Joe Palka joins a stellar cast in the QTC’s The Night Alive, playing the role of Maurice. He shares with us how he continues to grow in his understanding of his character and the play.
It’s become conventional wisdom among the cast members that Maurice is a God-like figure (thanks to David Dubov’s initial interpretation that had not dawned on me until he mentioned it!) He looms from above, only coming down to pass judgment and guide behaviors. One might even liken him to Zeus, with the thunder of his cane pounding from above, but his character must also exist in a realistic, human form–experiencing guilt, anger and concern for the passing of time and the end of life. He has a transcendent awareness that “living in the moment” is the only thing that matters, and he suffers a terrible sadness that he cannot control man’s choices. When he becomes frustrated at not being able to control the carnage and violence he sees on TV, one must wonder if God has similar frustrations at observing the same carnage and violence, but without the television. (No one doubts–at least I don’t–God’s ability to do something about it, but He has His own reasons for not interfering, should He choose not to do so.)
This is my second Conor McPherson endeavor, having portrayed Richard in an acclaimed production of The Seafarer at Scena Theatre. The spiritual component of The Seafarer is more obvious, of course, when four rowdies play cards with the devil, but the theatre-goer is forced to navigate more obscure symbolism elsewhere. Although I consider The Seafarer a superior work, The Night Alive is more honest. McPherson’s symbolism is very apparent, but this is not only a play about the spirit. It is about Time. Having lived with the play for some months now, I’m confident the significance of all its devices may not occur to me for some months or years down the road.
Maurice brought me challenges of range. He is not inherently a humorous character like Richard or Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock. However,he is not completely lacking in humor – he wouldn’t be Irish if he was – but he is dealing with the guilt of losing his wife, which continues to cast a shadow over everything. He is sweet when he meets Aimee, but he becomes vindictive shortly thereafter due to his frustration with the aimlessness of the others. McPherson allows for no clear explanation, but again, it’s a play about Time. One of the beauties of the play is how it allows the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. That is the essence of great theatre, and McPherson is a writer uniquely gifted for the theatre.
Grant Cloyd makes his QTC debut in The Night Alive as Kenneth. He shares how he approached playing “evil.”
“Evil has no meaning” – so says Maurice in scene 4 of The Night Alive. In many ways, working on a character as troubled and troubling as Kenneth has entailed adhering to that adage. As a performer I can’t play “evil”. I simply say the words and perform the actions that McPherson wrote and let the audience react and judge as they see fit. My work is to find the mindset and the backstory that justifies these actions. And in this case, the answers often aren’t found in Kenneth’s lines – in which he is frequently coy, cagey or outright deceitful. He is more than willing to “pull your peanut” to get the information he needs while providing little insight to his own motivations.
Throughout the play, McPherson poses more questions than he answers for Kenneth. The script reveals that he drives a car, is prone to violence, and that Aimee denies she knows him until eventually revealing, “He’s my boyfriend,” before quickly clarifying, “Well, my ex.” Later, when asked how she could be with “someone like that” she simply offers, “He changed.” Little else is said about Kenneth. Indeed, he is never even named for the audience – no character says his name and he never introduces himself at any point. The only reason the audience might know his name is because it’s listed in the program.
Ultimately, this limited pool of information is a gift. It allows me (and my cast-mates and director) to use these kernels to create a backstory that fits within McPherson’s generous parameters. I get to answer those questions. What is Kenneth doing when he is not on-stage? How did he change? What is his relationship with Aimee? Why does he do what he does? What was his childhood like? What kind of car does he drive? The list goes on and on, or as Kenneth might say, “round and round”. And though I have a lot of questions to answer, McPherson only gives Kenneth one problem to solve. It’s a problem which speaks to both the core of the character and the task of the performer: Kenneth and I both have to find some way, “To forget that a devil lives inside of [me] and [I] should probably just go home but [I] can’t do that.”
Chelsea Mayo was last seen at QTC in this summer’s The Lady with the Little Dog as Anna Sergeyevna. In The Night Alive, she plays Aimee.
How is your role in The Night Alive different from your role in McPherson’s The Veil?
In The Veil, set in 1820s Ireland, I played Hannah, a teenaged girl who is about to be married off to a wealthy Englishman in order to settle her family’s affairs. All of McPherson’s characters are haunted in one way or another; Hannah sees ghosts, hears voices, and actually acts as a medium in a seance. Aimee’s demons aren’t as visible, but she’s haunted by decisions she’s made or been forced to make.
There’s also a difference of nearly 200 years between the two plays. Aimee is the only woman in The Night Alive, which is common for McPherson’s plays, if they have female characters at all. The Veil is an exception with five wonderful roles for women ranging from late teens to seventies. In The Night Alive, Aimee is an outsider, stumbling into Tommy’s life and changing it forever. In The Veil, Hannah is the one who has strangers appear in her world to shake things up.
What was your process in developing your character? Was there a key physical characteristic that helped you to define your character? Aimee is the youngest character, only in her late twenties, but life has already dealt her some hard blows. We see the physical effects of that violence at the top of the show, and McPherson hints at her past over the course of the play.Thinking about weight and resistance helped me to shape her movement, exploring when she feels the heaviness of that burden and when she’s able to let it go for a while. I think the beauty of this play is in the surprising contrast between the dark and light moments, and I hope audiences will enjoy being as bewildered by the sudden shifts between the two as the characters are.
QTC board member/actor David Dubov has been very busy at QTC this season. Besides leading QTC’s PR/marketing team, David has played major roles in QTC’s A Lesson from Aloes, The Lady with the Little Dog, and now as “Doc” in The Night Alive. And yet, David still had time to respond to a few questions posed to him by QTC Co-founder Stephanie Mumford regarding his work on the role of Doc.
What do you think of the character of Doc and his role in “The Night Alive”?
“Doc is complex, despite his simple exterior. He is supposed to exist in a brain state “five to seven seconds” behind everyone else, but his mind is far beyond the time lapse he experiences in the life of the play. Each character has his or her profound moments, but Doc’s musings take in a much wider scope than you would expect of a low-life moocher stuck in the grit of Dublin. McPherson has created this person who might be based on real life guys he’s known, but his brilliant writing has taken the whole cloth of Doc and crafted a wonder – funny, interesting, and full of a deep appreciation of life despite its sometimes desperate circumstances.”
How does your role in “The Night Alive” compare to the one you played in McPherson’s “The Seafarer”?
“I played Nicky Giblin in QTC’s The Seafarer a few years ago, and Doc shares some characteristics with Nicky. They are both good men caught in situations beyond their control and beyond their mental capacity to understand what is happening to them. Nicky may be more straightforward in his narrative through-line during the play, but Doc is a deeper person. I’ve had fun with both, of course, but Doc makes me the happiest.”
Was there a certain aspect of Doc’s nature with which you connected or that fascinated you? Was there a key physical characteristic that helped you in developing his character?
“Despite the complexities and simplicities of Doc, his shining humanity and understated good-heartedness are what I latched on to, to create him on stage. His speech pattern is distinctive, too, giving me a handhold on which to hang the layers of the character, and that gives him a depth a more straightforward portrayal by a playwright less skilled than McPherson would have neglected. The coke-bottle-bottom glasses are a great touch, too!
“It’s such a pleasure playing this man with all of his frailties and strengths. A real challenge!”
For an evening of thought provoking drama, see Quotidian Theatre Company alum and playwright Audrey Cefaly spread her wings with her latest play, The Gulf, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. Cefaly’s play portrays two lovers drifting along in a spare boat, adrift in the middle of a backwoods Southern river delta, as they sort through their six-year relationship, realizing that moving forward may well mean moving in different directions.
The Gulf has drawn rave reviews for its ability to portray the joys and heartbreak of love. As John Stoltenburg of DCMetro Theatre Arts observes, “Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf is as memorable as anyone’s own first broken heart and as enduring as anyone’s longing for lasting love.”
According to Amanda Gunther of Theatre Bloom, Cefaly’s story is “profoundly crafted with a striking emotional core. [She] articulates her work with nuance and finesse while doing so in the practiced patois of the gulf vernacular” and is “practically a poet with the give and take, push and pull, ebb and flow of the way these two women interact.”
The acting is also first rate. Ryan Taylor of DC Theatre Scene observes, “Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli make a cracking pair, evoking a couple that has been together long enough to know each other inside and out, just enough to effectively wound in argument, with full knowledge that both have a killing blow stored, just in case.”
Jeffrey Walker of Broadway World proclaims that Cefaly is “an exciting new voice for the theatre,” and he adds that Rizzo and Zampelli give “two of the most riveting performances I have seen this season so far.”
David Siegel of DC Metro Theatre Arts agrees, enthusing “The portrayals by Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli will be talked about beyond DC, as they should. They set a high bar for those who come after them, when The Gulf becomes a play produced through[out] the United States, as I am sure it will be.”
Further accolades come from Peter Marks of the Washington Post for director Joe Calarco, who ensures “the 85-minute comedy-drama is invested with an assured, soulful intimacy.”
The Gulf is a play that is not to be missed!
Tickets, $40-$89. Through Nov. 6 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820- 9771.
Rachel Zampelli and Maria Rizzo in The Gulf. (photo by Margot Schulman)
Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli in The Gulf. (photo by Margot Schulman)
Rachel Zampelli and Maria Rizzo in The Gulf. (photo by Margot Schulman)
Why in the world, you might ask, would Quotidian Theatre Company choose to stage Conor McPherson’s NY-Drama-Circle-Award-Winning Play The Night Alive after its Bethesda neighbor, Round House, so successfully produced the play just one year earlier? Well, let’s go back to December 2013, when QTC co-founders Jack Sbarbori and Stephanie Mumford saw the difficult-to-categorize work at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York. As usual, we saw the play a couple of times and sat as close as possible to the stage in the intimate performance space, a former church, so we could feel a part of the action. We were spellbound by the authenticity and humanity of the quirky, yet entirely recognizable characters. The dramatic shifts between the everyday and otherworldly, the seediness and sublime, the despair, and laugh-out-loud humor enthralled us.
So of course, Jack–McPherson’s number one fan and noted director of McPherson’s plays in the D.C. area—had to do it. He immediately applied for the rights, but was chagrined to learn that a larger regional theatre had it in reserve for a staging in the distant future. In the meantime, Jack mollified his disappointment by directing another McPherson play on his “to-do” list, This Lime Tree Bower, and just as soon as Round House completed its production of The Night Alive in the fall of 2015, Jack successfully obtained the rights.
One of QTC’s core missions is to examine the canon of works by its cornerstone playwrights—Anton Chekhov, Horton Foote, and Conor McPherson. Having previously staged McPherson’s The Weir, Dublin Carol, Port Authority (D.C. area premiere), The Seafarer, Shining City, The Birds (D.C. area premiere), The Veil (U.S. premiere), and This Lime Tree Bower, QTC is running out of McPherson’s plays to explore, while garnering a reputation for expert and insightful stagings of the master Irish playwright’s works. Despite Round House’s fine production last season, D.C. Theatre Scene’s Tim Treanor still put QTC’s 2016 offering of the same work on his annual list of “won’t-miss shows.” According to Treanor, “Quotidian… specializes in the subtle and the underplayed, which is just perfect for this play.” In July 2015, D.C. Theater Scene’s Roy Maurer praised QTC as “the best stage to experience McPherson’s plays in the Washington, D.C. area.”
So, even if you have already seen this play, QTC’s special affinity for McPherson’s work is likely to make you see it in a different light, particularly its mystifying ending.