Rehearsal Room C in the Music Center Annex is where office chairs go to die. They cluster in the corners kibitzing, daring you to sit in them””and there isn’t much choice, unless you prefer to sit in a cold metal folding chair. Three worse-for-wear office chairs are gathered around a small folding table for my interview with Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli.
Dukakis arrives first. I’m not sure what I expect””more drama, maybe?””but it isn’t this easygoing lady-next-door. As she enters, she’s already practically in the middle of a conversation about which way to wrap her new wrist guard. She pulls it from her classic Kate Spade messenger bag as she sits down. We both study it, and the clever device never gives up its secrets. Barricelli sweeps in a few minutes later and saves us from the dilemma.
The two are starring in Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum. In the two-hander, Barricelli, as Kemp, talks a blue streak as he sits by the bedside of his dying aunt, Grace (Dukakis). She says barely a word.
They have worked together several times””For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again by Michel Tremblay comes to their minds first. They played mother and son. “In that one she had all the words,” Barricelli remembers. “And I had to sit there and listen.”
“I don’t have all the words this time,” Dukakis slips in, and they both laugh. Dukakis and Barricelli have the casual ease of old friends. Their conversation overlaps and intertwines. They finish each other’s thoughts, and there’s lots of nodding agreement. In Hecuba, “He played Odysseus and I played Hecuba, and he was a conniving, political, mean-hearted””it was the perfect part for him.” They laugh and Dukakis continues, “In Agamemnon we played Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. They were cold murderers and lovers and whatever.”
The two actors feel as if they have been in more than four plays together because several of the shows have moved to other cities. They have a deep trust and understanding of how the other likes to work. Barricelli likens meeting a co-star for the first time to an arranged marriage. “It’s “˜Hi, how do you do. I’m your lover’ on the first day of rehearsal. We don’t need to bother with any of that. We can make fools of ourselves in front of each other and that’s okay.”
Dukakis readily agrees, “And be somewhat irreverent towards each other.”
Have they been foolish recently? “Every day,” they chorus. Anything you’d care to share? Barricelli: “No, you’ll see it all on stage.”
“It happens so frequently,” laughs Dukakis and then becomes thoughtful. “You finally have to let go of any kind of”¦ well, no, I don’t let go of it. I let go of it and then I get it back”¦ a sense a disappointment with myself. And when I get it right, I think well that’s it and then [the disappointment] hits again”¦”
“And it’s, here I go again,” Barricelli adds. “It doesn’t change, you just get used to it.”
“Yes, here I go again,” she echoes. “You learn to have it and then to move on. Instead of staying stuck in it or defending it. And I see that happening with him, and he sees that happening with me and, actually, he just sits there and laughs. Like yesterday you were laughing at me!”
They laugh together, and he says dryly, “I was. It amuses me.”
“He was laughing at me. And it actually helped that I looked over and saw you laughing. I thought, “˜Oh, the hell with all this. You’re not so bad, it’s okay, you’re not so bad.’”
This attention to the process, to the craft of acting, serves both Dukakis and Barricelli as teachers. And through teaching they become better, more self-aware performers. Barricelli explains that over time it’s easy to just do the work and lose touch with how you go about it. When teaching, “I have to remember how I do it, but that’s not enough. Then I have to be able to convey it to this person. To have to articulate it in a way that will have resonance for a particular student is really enlightening.”
Dukakis agrees and adds that as her own approach to acting evolves, her teaching changes with it. “You keep learning about the process, you keep learning about yourself. You keep confronting yourself in a different way. The values stay the same, but the methods change.”
Dukakis and Barricelli last performed Vigil at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in the spring of 2010. I ask if there is anything they want to do differently this time, and what they both want is to do it better. Barricelli insists returning to the play is nothing like riding a bike. He started rehearsal in LA a few days early to get the lines back in his head. “I was in this room, and I was pacing around saying the words and nobody could tell me I was doing it wrong, so I was brilliant! My god, I surprised myself! And then of course Morris [playwright/director Morris Panych] came and said, “˜No-no-no, do it differently.’”
Their only disagreement during our entire conversation is over who has the harder job in this play. “Oh, he does,” Dukakis answers immediately.
But Barricelli is more circumspect. “Well, I was thinking about that this morning in the shower, actually.”
Dukakis seems surprised. “Really?”
“Yes, because there’s something about having the language that allows you to sort of”¦”
“”¦ know where you’re going.” She completes his thought. “You know, I thought about that last night.”
“And when you don’t have the language it’s actually a real challenge. She’s amazing.”
Dukakis is quick to explain that it’s less about being amazing than it is about hard work. “I have to track my reactions off of him.” She tries to memorize where in each scene she has to do what and looks forward to those truly organic moments where it all flows naturally. But whether it’s memorization or magic, “I have to stay in synch with myself and with him.
“And it’s hard””hopefully it won’t feel that way for the audience””and that’s what’s good about it,” Dukakis continues. “You can’t solve it right away, you can’t get a hold of it easily. And as much as that might frighten me or challenge me, that’s really what I’m always looking for. I don’t want it to be easy. I want something that’s going to shake me up, even though in the process I complain bitterly about it.”
Writer/director Panych’s vision of Grace started out quite different from the way Dukakis is playing her. “The part that he’s explored, the part that he knows is your part. He doesn’t know this woman. I don’t know how the hell he wrote it, but he did. Initially he just wanted me to stay in the bed, do you remember that?” she asks Barricelli.
“I think in past productions the role of the aunt has been less active, both in physical activity and probably in engagement in the dialogue, than you are,” he replies. “He’s directed this play before. He’s played my role before. That’s probably why he’s more connected to Kemp and Kemp is sort of him, in a way.”
In order to accommodate their schedules, the rehearsal process for the ACT production was fractured. They rehearsed for several weeks in the fall, took the winter off, and rehearsed briefly in the spring before starting tech. Both actors liked the extra time to marinate in the roles, even though they weren’t working on the play together during the break.
“I need her to do this play,” explains Barricelli. “Ultimately, I have to have those eyes and I have to have that person there to move forward. But I can’t be free to play with Olympia until I’m sure of it my head, so there was a lot of time alone to learn the words.”
Dukakis didn’t have all those lines to learn, but she did spend the time thinking about and really getting to know her character. “That’s part of the problem””there used to be just four weeks of rehearsal, but now rehearsals are being cut even shorter because of money constraints. That “˜cooking’ time is important. There are certain things that have to cook slower than others. If you put the heat up too much, you don’t get what you want.”
Knowing they would walk away from rehearsal and not have to perform right away removed all pressure from their initial rehearsal period. I observe that putting aside the work for a time is a luxury often enjoyed by writers. Dukakis’ voice is tinged with envy as she retorts, “Not only that, but if they don’t like what they write, they tear it up and nobody sees it! There isn’t a thing we do that everybody doesn’t see.”
I note that Vigil deals with a very uncomfortable topic in a light and airy way. Barricelli says, “I hope it’s funny…It’s amusing, but it’s all character-driven.”
“There are no jokes,” agrees Dukakis.
When I add that reading the script made me both laugh and feel uncomfortable, Dukakis leans closer and asks, “What made you uncomfortable?” I am surprised by their eagerness for my feedback, for my impressions of the play. I explain that my discomfort arose from Kemp’s apparent desperation””he’s getting so little from Grace, but revealing so much about himself.
Barricelli jumps in. “That’s a very interesting clue about him””who is he and where he comes from. He has no social skills, he’s completely hobbled”””
“And so is she.” It’s Dukakis’ turn to interrupt. “She is isolated in this room, she doesn’t talk to anybody, she has no contact with the world. I was reminded of this woman”¦ When I was in college I lived in a boarding house and there was this woman who was a shut-in. People would bring her things, and I don’t think she ever went out. But I remembered her and how inept she was. It just came over me, this memory of that woman”¦” She trails off.
“But it makes sense that it would. When you’re in the process”¦” Barricelli sounds reassuring.
Dukakis returns to the play. “Because this woman has nothing. She has no place to go. She’s surrounded by the memorabilia of her life, but it’s not as if she turns to it for any kind of solace; she ignores it. She begins to discover her own place again through him, because he’s looking. He picks up things and she looks at them for the first time again.”
Like any work of art, each person who encounters Vigil will find his own meaning in it. For its two actors, the play is about a relationship. Barricelli’s Kemp starts out lonely, detached, friendless. “It’s about the blossoming of a very beautiful and delicate friendship, for me,” he confides.
“That’s what happens,” Dukakis nods. “And I start out suspicious and frightened and terrified of anybody and of him, and slowly I learn to trust him and then like him and then love him. And when””” She went on, but I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Dukakis clearly appreciates Barricelli’s work. “The two-handers are really interesting efforts””I mean the audience won’t see the effort””but I watch him and he doesn’t just mumble in rehearsal. He’s on it, he’s right with it, on the top of it every minute. At the end of the day he’s a tired man.”
“What amazes me about Olympia,” says Barricelli, “is that you do as much as you do. Every time I call, when we’re not working together, it’s “˜Oh, I’m in Greece’ or””weren’t you just in Louisiana or something?” Barricelli’s admiration is obvious. “You’re always zigging and zagging and going all over the place. It’s a lot of work.”
“I’m always hustling.”
And with that, Dukakis and Barricelli are on the move, down the hall to rehearsal, and the office chairs are again left alone.
Vigil, presented by Center Theatre Group. Open Nov. 6. Â Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2:30 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 6:30 pm. Through December 18. Tickets: $30-65. Mark Taper Forum, 601 West Temple, LA. VisitÂ www.centertheatregroup.org. or call 213-628-2772.
***All Vigil production photos by Craig Schwartz
Rachel Fain’s second grade teacher predicted she’d be a high school dropout, because she wrote pages and pages every week and thus failed to finish her alphabet stories. Her teacher was wrong. Since then, Fain has spent nearly 20 years working in LA theater. She started as a stage manager, technical director and producer in small theaters, and did an 11-year stint on staff at Center Theatre Group in production, new play development and finally education, where she created nearly three dozen play guides for students and adults. Today Fain is a freelance writer and editor, and much better at meeting deadlines.Print