Parasite Dragwhich is now playing at Shakespeare & Campany in Lenox, MA tackles a familiar theme – family discord among siblings – and takes it into new and uncharted territory. The Mark Roberts drama is both profound and funny. Deep, dark, black humor funny. It is virtually a world premiere at Shakespeare and Company since “It’s never been done in New York, Chicago or Washington, nor with a full Equity cast,” notes director Stephen Rothman.
Having sat in on a rehearsal last week, we then spoke with the director and a cast member. Elizabeth Aspenlieder, who plays Joellen, is one of the company’s most popular actors with a special gift for comedy. It was clear that she was concerned with how the audience would receive such a boldly written play. “The language and situations are tough, bolder than we’ve ever undertaken before at Shakespeare & Company,” she says. Stephen Rothman is a first-time Shakespeare & Company director. Rothman has an impressive list of credits (full bios at end of interview, scroll down) and is hyper-charged about doing Parasite Drag. He has been ever since he first saw it in L.A. “It’s the kind of play you just can’t get out of your head,” he observes.
Our three-way conversation covered a lot of ground,looking at Parasite Drag both from the audience and performer’s perspectives. Part of the incendiary impact it has on audiences is the way it choreographs everyday family scenes into a series of increasingly volatile revelations. Both Rothman and Aspenlieder agreed that it leads to a perfect storm of family dysfunction.
Some Background on Parasite Drag
As written by playwright Roberts, we meet the deeply estranged brothers Gene (Josh Aaron McCabe) and Ronnie (Jason Asprey) with their wives Joellen (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Susie (Kate Abbruzzese) who come together to make arrangements for the sister of the two boys, a homeless drug addict dying of AIDS. At first glance, the two men appear to be polar opposites. But as the sister’s tragedy forces open old wounds, we see that they are very much alike, united forever by a dark, tragic past. Mark Roberts is a fluent writer and producer of such hit tv shows as Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men. His gift for theatricality and reality has caused at least one critic to summarize the show as a Greek tragedy trapped inside a soap opera. But a soap opera is all bubbles and froth while Parasite Drag revels in scabrous siblings and employs mature dialogue (like David Mamet, Roberts has a real ear for language) and scenes (some will say too graphic) that go where no play has gone before.
The Dialogue Begins
Larry Murray: It seems that everyone thinks that this is Mark Roberts best play, worthy of a Pulitzer.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder: He has a lot going for him. The sure way he shapes a scene, his beautifully subtle insights into women, these are rare enough gift these days, especially in a male playwright. The lines feel so authentic, even while they are sometimes lacerating.
Stephen Rothman: The thing about Pulitzer Prize winning plays, and I have directed a lot of them, is that while they will make you laugh at times, they will always have you walking out feeling haunted by what you just saw. Pulitzer plays live with you for a while, and this Parasite Drag is very different whether you read it, or see it. They’re two different plays.
LM: Reading it you intellectualize the resonance, but seeing it you feel it too, that happens with lots of plays.
SR: Yeah, it’s that feeling that sticks with you, and you just can’t get it out of your head. And I’ll tell you something else, it’s already published just on the strength of its author and word of mouth. This will be – at Shakespeare & Company – it’s first Equity production. It hasn’t played in New York, Washington or Chicago yet. So far it was in a small Equity waiver production in Los Angeles.
You have seen the things we’ve been doing here today, polishing, buffing, choreographing. When I shoot a film I have to think quick and move on, here, we have the ability to spend some time analyzing the script and paying attention to all the little details, the nuances.
LM: So if this play was done in Chicago, let me ask you this: Steppenwolf or Goodman?
LM: That makes sense, their rock ‘n roll school of acting would be a perfect fit.
EA: This is the play Steve sent to Tony a year ago and the company read it at the Studio Festival of New Plays. It’s where we try out new works.
SR: Tony was very taken with the script, so he invited me to Lenox, to see the shows in repertory and start picking a cast, and added, “while you are here, let’s do an informal reading of the play in August (2011). But when I got here Tony decided not to do an informal reading but rather to put it in the Festival of Plays in early September.
EA: But you were in Europe and we did the reading anyway. I’m curious, what did you see me in?
SR: Memory of Water. Boom. No question. Same thing with Jason. Bam. Then I saw Josh in both As You Like It and Hound of the Baskervilles. Despite the farcical Hound role, I could see he had heft as an actor. While I loved him doing comedy, I could see the other part and I wanted him for this. Then there was a fourth performer, who Tony said I was going to love, and he was right. Kate has been incredible and so I got the cast that I wanted.
EA: And when we did the reading, the cast and play got a standing ovation.The audience was excited, and so was the company.
SR: I got an excited email that Tony was going to somehow find a way to make it work in the coming season, and here we are.
LM: Do you think the reading worked because it has such a clever exposition leading up to what you just called an “explosive” final scene?
EA: I think that’s part of it. We did the feedback forms after the show so people could comment, and asked whether they thought such a gritty, earthy play would be suitable for Shakespeare & Company to do – some of the scenes and language are rougher than anything we’ve done before. 90% of the comments said “great play” but people were not so sure about the risky content. Even so most people said they would support us 100%.
It is a dark comedy and not at all typical of summer fare. We could look at Goatwoman of Corvis County, that had a little bit of troubling domestic situations in it. The furthest we’ve gone into this dark world, this dark comedy, is in the Festival plays, and this is the one that made it.
And just the history of this cast working together is fantastic. I’ve known Jason Asprey for seventeen years. We’ve played opposite each other many times. Steve didn’t know this when he cast us.
SR: I didn’t know anyone, to me these were actors I was seeing for the first time, and they were superb.
LM: Didn’t you direct something at S& Co back in the 80′s?
SR: No, this is my first shot.
EA: He directed Tony back in…
SR: That’s right, back in 1987 when I was artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse when we were doing a production of Room Service. And we have been dear friends over the years. Three years ago, when he took over at Shakespeare & Company he said that when he had the right play he would ask me to direct for him. I told him to ask away. I’ve always wanted to work with Shakespeare & Company.
I love not only the company, but also the area. The first professional job I had when I got my MFA degree – back in the Civil War days – <laughter> I worked in Springfield at Stage West. That’s where I directed my first Actor’s Equity production, a show called Echoes by N. Richard Nash, another angst ridden drama, but not at all like where this one goes.
LM: Would you call this “reality” theatre?
SR: Not at all. But when I first saw this play, I just fell in love with it. I had one of those moments I wish happened every time I went to the theatre. I would be flat out trying to make each of them happen again and again. After seeing the first act of Parasite Drag I turned to my wife, Faye, and told her I had to direct this play, I had to somehow get the rights from Mark Roberts (the playwright) and make this happen. It bit me that hard.
I love a show that requires actors to be real, explore emotions that get underneath, in a real way, but at the same time, I love to laugh. This show is a dark comedy, a black comedy…
EA: That aspect often catches you off guard.
SR: Directors have their own angst over the shows they do, so they use it. In my early days those kinds of plays were my forte. Then I got known as Mr. Comedy because I did a flurry of them which people enjoyed. Then Mr. Chiller Thriller. And then I did a musical, appeared on the Today Show and suddenly I was Mr. Music, especially for Gilligan’s Island: The Musical.
Yet while it is nice to be known for a director who has mastered one style or another, I have always fought that. I like to go from one form to another. And with Parasite Drag, it combines the two things that drive me the most – deep drama and dark comedy.
I seem to be in touch with that, with the angst and the relief that humor provides to make it bearable. When a scene resonates in my psyche, I instantly know that I will be able to collaborate and help the actors zoom in on the angst aspect of it.
EA: We did a run-through of the play yesterday and the result of having been in the studio for two and half weeks rehearsing paid off. Soon we do the nail-biting tech.
SR: We’ve ordered food for that already since we didn’t want to waste the tech time just sitting there.
LM: Well at least everyone can get used to sticky fingers during the fried chicken eating scene.
EA: Exactly, you never know what problems sticky fingers can be on stage. Actually eating the props will enable us to do the choreography for that scene, to work in all the intricacies of what will look like a spontaneous and impromptu meal. It has to be worked down to the smallest finger lick.
SR: We’ve already done it once, a couple of days ago.
EA: But it’s nice to rehearse it because in real life, you don’t have to think much about what happens to my gum when I start to eat, or someone ad libs something funny and the soda spews out your nose. Believe me, in other shows, all that stuff has happened.
LM: So an actor prepares.
EA; True. And so far, we have been alone in our room working on this, nobody else has seen it, except for you and the scenes you saw us working on this afternoon.
LM: Being an observer is always fascinating.
EA: When my supper table sequence was finished, I sat back here watching the other couple work on their scene, and they were literally on the edge of their chairs <Elizabeth actually chokes up recalling the moment> and I said, well, this is good. And as we were walking out, Steve said to our Scenic Designer, Patrick, “So…” and Patrick just motioned him away, he was so moved, affected by it.
I suppose this could be good or bad, because we want people to talk and debate what they see, and how they experience it. This stuff happens, it doesn’t just happen in the context of a play, it’s happening all the time in the real world.
SR: I want to be careful how I say this, but there are difficult things in this play that ring true in real people’s lives. Conflicted relationships are everywhere. I have such a thing with my own brother right now. He’s a great guy, you know, but we don’t always see eye to eye. So this play is a bit of a catalyst, it dredges up things we sometimes don’t want to think about.
So you might ask why do such a play. Well, first it will make you laugh.
LM: Between your tears.
SR: And it might enable you to rethink some things in life that have bothered you, and that has great value, I think. Sure, it may stir up stuff and muddy the waters, but even so it really makes you laugh. It’s not just an angst ridden Tennessee Williams night without comic relief. Some people will find that they take a journey with us, a journey within. Others will see at as spectators, knowing observers as the family fights.
LM: No matter how similar an audience may be to each other,each will experience it differently.
EA: That’s right. There’s a line in the play that really rings true with me: “In the same family you can have five different versions of the same story, and every person is affected by it five different ways.”
SR: The first part of that line is something we have all heard before, but it is the second half of that phrase that makes Mark Roberts’ playwriting so perceptive.
EA: Our memories are uniquely our own memories, selective memories.
SR: And that’s very much part of the play, how we remember things about how we live.
EA: There are certain things we avoid, or put in the closet, and lock them away.
LM: Well I for one can hardly wait to see Parasite Drag, to begin to share the secrets, and to understand how another family deals with the baggage that accumulates over a lifetime.
And you know what? We’ve spent almost an hour going over this play and yet you both managed to stonewall me, and not give too much away.
EA and SR: That’s our job, you know.
LM: Even so, you’v served up quite an appetizer for people to chew on. I am sure many of our readers will see Parasite Drag this summer, running in repertory with Cassandra Speaks and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in the Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company. Box Office 413-637-3353. I would like to remind residents of the Berkshires that there is a special 40% discount for them.
Artist Bios for Parasite Drag
MARK ROBERTS (Playwright, Parasite Drag) is a renowned playwright, comic and television scribe. He is the creator and executive producer of the CBS series Mike & Molly, was a writer on Two and a Half Men and is the author of several hit plays including Welcome to Tolono, Whitey, Where the Great Ones Run, Parasite Drag, and Rantoul and Die. This summer, Roberts will return to the stage to star alongside Jessica Tuck in the Los Angeles revival of Couples Counseling Killed Katie. In addition, Rogue Machine will present a renewed productions of his original play Where The Great Ones Run in Los Angeles.
STEPHEN ROTHMAN† first season (Director of Parasite Drag) is best known by West Coast Theatre audiences for his work as founder and artistic leader of the revitalized Pasadena Playhouse. He also served as artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company. His directing career has taken him across the country and around the world, including a 2008 production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in Florence, Italy for the Florence International Theatre Company. His American Resident/Regional Theatre credits include more than 100 plays in 16 different States for 40 different theatre companies. He is especially proud of his work on numerous world premieres including Sparky And The Fitz starring Academy Award winner Eli Wallach at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, Learn To Fall starring France’s award winning clown/artist Buffo at The Attic Theatre in Detroit, Gilligan’s Island The Musical for Chicago’s Organic Theatre and Father, Son, And Holy Coach for the Santa Monica Playhouse to name just a few. His theatre awards include winning Florida’s Carbonell Award for “Best Director” for God’s Man In Texas at Florida Stage as well as a Los Angeles Dramaloge win for his direction of an American Sign Language production of Orphans for Deaf West Theatre. For American television, he spent two seasons directing episodes of The New WKRP In Cincinnati. He serves as a Professor of Theatre at California State University, Los Angeles. Mr. Rothman is a proud 32 year member of The Society of Director’s and Choreographers (SDC). Steve’s most fun production continues to be his son Will “Banno” Rothman who provides him with the best living theatre possible.
KATE ABBRUZZESE third season (Susie, Parasite Drag) S&Co: Julius Caesar (Portia, Casca), Hamlet (title role), Romeo & Juliet (Rosaline/Paris’ page) Off-Off Broadway: To Walk In Darkness (Adella). Regional: Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival: The Winter’s Tale (Perdita), Pericles (Lychorida), Cymbelline (Helen). World’s End Theatre: Rendition in Damascus (Missy); Florida Studio Theatre: Sylvia (title role); Tennessee Shakespeare Festival: Othello (Desdemona), Macbeth (Third Witch/Boy). Kate received her BA in Drama from Vassar College and is attending NYU’s Graduate Acting Program (Class of 2015).
ELIZABETH ASPENLIEDER* seventeenth season (Joellen in Parasite Drag, Ensemble in The 39 Steps; Communications Director/Artistic Associate) S&Co: The Memory of Water (Catherine), War of the Worlds (Phillips) The Winter’s Tale (Hermione), Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Marquise de Merteuil), Bad Dates (Haley), The Ladies Man (Suzanne), Othello (Bianca), Rough Crossing (Natasha), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Ford); Ice Glen (Dulce); The Comedy of Errors (Adrianna), Much Ado About Nothing (Margaret), King Lear (Regan), Ethan Frome (Mattie), The Valley of Decision (Fulvia), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hermia), A Tanglewood Tale (Sophia), Twelfth Night (Antonia), Richard III (Anne), All’s Well That Ends Well (Helena), Wit (Susie), The Winter’s Tale (Perdita), Mercy (Annie), Much Ado About Nothing (Ursula), and Pericles (Thaisa/Diana). Regional: Boston Theatre Works: Angels in America (Angel/Nurse) and Emilia (Othello); Mixed Company: Ten Minutes in the Berkshires Play Festival(s). Canada: Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Alma), Brighton Beach Memoirs (Nora), Fifth of July (Shirley), Independent Films: Trigger Finger; Seriously Twisted. Elizabeth won the 2009 Elliot Norton Award for her performance in Bad Dates at Merrimack Repertory and S&Co., and was nominated for an I.R.N.E. award for the same role. She also provides the voices for commercials and animated features.
JASON ASPREY* eighteenth season Ronnie in Parasite Drag, ensemble in The 39 Steps, Summer Training Institute Faculty) S&Co: The Memory of Water (Frank), The Winter’s Tale (Autolycus), Richard III (Lord Hastings/Oxford), Hamlet (Title Role), White People (Alan Harris), All’s Well That Ends Well (Bertram), Rough Crossing (Gal), Blue/Orange (Bruce), The Mission of Jane (Julian Lethbury), The Promise (Jean Le Fanois), As You Like It (Oliver/Corin), Comedy of Errors (Angelo), King Lear (Edgar), Much Ado About Nothing (DonJohn/Sexton), Henry V (Fluellen), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Puck), Macbeth (Macduff), and Julius Caesar (Antony). Regional: Julius Caesar (Cassius) at Shakespeare Now, Betrayal (Robert) at Nora Theatre, Einstein’s Dreams (Eduard Einstein) at Culture Project NYC, A Life in the Theatre (John) and The End of the Day (Grayden Massey) at Ensemble Theatre, Romeo and Juliet (Mercutio) at Swine Palace; also Knightbridge Theatre, Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Mixed Company, and theatre in England, where he has also worked in TV and film.
JOSH AARON MCCABE* seventh season (Gene in Parasite Drag; Riotous Youth Faculty) S&Co: Sherlock Holmes (and others!) in The Hound of the Baskervilles; Oliver in As You Like It, Pierson in War of the Worlds; Nicodemus/ Lady Enid in The Mystery of Irma Vep; Birdboot in The Real Inspector Hound; Camillo in The Winters Tale; Catesby in Richard III; Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Host of the Garter in Merry Wives of Windsor, Macbeth in the New England Tour and Shakespeare & the Language that Shaped a World. Josh performed Off-Broadway playing the role of Mike in the New York Times critically acclaimed Peep Show at Actor’s Playhouse. Regional theatres include Madison Repertory Theatre, Forward Theater, Milwaukee’s Chamber Theatre, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks. He has appeared in national commercials, various daytime serials and Saturday Night Live. He is proud to be a part of S&Co’s Education Dept. Josh received his MFA in Acting from The University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a member of AEA, AFTRA and SAG.