Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How a pair of actors are tackling a new time-hopping play
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
How do actors navigate a play in which one character can manipulate time with a remote control, changing the action -- and therefore everyone's reactions -- a smidge, or a lot? Such is the case for Celia Keenan-Bolger and Stephen Kunken in A Parallelogram, Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris' darkly comic study of time management and existential questions at Second Stage Theater.
"I've never had a part that's been so technically and emotionally rigorous as this," says Keenan-Bolger about her character's time- and mind-bending journey. The three-time Tony nominee portrays Bee, a depressed young woman who meets her much older, not-what-she-expected self, played by Anita Gillette. "I saw a number of Bruce's plays and I knew what they required, but this really has demanded even more than what I expected when I signed on," Keenan-Bolger says. "It's been one of the hardest processes I've ever gone through."
Kunken plays Jay, Bee's live-in boyfriend who is increasingly exasperated by her strange behavior. He says the play's juxtaposition of styles and ideas made rehearsing it "a wrestling match" much of the time. "Bruce's writing wants to fall into a specific time signature," Kunken says, using music as a fitting metaphor. "Actors know that it's going to be played in 16th notes but in rehearsal, until you know it, you want to play it in quarter notes and work your way up. But this play doesn't work until it's really at full speed. The melodies don't start to reveal themselves until then."
Given the rhythmic challenges and nonlinear nature of the material, the actors weren't able to ruminate leisurely on their characters' motivations or backstories; they just had to jump right in. "We didn't have time to really slide into the play as you might in a more straight-up, realistic play where you're thinking this first scene is going to take me on a journey to the next scene and then the next," says Kunken. "Here the scenes are played out in separate variations with characters leapfrogging to the future. Or maybe this is all in [Bee's] embattled mind. How to play opposite that? What the play ultimately does is give you these slalom markers and you really begin to enjoy skiing through them in your head. You become more comfortable going from being really happy to screaming at somebody on a dime because the machinery is in place to support that."
The key to following their characters' fractured arcs, they say, is to trust the mechanisms that Norris has built into his play. "In a way, it's a little bit like working on a musical," says Keenan-Bolger. "You learn the choreography or the notes first, and then you figure out what else is needed, filling in the emotional and relationship aspects in the process."
Kunken says that acting in movies and on television has helped him immeasurably since those scenes are rarely shot sequentially. As he explains, "The experience of working on this play is a gigantic metaphor for how actors should act, which is build a structure, then kind of trust that it's there and forget about it."
Keenan-Bolger half-jokes that A Parallelogram is Thornton Wilder's Our Town meets British sci-fi anthology TV series Black Mirror. "This play has this sense that you think life is going to be this thing that you're doing while you are young -- whatever that thing is," she says. "But life just goes on regardless of what you want to try to do to it."
Kunken, who actually played the Stage Manager in David Cromer's recent revival of the Wilder classic, agrees. "A Parallelogram has that Our Town vibe because it sort of says, 'What are we all doing here?' But it's also Bruce's dark view on things."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for A Parallelogram. Go here to browse our current offers.
Follow Frank Rizzo at @ShowRiz. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Stephen Kunken and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Photos by Joan Marcus.