May’s “Actor Stealing the Spotlight” (ASS)

Why, hello, there.  Welcome to a new feature at TBO.  Each month, we’re going to highlight an Actor who is currently Stealing the Spotlight (or, the ASS).  This is someone from our community who particularly stood out for their performance or body of work the previous month (obviously from the shows that we actually reviewed).  We thought it would be fun to shine some light on those who continue to make the Baltimore theater scene just fucking great.

AND THE ASS FOR MAY 2014 GOES TO:

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JONAS DAVID GREY

[Little aside here:  May was an AMAZING month for theatrical performance in Baltimore.  It was extremely hard to choose an ASS this time.  I just wanted to say that I saw incredibly strong showings from Rick Lyon-Vaiden as Mozart in FPCT’s Amadeus, Jeff Murray as Salieri in that same show and also a surprise pop-up from Shayla Lowe giving a fucking amazing vocal performance in Ragtime at Howard County Community College Arts Collective.  Any one of these could have easily walked with the ASS.  It was a reaaaaaaaaaaalllly hard decision, but it was mine and I made it.]

At this point, everyone knows I practically creamed myself over Edward II at Spotlighters, so it should be no surprise that this month’s ASS is the star of that show.  I thought Jonas David Grey gave the performance of a lifetime.  Here’s what I said about him in the review:

“Jonas David Grey’s Edward is so fucking vital, so alive, such a joy to watch that I had trouble keeping my eyes off of him.  The chemistry between he and Rieland is explosive, amazing, especially considering how young Rieland is.  Their first scenes are sexily effortless, but their last meeting, in which Gaveston appears to Edward as the angel of death, is one of the best things I have ever seen staged.”

I conned Jonas into an interview, so here’s what he said:

Hey, Jonas.  What’s up, how’re you?  

Well, first of all, thank you so much for this.  This is great.  This is like, better than sex.

Yep, that’s going to go ahead and be my new tagline.  The Bad Oracle:  Now Better Than Sex!  How’s the show going?

The show is going beautifully.  We’ve been blown away.  I’ve been so close to it for so long I had to detach myself from the results – well, from the critical results.  But I’ve been overwhelmed by the response.  I’m so gratified.  The things people are saying are exactly the things we wanted to hear, exactly what we expected.  It’s so validating.  I couldn’t be happier.  You’d think my ego would be absolutely insufferable right now but it’s actually the opposite, I’ve been humbled quite a bit by this experience.

I love Edward II, I’ve always really identified with that script.  Clearly you love it too.  Did you spend, like, a thousand years adapting it?  

My first encounter with Edward, both as a character and as a play, was [Derek] Jarman’s early-nineties movie version of it.  I saw it in 1994 and it had a strong impact on me as a film but I felt like I wanted more, I wanted to know more.  So I read the script and at that point the wheels began turning.  It was another several years before I saw [Richard Marquand’s] 1969 version starring Ian McKellen.  I’m sorry to say it, but I loathed it.  I despised that production.  What I specifically hated was what they did with Edward/Gaveston.  I mean, it was 1969, so props to them for doing it, but I wanted to tell a better story.  I wanted to focus on the relationship, on the sincere love between these two men. I started tinkering with it and then a lot of stuff happened.  I got back to it about two years ago and started working on it again in earnest.  I went through about thirteen revisions, some significant, some not so much.  The biggest challenge I had was streamlining it –

Oh, man, tell me about it.  I’ve seen versions of this play that are SO LOOOOONG, I felt like I wanted kill myself.

It can be very very long.  I wanted it to move – like water going down the drain, spinning and spinning until the last moment with Edward in prison.   It was really important to streamline it, clean it up.  When I gave the “final” script to Brad, I kept going “Does this make sense, does it work?”  I wanted to make sure that the narrative was still intact with such a lean script.

Do you think it was Marlowe’s intention to portray Gaveston and Edward II as lovers (spoiler, I DEFINITELY think it was)?

I have two answers.  Instinctively, in my heart, I think yes, Marlowe did intend it.  Intellectually, I think it might be anachronistic. Homosexuality and the idea of romantic love between people of the same sex looked completely different in sixteenth century England.  It might be arrogant to assume, but I do think the evidence is in the script.  There’s at least a strongly suggested sexual, if not romantic, relationship.  But I didn’t have any intention to be true to Marlowe or anyone else, I wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell.  And that story was about romantic love, not a sexual fling, nothing stigmatized.  The story we told could have been two women or a man and a woman, any two people deeply in love.  That being said, I think the text supports more than “friend” connection.  Marlowe doesn’t give the same weight to other relationships in the play, like Edward and Isabella’s, for instance.

What was your process working with Taylor Rieland?  You guys had such great chemistry, it felt like you’d known each other forever.  It just felt so easy.  Was it easy?

It was easy and it had to be.  When the show started to become a reality, the first conversation I had with Brad [Norris, Director] was about the relationship between Edward and Gaveston.  We knew we needed to find a Gaveston first.  Unfortunately, that is not what the gods had in mind because Taylor was actually the last one cast.  We had someone else who had to drop out and then my friend Steve [Satta] at Iron Crow said “I have a kid that might work, he’s still in school, he may or may not be able to do it”.  We got Taylor’s headshot and he looked about fifteen. Everyone said no way, he looks too young.  Except for me.  We brought him in and he read.  He did look young but he had something, we all agreed.  Brad asked him if he could grow facial hair and he said yes, so we cast him.

Stroke of luck, there.

Yes.  Because of the late start, though, there wasn’t a lot of room for getting to know each other.  I just told him “Look, this is all about love,” and we went for it.  To his credit, he just stepped into it.  I never envisioned their relationship like this, I thought it would be much older, more mature.  Now I can’t see it any other way.  Taylor is Gaveston and Gaveston is Taylor.

How has audience reaction been?  Do you get a lot of “Wait, what the fuck, I thought this was a Shakespeare thing”?

It’s been great overall.  The framing device was a bit of a challenge, a few members of the audience came up to me and said they wished they had an opportunity to stand and applaud.  But the performance, the story, everyone who has seen it thought it was great.  On more than one occasion there were audible gasps during the last scene, which I loved.  It’s so visceral.

What was your relationship with Brad Norris like?  Did you feel a little jealous giving up some of the control you’ve had over the script?

I’ve known Brad for a couple of years, we’ve done a few shows together.  I approached him and told him my vision for this and he was on board right way.  He’s so laid back, so easy going.   He has an imagination that doesn’t stop.  He’s so fluid.  I’m the opposite, I’m very “It has to be seven inches and this color blue”.  That’s why I asked him to do it.  And then Alicia [Stanley, Assistant Director] came on and she’s done amazing work.  Brad and Alicia are responsible for much of what you see.  My favorite scene, actually, is one between Leicester and Edward near the end of the play.  Cassie [Cassandra Dutt] came in and did the role the complete wrong way.  Leicester is accommodating, sycophantic, and here she is with this sadistic, controlling presence.  Brad said “Okay, if we’re making this choice, let’s make it stronger, let’s really torture him [Edward].”  That’s the genius of Brad, he takes what an actor brings in and amplifies it, shapes it.

I peeped that the show was Maryland Theatre Guide’s top show of the week for June 4th.  Did that feel good?  It had to feel good.

That felt great.  That felt really great.  I feel validated.  That’s the word I would use.  Validated.  We’re so proud of this and people are getting it and that’s amazing.  They’re getting it and they’re liking it.  It’s a hard show, but it does what we wanted it to do.

Whose decision was it to set the show in 1936?  In my review I just assumed it was Brad, but maybe not.  I thought it was brilliant.

You know, it’s all so jumbled now I’m not certain who came up with placing it exactly in 1936 but the idea to set the show in the early twentieth century was mine.  I didn’t want it to stay in the sixteenth century, I hate the sixteenth century.  I wanted it to be relateable but not modern.  So when I went to Brad, I may have had the thirties in mind, the political climate then mirrored the one in Marlowe’s play.  Also, there are only two female characters in the show and I cut one of them.  I’m not going to do a show with seventeen male characters and one female.  Updated, it gave us the flexibility to cast more women.  Brad did make the connection to 1936, the “year of the three kings”, the execution of that was all Brad.  But I think I came to him with the thirties.

What is the best theater in Baltimore?

I have no idea.  I don’t see a lot of theater.  I just saw Wild with Happy at Centerstage and I thought it was brilliant.  I’m also very pleased with Iron Crow.  But I don’t see a lot.  I live in Baltimore, I moved here in 1995 and then I left to live in Chicago for seven years.  When I got back I did think the small theater scene had changed, the quality had been elevated by companies like Single Carrot and Stillpointe.  Of course, I would hope that Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will be the best theater in Baltimore when it comes here in September since I’m a resident company member there.

Wanna talk some shit about anyone in the cast or crew and have it attached to your name forever on the internet?

No, I don’t.  I want to work in this town.  Actually, you know people say this but it was really true about this show: I love everyone involved. There’s no drama, no explosions of ego.  In fact, it’s a little disappointing, nothing even remotely exciting has happened backstage. I’m like, “I need something trashy to talk about!”

Anything you’ve been dying to say to the Baltimore theater scene? Throw some shade if you want, in fact, lets!

It’s been interesting coming here from Chicago.  I felt like there, everyone had a lot of passion for what they were doing.  I haven’t really felt the same in Baltimore.  We had a hell of a time casting this show, just getting people out.  A lot of them flaked at the last second.  It seems like when there’e a real opportunity, everyone scatters.  I would love to see more cohesion and camaraderie in the scene.  Of course, to see change, theaters really have to offer some sort of financial compensation.  That’s a big difference between Chicago and Baltimore.  Chicago paid.  In some cases, it was only a little, it was like “We’re poor, but here’s fifty bucks to show that we value you.”   There are some stages here that have a policy of not paying actors so they don’t set a precedent.  I know it’s double edged sword for them, they’ve gotta make money.  I get it but I don’t buy it.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m taking a nap in July and August and then I start working on Richard II with Chesapeake Shakespeare Company playing Richard.

Wanna kvetch about anything?  My blog is great for that.

I do.  A lot of my friends who are not actors have this idea that actors or unstable and erratic and temperamental by nature.  I want to say that no, that’s not necessarily an “actor’s temperament”.  That is the temperament of a creative, passionate person who is forced to spend more than half their day doing something else.  It’s the temperament of someone who has worked fifty hours in a week and still has to pull together a production.   It bugs me that creative professionals are not compensated.  People expect to be entertained, they expect a lot out of it, but the financial returns are not even remotely proportional to the work.  I don’t complain about it much because everyone I know is in the same position, but it’s incredibly hard.

Got someone you’d like to nominate for next month’s ASS? E-mail me at emailthebadoracle@gmail.com.

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