BACK STAGE WEST
August 14, 2003
OPENING THIS WEEK: As Bees in Honey Drown
You can't accuse the Pasadena Playhouse of putting sitcoms onstage, but it would be fair to observe that artistic director Sheldon Epps is not above putting sitcom stars onstage--and putting sitcom producers, scenic designers, and directors to work behind the scenes. One such successful crossover director is Epps himself, whose three-camera credits include Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Girlfriends.
But the TV gig that seems to have been the most fertile for his theatre is Frasier, which Epps helms about four times a season. Frasier producer/writer David Lee has directed multiple shows at the Playhouse, including a marvelous revival of Do I Hear a Waltz? and Light Up the Sky, starring Dan Butler; and longtime TV scenic designer Roy Christopher has now designed four shows at the Playhouse. His fourth, As Bees in Honey Drown, opens next week at the Playhouse, headlined by Peri Gilpin and directed by Epps.
"I always say that directing for television supports my theatre habit," said Epps. In the case of Frasier, though, it's more than just the money. "I came to know these people through working on Frasier, and sort of exploited--in the healthy sense of that word--a lot of people in that venue who have theatre backgrounds and a desire to get back into the theatre."
In the case of Gilpin, it was a chance not to just get back onstage but to get another crack at the lead in Douglas Carter Beane's play, which she'd done briefly near the end of its Off-Broadway run. It was on a summer hiatus from Frasier that she realized she needed a project.
"I went to Chicago to see John Mahoney in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and after I saw it, I was pacing around my hotel room," Gilpin said with a laugh. "My then-boyfriend--who's now my husband--said, 'You've got to do something you believe in this summer or you're going to drive us both crazy.' The next morning the script was in my box."
The leading lady of As Bees is Alexa Van de Vere, a larger-than-life, jet-setting ostensible star-maker who attracts young artists into her orbit.
"I couldn't read it silently," recalled Gilpin. "She's so delicious. I started calling New York the next morning."
Gilpin was put into the show following Kristine Nielsen (who'd replaced J. Smith Cameron) in a mere two and a half weeks, and while she did squeeze in some quality time with director Mark Brokaw, the experience was a "bit of a madhouse. I'd never replaced somebody like that. I felt honored they would think I could do it, but it was hard to find a real performance; sometimes it felt like I was just running out onstage and saying my lines." This taste of Honey, of course, only whetted her appetite further: "It made me want so badly to do it again."
Epps and Gilpin chatted about it on the Frasier set. And, according to Epps, Gilpin's experience with the play has only benefited his new production.
"Having been a replacement, she was anxious to have a fuller rehearsal process, a fuller experience of the play," said Epps. "The great thing is, she's been completely willing to approach it as a new experience, as if she's never done the play--but with the benefit of having done the play. Which is good, because her character basically never stops talking. Big blocks of dialogue will come back to her, but it's not as if she's recreating her performance from before."
As Gilpin has explored Alexa, she has found some parallels with herself--mainly the way Alexa has reinvented herself and reinvents others in her image.
"I had the thickest Texas accent when I came to New York," recalled Gilpin. "My parents didn't even talk that way; it was like the Texas equivalent of Valley Girl, just the way my friends talked. And I was unintelligible. When I said I wanted to be an actress, people were like, 'Good luck, because I can't understand a word you're saying.' People thought I was stupid. It might have had something to do with not using words in the right tense."
Gilpin's greatest identification with Alexa may not be autobiographical, but it's still very close to home.
"I know so many people like this--I'm attracted to them because they're divine," she effused. "They're colorful people who make life fun, who do daring things and get you to go along with them. It makes you giddy to watch them, and they love to be the center of attention--though at some point you have to run screaming.
"I'm one of those actors who's like, I love for you to look at me playing a character, but when I'm out of character I don't want to be the center of attention at all. So I'm playing a character that I like to be around. I love the crazy; I'm like a moth to flame."
Or, need we add, like bees to honey.
As Bees in Honey Drown, presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Dr., Pasadena. Aug. 15-Oct. 21. (626) 356-7529.