ACTOR: Jenna Cole
Jenna Cole the best theatre actress working in Southern California? It's
impossible to say that definitively, but also hard to resist such a judgment
after witnessing her crisp and richly satisfying lead performance in director
Sabin Epstein's astute and moving revival of Noel Coward's Design for Living at A Noise Within--or
witnessing her witty, earthy Elmire in Tartuffe, or her tentative but
sensuous Olivia in Twelfth Night (or hearing glowing reports of her grandly
touching Hermione in The Winter's Tale, her riotous, padded Lady Wishfort in The
Way of the World, her twisted-ingenue Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being
even her few unglamourous moments as a maid in A Doll's House).
though, Cole is onstage for nearly three hours, with three stunning costume and
hair changes, and it's fair to say that she emerges here as a true stage star.
A play Coward in fact wrote in 1933 as a star vehicle for his friends Alfred
Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Design depicts an unlikely three-pointed love triangle
between jet-setting artists in which the brittle, straightbacked Gilda is the
pivot. And though Cole, as Gilda, shares the spotlight graciously with co-stars
Francois Giroday and Art Manke, she owns the stage much as, one dares to
imagine, Lynn Fontanne once did.
there were even the remotest channeling of her, a bit of a tiny fingernail of
her spirit coming through, I would feel very fortunate," said Cole of
Fontanne in a recent interview from ANW's basement costume shop, where she
happily takes up a needle when she's not onstage or managing the house.
"The Lunts were the reasons the play exists."
Cole is at least one among many compelling reasons ANW has become one of the
premier L.A.-area talent pools, one of its few theatre success stories--and
among the only West Coast companies outside Ashland doing a regular classical
repertory season. Cole, who grew up in Minneapolis inspired by the work she saw
at the Guthrie Theater, trained at San Francisco's American Conservatory
Theater and later hooked up with a number of ACT alumni at the Saratoga,
Calif.-based Vita Shakespeare. Those connections would later form the basis of
an L.A. company in 1991, when she was called by Manke for the role of Gertrude
in ANW's inaugural Hamlet.
grew up seeing people like Peter Michael Goetz and Jefrey Chandler doing all
these fabulous character roles at the Guthrie," Cole recalled. "I
remember seeing Jef Chandler and thinking, 'He's so fabulous and yet so
different every time.' I thought, That's the kind of work I want to be able to
do, to try to transform into some different characters--or try to let the
characters speak through me."
Epstein calls Cole a "transformational actor" who's "willing to
go the other side of the moon" to create a role. And she has transformed
at least one young actress' life in a way that recalls her own inspiration at
the Guthrie. Marissa Hall, a 23-year-old intern in ANW's professional intern
program, said she was inspired to join the company by Cole's Hermione last
was one scene where her husband Leontes was accusing her, and you saw her heart
break on the stage," recalled Hall. "It was the most beautiful thing
I've ever seen in my life."
striking variety of her roles aside, Cole brings to each a consistent fiber of
animating intelligence and backbone, even at their most vulnerable moments.
always try to look for the dignity in a character, whatever mode of life or
income level that person may be," said Cole, who will next assay Arkadina
in Epstein's production of The Seagull. "Even if they have moments of
self-hatred, or whatever tragedy or comedy they're going through, there's
something about the human spirit that, unless you're about to commit suicide,
you're searching for the dignity in your life, and respect from other people.
that's something I try to see in each character: How do they get that from
other people, how do they command it?"
commands ours simply by doing her work as brilliantly as she does.