“Pah pah pah pah pah pah pah…”
A few days ago, in garish black tuxedo and red dress shirt, deep-throated New Haven Theater Company actor George Kulp paced about while performing vocal exercises. His director, Drew Gray, checked light cues with stage manager Mallory Pellegrino, spurring a rig of overhead spotlights to pop on and off in different combinations. Kulp’s costar, a besuited Peter Chenot, soon sidled up to him, instigating a coordinated dance to the song that was drifting over from the sound system (“Cheekbone Hollows” by The Child Ballads). As Kulp’s character, aging illusionist Mark Wonderton, might have put it in his anachronistic showbiz lingo, the dance “played,” getting laughs from the rehearsal crew.
It ought to have been a high-pressure moment. There they were, inside a former storage area-turned-black box theater at the back of the long, treasures-and-oddities-filled English Building Markets on Chapel Street, with their first world premiere, of company member Gray’s challenging work The Magician, just days away. Yet they were calmly eager, ready to do what they love and relieved to be doing it in a place they can call home.
See, tonight at 8 p.m., the New Haven Theater Company is hitting an unprecedented milestone in its roughly 20-year history: opening a play in its own long-term theater space. Started in the 90s by Danielle Ginnetti, then revived after a years-long hiatus by creative director T. Paul Lowry, now carried forward by members committed to a non-hierarchical administrative approach, the company has until now been fundamentally nomadic. Putting on a performance meant lots of legwork and handwringing just to secure a venue. “It used to be this thing where a few places would fall through, it’d be five weeks before the show was supposed to start and we’d finally get into a space,” Chenot says. Now, with a theater to hang their hats in, “We’re able to relax and focus on the art.”
And The Magician certainly demands that focus. Kulp, playing the titular aging off-strip Vegas magician Mark Wonderton, and Chenot, playing Ronnie Randalls, Wonderton’s cocky young manager, deliver nearly 100% of the play’s lines between just the two of them, from high-energy, rapid-fire dialogues to tipsy, soul-searching monologues. Since neither character is particularly admirable on the surface, the actors must dig deep to bring forth their redeeming qualities and give audiences something to hold onto.
Despite, or maybe because, Wonderton and Randalls spend 6 days a week in close proximity, “There’s a combativeness” between them, writer/director Gray says. “I think in their hearts they do really like each other, but to make their lives more interesting and to kill the time, they’re at each other’s throats.” Put another way: “Neither of them are necessarily happy with what they’re doing and they’re taking it out on each other. But they also love each other.”
Gray adds that the play is ultimately about “what it means to love and to be loved.” Wonderton seems to have had a particularly hard time on those scores: he’s never achieved the professional success and adoration he’s hoped for, and, from what we can gather from tidbits dropped here and there in the play, he’s rarely if ever engaged in a meaningful familial or romantic relationship, prone to pushing people away instead.
“Making people disappear is easy. Happens every day. Making people reappear is the hard part,” Wonderton, feeling particularly low, opines at one point. Thankfully, the New Haven Theater Company, at least, isn’t going anywhere for a while.
New Haven Theater Company presents The Magician
839 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
March 6-8 and March 13-15 at 8pm
$20 general admission, $12 for students
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.