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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing look at how actors create their roles
To understand the challenge of performing in a musical based on a comic book, just look at Robert Cuccioli's role in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
At first, Cuccioli plays Norman Osborn, a brilliant, neurotic scientist who's trying to improve the world with his genetic experiments. One of his mutated spiders escapes and bites a dorky teen named Peter Parker, giving the kid the powers that make him Spider-Man, but the spider's escape also starts a chain of events that leaves Norman desperate and abandoned. In a frenzy, he performs an experiment on himself, which turns him into the villainous Green Goblin.
In other words: Cuccioli plays a human being and a spectacular freak, and as an actor, he has to honor both extremes. He has to craft a performance that contains recognizable humanity, but also acknowledges a comic book's splashy fun.
"The show is built on speed and what the audience is going to want to see. There's a tempo that needs to be maintained because the audience is waiting for Spider-Man to show up," says Cuccioli, who also starred on Broadway in Les Miserables and Jekyll & Hyde. "It's a challenge for an actor to flesh out a three-dimensional character within that realm, but it's not impossible."
In terms of humanity, Norman Osborn is arguably the show's most satisfying role. Before he becomes Green Goblin, he's torn between helping mankind and helping himself, between trusting other people and fearing their intentions. Those conflicts give Cuccioli something specific to play, especially in the scene when the spider goes missing. "A lot of his vulnerability comes out there," says the actor. "Then in the following scene, there's a big dance number called 'Pull the Trigger,' and he gets to this point where he realizes that he has to use himself as the experiment. That's a scene I look forward to because it tells the peak of the story for me."
Playing those smaller moments isn't always easy in an 1,800-seat theatre like the Foxwoods, which Cuccioli calls "the barn." He explains, "We rehearsed in a rehearsal room, where the size is much smaller, so I was able to work on what the beats are, what the moments are, what the relationships are. And then when you get into the barn, you have to amp that up. I think doing a lot of Shakespeare has helped with that because they're larger-than-life characters and the size of the emotion is so huge."
On the other hand, Cuccioli, who also just released an album of standards called The Look of Love, knows the he can't get overly psychological or emotional. "As an actor, I'd love to have more of those moments," he says. "But you have to step back and say, 'This is the world we're in. This is the sandbox.'"
Asked how he finds the balance, he says, "It's about calibrating constantly. 'Okay, I'm pushing too far. I'm losing something because of that. How do I recalibrate that to add the human element back in without losing the size?' It's about the give and the take and the fluctuating until you finally find that point where oil and water mix."
The audience often helps him shape his performance. "If I try to do too much, it doesn't work for them, and I can feel that it doesn't work," he says.
Last Saturday, he had a particularly unique audience experience, when TDF sponsored an autism-friendly performance of Spider-Man for people on the autism spectrum and their families. "It was one of the more rewarding performances I've ever done because you realize that these kids and their families never get a chance to do this," Cuccioli says. "If they come by themselves to the theatre, they're worried about distracting other people. [This way] the parents can sit back and relax and let their kids enjoy it, and they can enjoy their kids enjoying it. That was a great gift to give, and I feel really honored to have been a part of that."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor