This is the second in a series of interviews with the cast of Spooky Action Theater’s Last of the Whyos. In Part Two: Meet Michael Kevin Darnall. This past Monday night Michael Kevin Darnall was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his performance of Mortimer Mortimer in Failure: A Love Story at The Hub Theatre. Congrats!
Roberta: Why did you want to become a member of the cast of Last of the Whyos?
Kevin: Spooky Action Theater’s artistic director, Richard Henrich, invited me to participate in a reading of Last of the Whyos this past July. Rebecca Holderness was set to direct. I think they wanted to hear the play aloud before casting commenced the following day. There was a violent summer rain storm the afternoon of the reading. On my way to the theater, I saw a server at Cafe Saint-Ex rushing to close the outdoor table umbrellas that were starting to take flight, and pedestrians dodging plastic chairs that were rolling down the sidewalks of 14th Street. Rebecca’s flight from Milwaukee kept getting rerouted and she didn’t make it in time for the reading. The playwright, Barbara Wiechmann, was there and I guess she and Richard convinced Rebecca (who directed me in Spooky Action’s The Wedding Dress) that I was a good fit for Eddie and I was offered the role. I had a wonderful time working with Rebecca in The Wedding Dress, and I was eager to collaborate with her once again. I had previously worked at Spooky Action in Optimism! or Voltaire’s Candide, and I jumped at the chance to continue building my relationship with the company.
In Last of the Whyos you play Eddie, King of the Whyos gang in 1880s New York. How would you describe him? He lives in the past and then he travels in time. How this trip changes him? Do you think there are still many Eddies nowadays?
What is the play about from the point of view of your character?
Eddie is described as a little guy who came from nothing, his “folks been dead a hundred years.” Scrappy and clever, he clawed his way to the top of the 1880’s lower Manhattan gang scene not unlike the way fictional characters of the 1980s clawed their way to the top of the corporate ladder on Wall Street, or even in Dallas or Denver. Eddie was groomed by his mentor, Bill Sweeney, who is not at all happy with Eddie’s sense of autonomy and decision to get out of the gang life. Like a parent, Sweeney has a profound mental and emotional hold over Eddie and he exploits this to great effect.
While not unintelligent, Eddie is a man of his time and place who sees his world in black and white. He is simply out of place in 1980s New York and he’s unaccustomed to thinking and feeling in shades of grey. He has an extraordinary mystical experience and is forced to relearn how to process thoughts and emotions.
Eddie is used to barking orders and getting what he wants immediately. There are certainly plenty of men just like that, and whether in real life or fiction, I think we take great joy in seeing such men have their perceived authority challenged, if not altogether stripped.
What do you admire most about your character and what do you not admire about him?
Eddie shoots straight from the hip, a quality I admire, while I may not always admire what comes out of his mouth. People like Eddie can be absolutely infuriating with their blatant disregard of how their words land on others. And yet, there’s something oddly satisfying, refreshing even, about dealing with a person who unequivocally shows you who he is. Take him or leave him, but you always know that you’re being “dealt straight” as Eddie says. I am polite to a fault and Eddie is often downright cruel. My late acting teacher, Eulalie Noble, once said to our class, “Acting is not therapy. It’s therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.” That has always stayed with me. I find purging the poison, so to speak, while playing Eddie is quite therapeutic for someone like me. I tend to bottle up pain for the sake of others who frankly do not deserve that courtesy.
What did you learn about the Playwright Barbara Weichmann after you were cast in the show that you didn’t know before you were cast?
Barbara, Rebecca, and Randy (Randolph Curtis Rand, who plays Sweeney) have been friends for years. It’s really nice to see friends continue to collaborate and nurture each other’s artistic contributions. I look forward to doing the same with my own friends in the theatre world.
What advice and suggestions did Director Rebecca Holderness give you that helped you prepare for your role? You have been working with Rebecca many times now. What is her style of directing and her process?
Much of Rebecca’s work is movement based, and she’s a strong proponent of physical specificity. She encouraged the cast to make strong, specific choices in terms of how each character took and moved through space. She also suggested animal work which I find particularly useful when working on a piece with a strong element of movement.
What have been some of the challenges you have faced in rehearsals and/or preparing for your role?
The lines! I don’t think I’ve had this many lines since I played Hamlet in college. The play is 200 pages. Barbara cut it in half for this production. I joke that she left all of Eddie’s lines in. That might not be a joke.
What character is so much like you and why?
I think I’m most like Eddie when he’s with Ada Ann (Tia Shearer), his moments of tenderness and protectiveness as their relationship develops.
What line or lines that someone else says is/are your favorite(s) and why?
Ada Ann has a short, reflective, pep talk-like speech to Eddie about forward motion at all costs. I hope to absorb it into my conscience. I’m much better at dreaming than doing and I’ve grown tired of that personal quality. Life is too short, you’ve got to kick yourself in the ass sometimes.
Why themes and issues does the play address that current audiences will be able to relate to?
How would you compare Last of the Whyos and The Wedding Dress, both presented by Spooky Action and both directed by Rebecca Holderness?
Both shows have an element of time, but in The Wedding Dress, we flash back and forth between two distinct times with minor abstract moments of overlap. In Last of the Whyos, we’re looking at time travel, full on Wizard of Oz, a character transported to another world with some familiar faces. We took a broader, more dance-like approach to physical gesture and tableaux in The Wedding Dress. While still heightened, we take a more grounded, realistic approach to movement in Last of the Whyos.
What are you doing next on the stage after Last of the Whyos closes?
After Last of the Whyos closes, I’ll have a week off before we start rehearsing The Fire and The Rain over at Constellation Theatre Company. I’ve been eager to work with Constellation again ever since I did Metamorphoses in 2012. I’m thrilled to be working once again with the creative team behind that show led by director Allison Arkell Stockman, who is one of the loveliest and most talented people I have ever been blessed to know.
What do you want audiences to take with them after watching Last of the Whyos?
I wonder if a typical audience member might walk away from the show reflecting on his or her sense of self and how that might be challenged when plunked outside of his or her comfort zone. How much of our sense of identity is based on where we are rather than who we are? How do we move through life, from place to place, as one and the same? How does environment bend us, and how strong are we when there’s no one around to validate us? How good are we at validating ourselves, and how brave are we to allow ourselves to be changed?
Last of the Whyos plays from February 5-March 1, 2015 at Spooky Action Theater performing at the Universalist National Memorial Church at the corner of 16th and S Streets, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.
Meet the Cast and Director of Spooky Action Theater’s ‘Last of the Whyos’: Part One: Meet Randolph Curtis Rand by Roberta Alves.