What's New on the Rialto
Henry Stram and Mary Testa
See What I Wanna See
By Beth Herstein
See What I Wanna See, the new Michael John LaChiusa musical, currently at The Public Theater, consists of two acts linked thematically but distinct in plot and character. The first act, "R Shomon," is based on the Ryonosake Akutagwa short story "In a Grove," which also was the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon. The husband of a beautiful woman has been brutally murdered, and everyone connected to the crime the wife, a sexy and possibly restless nightclub singer; a brutal young thief with designs on the wife; a seemingly innocent janitor who stumbled upon the murder scene on his way to work; the dead man himself, with the assistance of a medium provides a different rendering of the underlying facts. The second story, "Gloryday," tells of a priest who loses his faith in the wake of an unnamed catastrophe which has befallen his city. In his pain, he stages an elaborate practical joke designed to reveal the emptiness of religious faith, but he is stunned by the snowballing effect of his scheme on those around him - and, ultimately, on himself. Together, these ambitious pieces and the vignettes that open each act raise questions about the nature of faith, loss, and reality.
Henry Stram and Mary Testa
The show features a dream cast: Marc Kudisch, Aaron Lohr, Idina Menzel, Henry Stram and Mary Testa all perform multiple parts. Though Menzel, who won a Tony Award for her star turn in Broadway's smash hit Wicked, and Kudisch, a two-time Tony nominee who took a leave from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to perform in LaChiusa's work, are the biggest names in the cast, one of the real treats of See What I Wanna See is that it gives all of the actors a chance to shine on stage, showcasing the talents of each.
One of these actors is respected stage veteran Henry Stram. Stram, the son of NFL coaching legend Hank Stram, grew up in Kansas City, where his father coached the Kansas City Chiefs from 1963-74. There, Stram performed locally with the acting company The Barn Players before he moved to New York in 1973 to study acting at Juilliard. Following school, he amassed a wide array of credits, including roles in numerous productions both at The Public Theater and with the Acting Company. For his Off-Broadway work, he received an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence for 1995-96.
In 1997, Stram made his Broadway debut in the Tony winning musical Titanic. "It was the first time I had a savings account, and I was forty years old," he laughs. He loved working in the show, in which he appeared for two years along with a stellar cast including Judy Blazer, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, and Stram's longtime partner, Mark Moran. Ted Sperling, director of See What I Wanna See, was also a cast member. "All the people who were in that play, I still feel really close to. It was a very unique production," Stram says.
In addition to his regular appearances on the New York stage and in film and television, Stram has performed, to high acclaim, in numerous out of town productions. In 2004, he played novelist Henry James in the Polly Pen/ Laurence Klavan musical Embarrassments at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Of his work with Pen, Stram states, "It's another wonderful collaboration I've had over the years. I've done two of her shows. In fact, the first time I worked with Mary [Testa] was in one of her shows, [Christina Alberta's Father] at the Eugene O'Neill [Theater Center]." Stram worked on Embarrassments for around two years, from the beginning to the end, and, in the course of that period, he read books by and about James and traveled to London to visit some of James' old haunts.
Stram also worked hard to prepare for another recent role. He learned sign language in order to play John Singer, the deaf mute man at the center of Rebecca gilman's adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Commissioned by Actors Company, the play ran in March and April of this year at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. The production was well received, and Stram received rave reviews. "I hope we get to do it again," he says. "The Acting Company is trying to get a production here sometime. Doug Hughes directed it, and the entire ensemble was incredible."
"The longer we do it, the more brilliant Michael John's conception is. How he threads through both pieces. Things that rhyme in the first act with things in the second act. Musical themes and ideas. Idina in the first act, singing she feels unclean; in the second act, she sings that she feels so clean."
Initially, Stram appeared in a private reading of the show, then called R'Shomon, before heading to Williamstown Theatre Festival during the summer of 2004. "We had rehearsal for only three weeks, the first time we did it at Williamstown. Then the show only was on for two weeks. So it was so fast, and we just kind of got it up and ran." The Williamsburg production of the show co-starred Testa, Audra McDonald, Michael C. Hall and Tom Wopat. "We had a fantastic cast then," Stram says, but the new cast is also fantastic. "To hear those voices coming at you is just wonderful ... Right before we started the first dress rehearsals everyone in the cast started getting sick. I got sick last. So I had to sit there for the run through. Someone would say my lines and someone would sing the part. And, it was very incredible to be there and just watch everyone, especially in the second act."
He is glad that the show is playing at The Public, at the commencement of Oskar Eustis' tenure as Artistic Director. "The first show I did here [Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day] was one of the last shows that Mr. Papp did. Mr. Papp was here, and he was around, and he really loved that play. It was one of the last things that he really had hands-on experience with. I was in two shows when JoAnne Akalaitis was here, and I did a lot of Shakespeare when George [C.] Wolfe was director. It's really wonderful to be here, with [Oskar Eustis] here. He's such a great man and a wonderful leader."
Mary Testa, who performs the role of the medium in R Shomon and the priest's Aunt Monica in Gloryday, is another respected veteran of the stage. She also has longstanding relationships with several eminent playwrights. When she moved to New York from Rhode Island at the age of 21, Testa immediately fell into good company, becoming friends with then-aspiring writer/composer William Finn. "Then [in 1979] his first show, In Trousers, came about and I was in that." Later on, she appeared in other Finn works as well, most recently in 1998's A New Brain at Lincoln Center.
Testa's critically acclaimed work in Finn's shows and in countless other productions have made her a familiar and well loved presence in the New York theater scene. Early on, she had roles in Barnum and Marilyn and she understudied Liza Minnelli in The Rink. She has worked steadily ever since. "I love to say that I've clawed my way to the middle," she jokes. "I'm a working actor." And, she adds, she has worked her tail off to get there. "Luck has only a little to do with it."
Like Stram, Testa has worked at The Public Theater before in her case, in the 1997 revival of On the Town at the Delacorte Theater. "That score is so gorgeous. To hear that music in that setting was wonderful." Of Wolfe, she states, "He was one of a kind. There was a bristling sort of energy when George was here. Now, it's sort of an even, very friendly atmosphere. Oskar [Eustis] is a doll. I don't really know him well, but he's been extremely supportive of the piece and of us. Plus, he was at Trinity for a really long time, and I'm from Rhode Island." That gave them an immediate bond, she says. "It's a different energy [at The Public now], but a lovely energy nonetheless."
In 1998, On the Town moved to Broadway, and Testa received the first of her two Tony nominations. The second was for her role in 42nd Street in 2001. Another Broadway role was Domina in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Nathan Lane. She remained in the show when Whoopie Goldberg took over the lead. "Whoopie's great," Testa says. "She's lovely and fun. We became friends on that show." Testa was in the cast of Goldberg's television show, Whoopie, which was on during the 2003-04 season. "We had a ball. We were all so upset that it was cancelled. We're still upset. We still get together, a bunch of people from the show, and we just can't believe it. Especially with the state of what's on TV now." During Whoopie's run, Testa enjoyed the respite from the hard pace of life in the theater.
"I don't have to tell you that TV is much easier than doing eight shows a week. Much easier. It's like a breeze and a walk in the park. Especially if you have a lot of good people, good writers, a good director, people at the top of their game. It becomes a snap in a way." She adds, "It's hard doing eight shows a week, because your life is centered around doing a show at night. I'm not complaining - but, it's tiring." Despite her successes and her love of her work in the theater, the uncertainty of the actor's life can be frustrating at times. "You're always trying to find a job. That's always been true. But, you get to a certain point where you just think, Just give me the job. Don't make me dance for it.' How many times do you have to prove yourself?"
Testa, who also performed in Marie Christine at Lincoln Center from December 1999 to January 2000, has long been a champion of LaChiusa's work. She was disappointed in the lukewarm reception to Marie Christine, which was loosely based on Euripides' Medea - and, like the current show, set the classic tale in a more contemporary place and time. "I thought it was a brilliant piece," Testa recalls. "Nobody got it. I don't know how you can deny a piece like that. I don't know how you can dismiss the quality of a piece like that. I say this all the time, and I'm going to say it here too. That year at the Tony awards, Michael John's two scores were up, for Marie Christine and Wild Party - against Aida ... And Aida won. You can't even compare these scores. It's like a tapestry versus a thread."
For now, Testa is enjoying the complex tapestry LaChiusa has created with See What I Wanna See. The cast album was recently recorded and will be released on Ghostlight Records. "Michael John just called me today and said it's so beautiful. We're all really excited about it." It's a testament to the complexity of LaChiusa's work that even those who aren't fans of his shows often listen to and love the cast albums, Testa says. She expects that this recording will have a similar appeal.
Because of the complexity of the work, there are creative challenges in developing her two roles, the medium in the first act and Aunt Monica in the second act. "The characters have to always come from a place within you, first. Then, you build them." There have been subtle changes over the course of her association with the work which, in a show this subtle, goes a long way, she says. "I was a lot more sentimental with Aunt Monny in Williamstown. And I found that here I stripped away a lot of the sentimentality, and it works really well for some reason. Just being gruffer and kind of annoyed by pretty much everything ... It's interesting, stripping away the wonder from her, and just being annoyed by it, makes a whole different thing."
Mary Testa, Marc Kudisch, Idina Menzel, Aaron Lohr
In addition, she continues to learn more about the characters. "I was saying to Michael John one day that I thought that the medium in Act One and Aunt Monny in Act Two are kind of opposite the medium is lighter and Aunt Monny is darker. And, I said it again at a talk-back and somebody said, No they're actually quite similar. They both kind of have hope to them.'" She shrugs. "I don't know. I love both the characters, obviously. Aunt Monica's kind of a truth teller and so is the medium in a way, though she's just channeling other people's truths." She stops herself short of offering deeper analysis, however. "It's very different to be in a show and to watch a show. You don't make the same connections yourself, because you're so close to it."
In the future, she plans to put together a cabaret show. "I don't know when or where it's going to be, but I've been working on that with Michael Starobin, who's a brilliant orchestrator," she says. If her schedule allows for it, she also may return to the Broadway cast of Chicago, where she stopped the show as Mama Morton this spring. "I'm hoping to go back, because I had a lovely time and it's a spectacular company. The revolving door is on the lead roles, but the core company is the same and they're wonderful. It's just a lovely, lovely job. I never thought it was going to be as nice as it was."
For now, however, her current job keeps her too busy to plan much else. "I'm not an early riser, so my day starts at around noon. That's not a lot of time - I've got five hours, six hours [before warming up for the show], and I've got to cram everything in."
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