BACK STAGE WEST
October 30, 1997
ACTOR'S ACTOR: Jenna Cole
Is 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 Earnest, even her few unglamourous moments as a maid in A Doll's House).
In Design, 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.
"If 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."
And 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.
"I 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."
Indeed, 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 season.
"There 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."
The striking variety of her roles aside, Cole brings to each a consistent fiber of animating intelligence and backbone, even at their most vulnerable moments.
"I 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.
"So that's something I try to see in each character: How do they get that from other people, how do they command it?"
Cole commands ours simply by doing her work as brilliantly as she does.