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The Tony nominee finally takes the stage in A Touch of the Poet at Irish Rep
Theatre actors don't usually get the benefit of watching their own performances. But because of the pandemic, Robert Cuccioli was able to see himself play Major Cornelius "Con" Melody in A Touch of the Poet before tackling the grandiose role on stage at Irish Rep, where the Eugene O'Neill play is running through April 17.
The production was originally scheduled to bow at the theatre's Chelsea home two years ago this month but was delayed by the shutdown. In the summer of 2020, the company's producing director, Ciarán O'Reilly, decided he didn't want to wait any longer and reached out to the cast with a then novel idea.
"They approached us all to film it," Cuccioli recalls, though not as some Zoom reading with actors confined to Brady Bunch-style boxes. Instead, actors filmed their parts individually against green screens and then a crack team of designers and a video editor composited the footage, so it seemed as if the cast was inhabiting the same space. "At the time, nobody was doing anything like that," Cuccioli says. "It was a very difficult and tedious process, but it was an incredible feat and very successful. The added advantage was that I got to see my performance within the whole piece. I could see what worked, what didn't and things I wanted to try differently. It was a great learning tool for me. It informed me for getting to this point back on stage."
Beloved for his performances in musicals, especially his two-faced, Tony-nominated turn as the title characters in Jekyll & Hyde, Cuccioli is also a seasoned classical actor. Yet this is the first time he's performed in an O'Neill play. Thankfully, his musical background has come in handy for Con, an Irish immigrant and pub owner in 1828 Massachusetts who regales everyone around him with a revisionist personal history of alleged past glories. In lyrical, alcohol-fueled soliloquies, he goes from bragging about his bloodline and military triumphs, to denigrating his downtrodden yet doting wife (Kate Forbes), to brawling with his daughter (Belle Aykroyd), whose romance with an unseen American gentleman leads Con to a violent self-reckoning.
"Though it's not Shakespeare, there is a rhythm and a musicality to O'Neill's writing," Cuccioli says. "I think having a musical background has helped me in classics because I understand the rhythm. I feel it."
Written in 1942 but not performed until 1958, five years after the O'Neill's death, A Touch of the Poet is one of his lesser-done works. Still, it's surprising to discover that Irish Rep has never produced it. Founded in 1988 by O'Reilly and Charlotte Moore, the company frequently presents both well-known and obscure plays by the legendary Irish-American playwright, and O'Reilly even appeared in the last Broadway revival of A Touch of the Poet headlined by Gabriel Byrne in 2005. Turns out the drama had long been on their must-do list, they were just waiting for the right moment.
"It was always a play we felt belonged at Irish Rep because it deals with Irish-born characters and national identity more than any other O'Neill play," O'Reilly explains. "Set during the political era of populist president Andrew Jackson, it seems highly relevant when paralleled to today's national conversations on elitism and immigration."
It's also a timely and potent portrait of toxic masculinity in action. Yet despite Con's terrible treatment of everyone around him, especially his family, it's impossible to despise or dismiss him outright thanks to O'Neill's poetry and Cuccioli's captivating performance. "That was a fear of mine, that Con would be viewed as just an abusive toxic man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever," admits Cuccioli. "I hope people will be fascinated by the character and even sympathetic to him in the long run. He's an incredibly complicated man dealing with a complicated time who's struggling to find his place in the world. I think a lot of people can understand that. We're all trying to figure out our place in the world right now."
According to O'Reilly, who directs the production, Cuccioli is the ideal performer to inhabit Con's contradictions. "What Con needs is an actor with the courage to walk on a tightrope without a safety net," O'Reilly says. "Con is larger than life; his delusions of grandeur and nobility are a challenge to anyone who wears his boots. Robert has the star quality and the daring to go there in the highs and the lows."
And there are plenty of both for Con—often simultaneously. He's the kind of man who boasts, berates and atones in the same breath. "He's never comfortable in any suit he's wearing, which is really difficult," Cuccioli says. "You want to keep it truthful, you want to keep it real, but he's always playing at being something he's not. It's a complex thing, but I love these kinds of roles, I really do."
Top image: Robert Cuccioli in A Touch of the Poet at Irish Repertory Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.