and a painted backdrop of a large tree that overwhelms everything.

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Matryona (Katie Firth), Aniuska (Vinie Burrows), and Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) try to unravel the mystery of Michael (Malik Reed, center) in What Men Live By (photo by Maria Baranova)

The backdrop rotates to the threatening roots under the tree for Malleson’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1885 short story “What Men Live By.” In a Russian peasant hut where expert shoemaker Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) works with his wife, Matryona (Katie Firth), and the elderly Aniuska (Vinie Burrows), Simon comes home one night with the mysterious Michael (Malik Reed), a shoeless beggar who doesn’t speak and rarely smiles, even after Matryona agrees to let him apprentice with Simon, who quickly discovers that Michael is an extremely talented artisan. When they receive a special order from a nobleman (Sokovikov), Simon sees it as an important opportunity, until Michael takes things in a different direction.

In her directorial debut, longtime Mint sound designer Jane Shaw can’t find the heart of the religious-tinged tale, which was originally produced in 1919 as an antidote to the horrors of WWI. The conflicts never feels urgent enough, with plot twists coming too fast to let the drama take hold. While The Artist moves too slowly, What Men Live By packs too much into too little time on its way to its not-necessarily-surprising final revelation. Both works end up underwhelming, as if still being cobbled together, which is a rarity for the highly professional, superbly efficient Mint.

NY INDIE THEATRE FILM FESTIVAL

Attending the NY Indie Theatre Film Festival wont be as traumatic as Natalie Johnsons The Taxidermist

Attending the NY Indie Theatre Film Festival won’t be as traumatic as visiting Natalie Johnson’s The Taxidermist, which screens on February 8

New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher St.
February 6-9, individual events free - $10, day/fest passes $15-$30
866-811-4111
newohiotheatre.org

New Ohio Theatre’s fourth annual NY Indie Theatre Film Festival finishes in a big way on February 9 with a special screening of Charles Busch’s 2006 coming-of-age tale A Very Serious Person, in which the writer-director stars as a gay male nurse taking care of an ailing woman portrayed by Polly Bergen. Busch, whose work includes The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, The Tribute Artist, and the current Primary Stages production The Confession of Lily Dare at the Cherry Lane, will participate in a talkback after the screening. The festival begins February 6 at 7:00 with a screenplay reading of Brooke Berman’s Polly Freed with Annie Parisse, Paul Sparks, Sadie Seelert, Alysia Reiner, Jamie Harrold, Austin Ku, Sebastian Martinez, Clara Young, Becca Lish, Erin Gann, and Julienne Kim and a free opening-night party at 9:00. There will be five screening blocks of short films and web series episodes February 7-8, including works written and/or directed by Victoria Clark, David Zayas Jr., Wendy MacLeod, Caroline V. McGraw, and Alyssa May Gold. On February 9 at 2:00, the competitive Film Race will take place, a benefit for F*It Club in which teams present movies they made only after getting required script elements on February 5; at 4:00, the panel discussion “What Makes a Pitch Sizzle?” brings together Thom Woodley, Sarah Donnelly, and Gideon Evans. “Our mission is to support indie theatre artists wherever their inspiration takes them. If it takes them into new mediums, we want to be there to help,” New Ohio artistic director Robert Lyons said in a statement. Individual events are $5 to $10, with day or festival passes ranging from $15 to $30.

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Bob (Joél Pérez) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) and Ted (Michael Zegen) are seeking some new sexual adventures in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (photo by Monique Carboni)

The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 22, $48-$133
thenewgroup.org

Paul Mazursky’s 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice captured the zeitgeist of a nation high on the summer of love, glorying in the sexual revolution. Nominated for four Oscars, the film starred Robert Culp and Natalie Wood as Bob and Carol Sanders, an adventurous LA couple, while Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon are their best friends, Ted and Alice Henderson, who are significantly more traditional. The New Group has now turned the script, written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, into a fun, lighthearted play with music that opened tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center for an extended run through March 22. (Mazursky’s daughter Jill served as a consultant on the show.)

The hundred-minute show opens with Bob (Joél Pérez) and Carol (Jennifer Damiano) on their way to a consciousness-raising weekend. Derek McLane’s set is arranged like an encounter group for the audience, which sits on three sides of a small stage that boasts a couch, several mod chairs, a pair of microphone stands and cushions, a beaded curtain at the back, and the band, consisting of music director and keyboardist Jason Hart, guitarist and bassist Simon Kafka, Noelle Rueschman on reeds, bassist and drummer Jamie Mohamdein, and the bandleader, wonderfully portrayed by iconic singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, who took over after composer Duncan Sheik, who wrote the lyrics with Amanda Green, couldn’t take on the role in addition to his other responsibilities. Standing in the back, Vega also serves as emcee and narrator, talking to the characters and the audience as well as singing. Early on she says to Bob and Carol (and the audience): “Welcome to the Institute at Big Sur, home of the Human Potential Movement. . . . Don’t think. Feel. . . . Lose your mind. Come to your senses.”

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Alice (Ana Nogueira) and the bandleader (Suzanne Vega) share an intimate moment in New Group world premiere at the Signature (photo by Monique Carboni)

Bob is primarily there to make a documentary about the institute, but he is ultimately coaxed into participating in a marathon group therapy encounter session. Bob and Carol closely examine their marriage in ways they never did before. “I always accuse you of hiding your feelings, but I hide my feelings, Carol,” Bob admits. Carol responds, “I do hide my feelings, Bob. You’re not the only one hiding your feelings. I hide my feelings all the time. I came here because I felt like it. I wanted to come for me. But I couldn’t tell you. I’m — I’m sometimes afraid of you.” A weepy Bob replies, “Afraid of me? I love you. I love you so much, baby.” When Bob confesses to having an affair, they take their relationship to another, unexpected level. The now swinging couple share their new outlook on love and life with Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira), who are not so keen on all this openness. Bob and Carol invite Ted and Alice to Vegas for the weekend to see Tony Bennett, but there's a special surprise in store.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a sweet-natured period piece, featuring not only groovy dialogue but classic late-1960s-era costumes by Jeff Mahshie, highlighted by Ted’s turtlenecks and the women’s mini dresses. Pérez (Fun Home, Sweet Charity) plays drums and channels Will Ferrell (and a little Elliott Gould), Tony nominee Damiano (Spring Awakening, Next to Normal) ups the sexy quotient, and Zegen (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, A View from the Bridge) and Nogueira (Engagements, Mala Hierba) are right-on as the more buttoned-up couple who just might break free of their societal constraints at any moment. Jonathan Marc Sherman’s (Clive, Knickerbocker) book is endearingly playful, as is Scott Elliott’s (The True, Mercury Fur) direction, which involves several willing audience members. When the characters break into song, Kelly Devine’s musical staging can feel out of place, especially when compared to Vega, whose songs have a natural, effervescent flow, and she also reveals some fine acting chops. (Vega previously starred in her own one-woman show, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, playing the title character.) The movie was revolutionary for its time, but this New Group world premiere does not have such lofty ambitions. Instead, it’s a frisky and flirtatious look at a bygone era, a kind of last gasp right before America would lose its innocence.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Lucy Barton (Laura Linney) recalls a significant time in her life in play based on Elizabeth Strout novel (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Monday - Saturday through February 29, $70-$150
www.manhattantheatreclub.com
lucybartonplay.com

It’s always a pleasure watching the exquisite Laura Linney, whether on television, in film, or onstage. Nominated for three Oscars and four Tonys and winner of four Emmys, the Manhattan native has an instantly infectious appeal; you want to be in her luminous presence. She is terrific once again in her latest Broadway play, the one-woman show My Name Is Lucy Barton, which is based on Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel and continues at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 29. Under Richard Eyre’s expert direction, she flows between sharing her story with the audience and portraying her mother. So why isn’t it better?

Born and raised in the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy is now reflecting on a critical time in her life, when she spent nearly nine weeks in a New York City hospital. Her husband hates hospitals, so he refuses to visit her, instead choosing to care for their two young daughters. She is estranged from her parents and siblings but is shocked when her mother, who she hasn’t seen in many years, unexpectedly arrives and spends days and days sitting in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room, mostly gossiping about people from the old neighborhood, quite disinterested in Lucy and her family. While her mother is there, Lucy recalls the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents and discusses the life she led as a child, with no television, no newspapers or magazines, no books, no friends, no sense of personal identity. “How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink?” she says.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Laura Linney is once again exquisite in one-woman show on Broadway (photo by Matthew Murphy)

So she set out on a new course, moving to the big city but unable to shake a haunting loneliness. “I was lonely,” she explains. “Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It’s this loneliness that is at the center of the story, and primarily women’s loneliness. Her mother can’t stop talking about women like her friend Kathie Nicely and her cousin Harriet, who left their husbands or were left by them, and their often unsuccessful efforts to make new lives and establish their own identities.

But there’s also a lonely feeling watching the play; we wrap ourselves around Linney (The Little Foxes, The Big C, The Savages), not the narrative, which seems inconsequential for the most part, and the material lets down the rest of Eyre’s (Guys and Dolls, Notes on a Scandal) production, which is stellar. Bob Crowley’s pristine set consists of a chair and a hospital bed as well as three successively larger wall screens in the back on which video designer Luke Halls projects peaceful shots of corn and soybean fields in Illinois and the Chrysler Building and streets of New York City, with precise lighting by Peter Mumford as Linney shifts between characters.

Despite it being her story, Lucy is an unreliable narrator. She regularly says “I think,” not firm in what she is relating. At one point she says of her mother, “Maybe she didn’t say that. I don’t remember.” Later she admits, “I still am not sure it’s a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true.” It’s as if she’s doing a (wonderfully) staged reading of the book; Rona Munro’s (The James Plays, Bold Girls) adaptation sounds more like an audiobook you can listen to while driving. In fact, the play is presented “in association with” Penguin Random House Audio, which published the audiobook in 2016, read very differently by Kimberly Farr. But forgetting everything else, there is one main reason to see the play, and her name is Laura Linney.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK: A GHOST STORY IN A PUB

(photo by Jenny Anderson)

David Acton and Ben Porter reprise their London roles in New York debut of The Woman in Black (photo by Jenny Anderson)

The McKittrick Hotel
530 West 27th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Wednesday - Monday through April 19, $85
mckittrickhotel.com

A few months ago, I finally gave in and saw The Perfect Crime, the mystery that’s been running in Manhattan since 1987 and features Catherine Russell; having racked up more than thirteen thousand performances in the same role, she’s now in the Guinness Book of World Records. Yet there was nothing special about it that made me understand its longevity. So it was with both trepidation and curiosity that I went to the New York premiere of The Woman in Black, which has been playing in London’s West End continuously since 1989. The two-act, 130-minute show is being staged in the McKittrick Hotel’s Club Car, the previous home of the National Theatre of Scotland’s fun, immersive drama The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, among other presentations.

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s Gothic novel and directed by Robin Herford, The Woman in Black gets off to a slow start, establishing a play-within-a-play format that could use a jump to get things going. A finicky old man named Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has hired an actor (Ben Porter) to punch up a ghost story he has written, based on events that happened to him. “I recalled that the way to banish an old ghost that continues its hauntings is to exorcise it,” Kipps says. “Well, then. Mine should be exorcised. I should tell my tale. I should set it down on paper, with every care and in every detail. I would write my own ghost story, and then, that my family might know and that I might be forever purged of it, relive it through the telling. The first part, the writing, I have done. Now comes the telling. I pray for God’s protection on us all.”

(photo by Jenny Anderson)

Mr Kipps (Ben Porter) wonders what’s behind the locked door in Gothic drama at the McKittrick Hotel (photo by Jenny Anderson)

The first act introduces the audience to the setup: The old man has no sense of drama and repeatedly proclaims that he is not a performer, which is why he needs the Actor. (As in the script, Porter will heretofore be called Kipps, and Acton will be Actor.) In reciting the tale, the actor takes on the persona of Kipps as a young man, while Kipps juggles all the other roles, including a lawyer, a dapper gentleman with a dog, a landlord, a legal agent, and a carriage driver. Michael Holt’s set is spare, with a chair, a large wicker basket, and a curtain in the back that later reveals covered furniture behind it. Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting and Sebastian Frost’s sound play key parts in giving the show a bigger feel. Guests sit in chairs lined up in long rows; the bar features such cocktails as Woman in Black Punch, the Old McKittrick, and Mr Kipps. You can also have “Pie & a Pint”: a beer and a pub platter, pie & mash, or duck shepherd’s pie. A full dinner is available before the show.

The story that Kipps wants the Actor to tell is about himself as a young lawyer, as he travels to the end of nowhere, Eel Marsh House, for the funeral of a longtime client of his firm, the very much not-beloved Mrs Alice Drablow; in addition, he is to go through her papers to make sure her accounts are in order. As Kipps and the Actor play out the scenes, the latter often interrupts, concerned about how certain elements will be brought to life onstage. “There are so many things we cannot represent. How do we represent the dog, the sea, the causeway? How the pony and trap?” he asks. Kipps responds, “With imagination, Mr Kipps. Ours, and our audience’s.” He also notes that the unseen Mr Bunce will be using sound effects to further enhance the telling. The closer Kipps gets to Eel Marsh House, the creepier people act when they learn where he is going. And beware the Woman in Black, who’s liable to make you jump out of your skin.

The first act’s meta-discussion of stagecraft is repetitive and stodgy, but the show finally finds its groove in the second act, once Kipps arrives at his destination and dives into his research — and wonders what’s behind the locked door. After a bumpy beginning, the Actor settles into his responsibilities portraying numerous characters quite well while experiencing those long-gone days all over again. “I have a horror of it,” he tells Kipps. “Watching you, it is as if I relive it all, moment by moment . . . though you, of course, will never suffer as I did — I must always tell myself that.” Such is the nature of theater, which merely attempts to re-create and capture a sense of reality. There are plenty of scares as the denouement approaches; we were fortunate to have a screamer next to us, which was a bonus. Acton and Porter, who have performed the play in the West End, have an amiable camaraderie; Herford likes to keep things fresh, so he changes the cast in London every nine months (which is a far cry from the situation in The Perfect Crime). The Woman in Black is scheduled to run through March 8, but shows have a habit of extending at the McKittrick; Sleep No More has been playing there since 2011. [Ed. note: The Woman in Black has now been extended through April 19.] Of course, it looks like nothing will ever top The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie show that has been running in the West End since 1952. Perhaps most important, The Woman in Black feels right at home in the Club Car, providing plenty of chills and thrills once the exposition gets out of the way.

TWI-NY TALK: JIM FLETCHER (A PINK CHAIR)

© Hervé Veronese

Jim Fletcher’s character goes through a transformation in A Pink Chair (photo © Hervé Veronese)

THE WOOSTER GROUP: A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANTIQUE)
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
January 23 - February 2, $35-$50
212-992-8484
nyuskirball.org
thewoostergroup.org

There are certain actors who just pull you in instantly; from the moment you first see them onstage, you’re hooked. For many, it might be Al Pacino or Nathan Lane, Audra MacDonald or Mary Louise Parker. Jim Fletcher is like that for a lot of intrepid, adventurous theatergoers. Tall, balding, and ruggedly handsome, the Ann Arbor native didn’t start acting until he was thirty-five, in 1998; previously he had been a teacher, a caseworker, a dogwalker, an art handler, and a pedicab driver, among other day jobs. For the past two decades he has performed extensively with some of the premier experimental theater groups in the city, most prominently Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group, in addition to collaborating with the art collective Bernadette Corporation. Among the shows Fletcher has appeared in are Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, Maxwell’s Isolde, and Compagnie l’heliotrope’s Pollock.

A poet as well, he’s also ridiculously busy; in the past few weeks, as we conducted this interview over email, he and Sean Lewis reprised Bro-Tox at La MaMa, he stopped by the Kitchen to check out Maxwell’s latest play, Queens Row, and he’s heavy into rehearsals for the Wooster Group’s A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), which runs at the NYU Skirball Center January 23 through February 2. The production, which was previously seen at the company’s much smaller home, the Performing Garage in SoHo, is a tribute to Polish avant-garde theater director and artist Tadeusz Kantor, with Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, serving as dramaturg. Fletcher plays a priest; there are some funny behind-the-scenes videos on the Wooster Group’s website in which he makes a cross and plays silly word games with the cast and crew. (The cast also features Zbigniew Bzymek, Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Gareth Hobbs, Andrew Maillet, Erin Mullin, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, and Kate Valk; to find out more about the Wooster Group, the Carriage Trade Gallery on Grand St. is hosting a multimedia retrospective of the company through January 26.) Below, Fletcher discusses, in his inimitable poetic style, his dream role, working with some of the most original creators in theater, and his carpentry skills.

twi-ny: I was at a lunch party a few months ago and got into a conversation with a woman about experimental theater. She burst out about how much she loves an actor named Jim Fletcher, and we proceeded to rave about various shows we’ve seen you in. It seems you have a cult fan club out there. How does that feel?

jim fletcher: It feels great. Please elaborate! Mind you, I’m going by what you’re saying. It sounds like there’s energy bouncing around. I love that. More. Surplus. Slurplus. You know, house rules. . . . There’s energy out there in the room, I love it too, I’m devoted too. Devotion is juicy.

twi-ny: Devotion is indeed juicy. You are part of several experimental collectives that have devoted fan bases of their own, primarily the New York City Players, the Wooster Group, and Bernadette Corporation. How did you get connected with them?

jf: I’m working with people I love. It seems I never asked myself what kind of work I wanted to do, and also never the follow-up question, who best to do it with. In that sense I’m not a productive person. I think when you get close to people, you spontaneously start working in some way . . . out of sheer energy or whatever it is. Surplus.

Jim Fletcher played Frankensteins monster in Tony Ourslers Imponderable (photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

Jim Fletcher played Frankenstein’s monster in Tony Oursler’s Imponderable (photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

twi-ny: What are the main differences between working with Richard Maxwell and with Elizabeth LeCompte?

jf: It’s easier for me to say what they have in common. In both cases it’s deep water, bright, alive. Like swimming in the ocean. Limitless, often extremely simple. Always big. And buoyant. Potentially dangerous because there’s power and a lot of desire. I’ve been lucky to work with them both. Ever-fresh. Always something other than what I would have imagined.

With Rich, among so many other things (ongoing), I learned the practice of active listening in the room, with your body and with your subtle body for that matter . . . whatever body you can muster. Listening to time, listening to others, to minds, listening to story and to space, without withdrawing your energy or agency, your own reasons — what can that yield, where will it go? Honestly that’s something you can pursue for as many years and hours as you have available, with audience.

With Liz I saw the whole situation get put into motion. You get a little as if your feet are off the ground. Could go in any direction at any time. Dreaming of flight. Something’s gained in translation. Movement. And she employs very complex orchestration — of lighting, sound, voice. Language. Set design. Onstage behavior. Machinery. And yes, video. All indisputably unified by the principle of a single viewpoint, that of a person watching — specifically, of her watching. It’s quite thrilling. You know sometimes as a performer in these great stage architectures of hers I simply don’t get it until I see the videotape of us trying to do it. There’s no way to really perceive it or even imagine it from onstage.

twi-ny: For a nonproductive person, you seem to work nonstop in a wide variety of genres. Among the characters you’ve portrayed over the last few years are Jackson Pollock, Jay Gatsby, and Lemmy Caution. Do you have a dream character you’d love to play?

jf: When I was first getting to know the artist Tony Oursler, he asked me that same question over coffee, “What’s your dream role?” I said “Frankenstein,” meaning, of course, Frankenstein’s monster. Seems like a year later as I was going into his studio for a few hours’ work, his assistant Jack [Colton] said to me, “I think we’ll get you into the Frankenstein makeup first.” Total surprise. Zero preparation. No time to think about it. It was so much like a dream. And my text was a song that Tony had dreamed that night, “Spark of Life.” He’d woken up and recorded it as it had come to him and I listened to it several times while Enver Chakartash and Naomi Raddatz did a genius monster makeover on me, which took all of a half hour. Frankenstein the created being. I sang it into Tony’s camera and it was strange. When I finished he pulled his face from behind the monitor; there was a tear rolling down his cheek. The tear of Frankenstein.

twi-ny: Ah, that was Imponderable, which was the centerpiece of his big MoMA show. I saw him and Constance DeJong bring back Relatives at the Kitchen two years ago. You’ve been in numerous productions at the Kitchen, as well as La MaMa, Abrons Arts Center, and the Performing Garage. For the next two weekends, you’ll be at the Skirball Center with A Pink Chair, which was previously staged at La MaMa and REDCAT in LA. Skirball is doing amazing things under Jay Wegman. What has the process been like bringing A Pink Chair there?

jf: [Skirball director] Jay Wegman makes things flow. He makes a deal spontaneously, no head-scratching, and sticks to it. Sometimes you have to sort of check yourself and say, yes, he’s really doing this. You can feel the Wegman effect when you’re working inside the institution — it was like that at Abrons too when he was there. A lot of heart. A lotta lot. He doesn’t flinch. And he seems radically relaxed somehow.

Once I was meeting with him in his office at Abrons and I casually admired this or that thing on his wall or on the desk, to which he repeatedly replied, “Do you want it?” It was very disarming and somehow a challenge. A kind of destabilizing personal bounty. I think he was serious. That’s the wild effect he has. . . . He leaves you pondering that to yourself: “I think he was serious? . . .”

twi-ny: Have there been any major adjustments to A Pink Chair given the larger stage and much bigger house?

jf: The show is feeling great in Skirball. It was conceived on a large scale, so it looks at home here. Skirball is a great space. The crowds here somehow have a kind of living room feeling . . . rather than some kind of modeled civic space. It’s a civic space that’s not trying too hard to look like one. It just is one. Very comfortable. Not obsessed with being the last word in design.

But so many of the shows I’ve seen here look great! I have noticed as an audience member here that I feel I’m able to be in contact with people sitting all the way across the room from me. Not every theater has that. Is it the curved rows? The warm array of nipple-shaped glass lamps as ceiling lighting?

As far as adjustments, we are spending a lot of time getting the sound right. That’s a major adjustment for any new venue we go to. Liz plays the room like a hi-fi set.

Jim Fletcher carries away Suzzy Roche in A Pink Chair (photo by Steve Gunther)

Jim Fletcher carries away Suzzy Roche in A Pink Chair (photo by Steve Gunther)

twi-ny: Speaking of being in the audience, when I am not in the audience watching you onstage, I often see you in the audience of other shows. What do you like to do on those rare occasions when you’re not in a theater?

jf: Burpees. Other stuff too. 🙂 Let’s spend some time together.

twi-ny: We’ll do so at Skirball, so getting back to A Pink Chair, can you talk a little about your character, the priest?

jf: About my character, I want to say up top, again: costumes by Enver Chakartash, in collaboration with Liz. When you swirl, it twirls. I have enough sense to know when a costume is doing the work for me, so I stay out of its way and let it do it.

The set is kind of like a territory, with different zones and thresholds, and a void, and a highly populated sector. In the most basic way I’d say A Pink Chair is a visit to the Underworld. A daughter (true story) engages a theater company (us) to help her go there to try to make contact with her father who was the great theater artist Tadeusz Kantor. How did we think to look there for him? That’s where he seemed to be headed in the final play he actually saw through to production, I Shall Never Return. The performers in A Pink Chair sometimes feel like pieces, subject to the zone they are in, and able to move in ways specific to each person. Mind you these are not explicit rules . . . it’s just how it has developed. Like laws of nature. What you’re seeing is a history of intelligent development . . . aimed at you, me, the unknown soldier, coming to see the show. My character the priest is one of those that is able to cross the void, for instance.

twi-ny: According to a behind-the-scenes video, it looks like you had a bit of a problem nailing your own cross; what are your carpentry skills like?

jf: I guess a crucifix is probably about the simplest thing you can make from wood. The rugged cross: Nail one piece of wood to another bisecting the smaller one, but not the larger one, at right angles. They say Christ was a carpenter. . . .