Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Backstage with Zenda

Rage - For the past two years, Rage Theatrics has presented a show that uniquely fits their niche of "action theatre." Love and Rage presented a number of short plays around the theme of love and last year's Hero Stories focused on, well, heroic stories. This year, they're doing something a little different. Rage will present The Prisoner of Zenda, a swashbuckling comedic epic. We recently had a chance to discuss the show with Jason Tipsword, one of the founders of Rage, and two actors in the show, Kevin Moore and Brittney Swensen.

Jason, The Prisoner of Zenda, a full length show, is a departure from the last two years when you did a number of short shows in one evening. Why the change for this year?

Jason: Rage Theatrics has always wanted to present full length shows as part of our program. The showcase style shows we’ve done during the last couple of years have allowed us to get more people involved in our projects. We have a lot of fun with those kind of shows as well, and I’m sure you’ll see more of them from us. With Zenda, we are branching out in order to include evening length stories.

Do you plan to do more full length shows in 2009? Or will it remain a once per year project?

Jason: When Rage incorporated in 2006, we decided not to try and get too big, too fast. Our touring company, the Shattock Schoole of Defence, has now been around for 10 years and dominates our summer. We do demonstrations year round, and practice as often as possible. Presenting theater of a physical/action-centered nature is a challenge since many of our actors come to us with little or no stage combat experience. Starting slow allows us to "grow" a stage combat community in the Iowa City area. Our involvement with the Society of American Fight Directors continues to develop, and we hope to be able to offer more in the way of instruction in this particular kind of acting and theater soon. As the community grows, so do our opportunities to present exciting action theater experiences.

Kevin, you play Rupert of Hentzau. Can you tell me a little bit about that character and how he fits into the plot?

Kevin: Rupert is, quite simply, a scoundrel. He is a villain’s villain – without remorse or any sense of fair play. In a story like Zenda, that makes him a great bad guy. He’s also charming...well, maybe smarmy... cunning and skilled with a sword. Rupert is the right-hand man to King Rudolph’s brother, Duke Michael, and they scheme together to take over the kingdom, trying to trick and bedevil Jason’s characters any way they can imagine.

What challenges did you have in portraying Rupert?

One major challenge to playing Rupert has been to slip into the persona of someone so clearly without conscience – it’s exciting and a little bit frightening to try to explore the darker portions of a truly wicked soul. Beyond that, with all the amazing stage combat talent in this show, I have spent a great deal of time learning and re-learning how to make amazing swordplay look easy. Jason is a marvelous choreographer, and so many members of the cast have been very helpful in making sure the show looks brilliant. I have been having a blast.

Now Kevin, if I'm not mistaken, you just finished a run in Dreamwell's production of Pillowman, a very dark show. What was it like moving on to this very different kind of show?

Kevin: Well, it has been a switch. The Pillowman is a brilliant play, and I loved doing it. But you’re right; it is very dark, even in its more humorous moments. Playing Rupert in The Prisoner of Zenda has been very different. First of all, and at the most basic level, fewer lines to memorize. The lighter tone of Zenda makes for a refreshing change, even though I play one of the more evil elements of the play. The tone of the script is much more adventure oriented, with even dangerous combats having a sort of "devil-may-care' feel. It’s more lively and fun, even when the characters’ lives might be at stake. The cast has been wonderful, and Josh’s direction is always easy and clever.

Jason, you play the lead characters: Rassendyll and Rudolf. Talk a little bit about the challenges of the dual role. How did you differentiate them?

Jason: Voice, posture and movement skills have been incredibly useful to me in this process, and have left me wishing I had more training in these areas. The central difficulty is in switching back and forth between the two of them. Act One is a challenge since I switch almost every scene. Never have I been more keenly aware that it is much easier to stay in character than to get into character.

Jason, I am guessing you did much, if not all of the fight choreography. Talk a little bit about the challenges in that for this particular show.

Jason: Fight choreography is much easier when you can see what’s happening. When I have to fight in the scene as well it can be harder to get the whole scene in my head. Most of the fighters in Zenda are actors who have done Rage shows in the past, and that helps. It goes back to building a community of stage combatants from which to cast. This particular show would be a far greater challenge without the skills and experience of these actors.

Last year's Three Musketeers battle was one of the most involved combat scenes I've ever seen on stage. Do we have something to compare to that this time around?

Kevin: I was not a part of last year’s show, and I will defer to Jason for details of the combat sequences, except to say that the variety that will be witnessed is outstanding.

Jason: Act Two is pretty much one fight scene after another. The combat in the show is a blend of grit and old-Hollywood swashbuckling, building to the final conflict at Zenda, where loyalties are tested and scores settled.

Brittney, tell us a little bit about your character, Flavia, and how she fits into the story.

Brittney: Flavia is the Princess who is intended to marry the crowned Prince of Ruritania, Rudolph. He, however, is a cruel, rude, and childish (and usually drunken) man who shows a complete disinterest in her. This is quite a dilemma for Flavia as she reluctantly peruses him as it is her duty to her family and country. When the King’s temporary replacement is introduced, Flavia is unaware of the swap. Upon meeting Rasendyll she falls in love with the drastic change in character that she encounters in the man she believes she is intended to marry. As a character, she is a very intelligent and poised person who knows her place well and has the awareness and confidence to exist in the full rang of her privileges.

What challenges did you have in portraying her?

Brittney: Flavia was a surprisingly challenging character for me to play for several reasons, the first being that I typically win roles that call for either some sort of mental instability/affliction or an excessively quirky personality... or at the very least some sort of silly accent. Flavia is the closest I have ever come to playing a normal, possibly ideal, person whose dimension exists subtly within an obedient and proper demeanor. The other main challenge is that Flavia is the only main character who is oblivious to the impersonator’s identity. In the early weeks, I found myself ignoring other scenes in order to maintain the same ignorance to the conspiracy that Flavia has. However, after I developed a sturdy a base of anti-awareness to the plot, I dove into the script to focus on interactions with other characters.

Brittney, tell us a little bit about you and your background in theater.

Brittney:I’ve been involved in theatre since I was very young. I started out in my county’s summer theatre program as soon as I could read. My most memorable part there was Peter Pan, and yes, I know that’s a male role… that’s why it’s memorable. I also did a production of State Fair with the Audubon County Country Player’s when I was in high school as well as other shows. My favorite of these was Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. My most significant theatre experiences came in the summer of 2006, which I spent in England with seven other American actresses and actors. I went there with a program called E.I.L. and toured all over England performing and participating in workshops. While I was there I played Kate Monster in Avenue Q, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Bananas in House of Blue Leaves as well as many others. This is my first production in Iowa City as well as my first year out of high school. I hope to be involved in many other shows in Iowa City and work my way up in the world of theatre!

What's the humor like in the show? Are we talking witticisms, pratfalls, situational humor, all of the above?

Kevin: There’s a good variety of humor in the show. Anyone who enjoys the thrill of mistaken identity plays will enjoy exchanges between Rassendyll and nearly everyone as he tries to present himself as King Rudolph. More than one exchange carries on the joke of identity switch in clever ways. A few of the combat sequences border on slapstick for the physical humor fan. For me the funniest parts of the show involve the characters of Bersonin & Detchard, Michael’s villainous henchmen – but I am biased, as I play a villain too…

Brittney: The humor in this show is innocent in that magical way where the parents and the children will both be laughing at the same joke but for different reasons.

Jason: As Rasendyll, I continually find himself in awkward situations stemming from the fact that I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. While the "masterminds" behind this situation have tried their best to prepare me for my masquerade, they haven’t remembered to tell me everything. Occasionally, I’m left to fend for myself with mixed results. The funniest part of the shows for me comes when, in addition to pretending to be the king, I’m also confronted with the Princess who turns out to be a little more than I expected.

The press release tells me there's romance in the show - can you talk a little bit about that? Does that drive the action or is more of a subplot?

Brittney: It is a subplot for every character except mine. I am the love interest and unaware that the true plot even exists. My character is almost entirely invested in the sub plot of romance.

Kevin: Yes, the romance between Flavia & Rassendyll could be described as a sub-plot, I suppose, but it’s really a central part of both characters’ choices throughout the play. One of the ultimate conflict for these characters is their devotion to duty and honor and that devotion as it conflicts with their growing love. As a "bad guy", I should mention that Michael’s relationship with Antoinette is a great sub-plot, as these two very worldly characters grapple with their feelings for each other and their needs, both political and personal.

Jason: I think romance is both a sub-plot, and a complication to the central plot. Everything is going fine until Rasendyll must fool someone he’d really like to get to know better.

The press release also refers to dancing. What sort of dancing can we expect to see in this show?

Brittney: There’s a lovely ballroom scene with some waltzing and such. We had a great time learning how to waltz and the gowns are excellent! I’ve really never waltzed, and I don’t think that Jason had either.

Jason: I attempt to waltz. Thankfully there are other people in the show who can in fact dance.

Brittney: But the lessons helped, and Nika’s etiquette classes about procedures and social rules at the time improved things.

Kevin: The Victorian era was pretty strict about how proper folk danced. It was very controlled, courteous. Its glory comes largely in grandeur. There are a few moments in the show where convention is less strictly adhered to, and simple, sometimes silly, dance and song will be present. The grandeur of Victorian ballrooms is a great visual, and it contrasts nicely with those moments.

Josh Sazon is a well known director in Iowa City. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working him?

Jason: Josh and I first worked together six or seven years ago on I Hate Hamlet at ICCT. Since then we’ve worked together here and there and he directed a scene from Cyrano for Love and Rage in 2007. When we selected Zenda as this year’s feature, Josh was at the top of our list to direct. It’s always great to work with a director who really has a passion for the genre.

Kevin: I worked with Josh on The Pillowman also, and found him amazing in both shows. He has a great vision, and a fantastic talent for letting an actor explore the character while also remaining true to the script. I am thrilled to work with him again. One of his greatest talents as a director is to ask poignant questions about why the actor is making a specific choice. He doesn’t tell you what to do, but asks you why you choose what you are choosing. The difference is stunning from an actor’s standpoint, because you work further and further into a character with each question he asks. He is very aware of each character, what they are saying and doing, and why. He’s clearly also aware of each actor in the same way.

Brittney: Oh, Josh is great. He’s really easy to work with because he is consistant and knows what he wants. He allows for your opinions on a character and also gives excellent direction. He is also just a great person to have in the Zenda family because of his demeanor and sense of humor. We all have so much fun at practices and yet manage to get so much done — that’s Josh.

Has the weather affected the rehearsal process?

Kevin: The weather has made us grumble a bit more. It has certainly been an adventurous rehearsal schedule. But it has been rare for someone to miss out on rehearsal due to weather. This, I think, hasn’t been a terrible issue, despite the winter we have had so far. I’m much more concerned with folks braving the weather to come see the show.

Brittney: The weather hasn’t affected our practices much at all. The show must go on.

Well, give us one great reason why we should venture out on a cold January night in Iowa to see some theatre.

Brittney: All of the women are in corsets! The costumes are gorgeous! The combat scenes are really cool! I’ll be blonde!

Wow, that's about five reasons!

Brittney: Seriously, we have a great cast who would all love to see you there! You’ll like it, I swear!

Jason: Rarely do you get to see this kind of story portrayed live on stage anymore. Swashbucklers are a challenge to produce, and this style of full-blooded, gritty melodrama is a challenge to act. Rage prides itself on doing theater that is accessible to a none theater-going audience, or to put it another way, we do theater for people who like movies. Swordplay, double-dealing, intrigue, romance, mistaken identity, revenge... all forty feet from your seat.

Thanks to all of you for taking the time to tell us about the show.

For more information about Rage, go here.

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