Losing Your Humanity: Monkeys, Dogs and Robots in Ephemera
There is an irony to actors' favorite roles being non-human ones. But who wouldn't relish playing creatures unshackled by socialized behavior, propelled by ego surpassing even the amorality of babies and cave-dwellers? How better for an artist to display their individual creativity?
Bryce Wissel's Ephemera, currently in production by the Polarity Ensemble, recounts the adventures aboard a space station, the inhabitants of which bond in unforeseen ways. The crew includes human astronauts rapidly losing their civilization, as well as a talking monkey and a mobile robot—all representing opportunities for warm-blooded thespians to assume personalities, literally, light-years away from their own.
Jonas Grey, who plays Colonel Bowie, responded to the challenge as early as auditions. "All I knew about the scene's context [at call-backs] was that my character acts like a dog. So I just went for it, jumping on the other actors and licking their faces, all the while hoping that they'd be amenable and had washed that morning."
And after you got the role? "I use mouthwash more often. Also a tongue scraper. Apparently there were only a few men bold enough to actually go in and lick. That doesn't sound dirty, does it?"
Charley Jordan prepared more extensively for his portrayal of monkey-man Davy, hosting his friends in a round-table script reading before ever facing a casting director, and thus arriving at auditions with a backstory for his simian persona. "The first monkey in space didn't survive the journey, but the third one made it back alive—only to die in re-entry as a result of parachute failure. Davy's unpublicized launch occurred between these two, but NASA couldn't retrieve him because of equipment malfunction and so, he just remained in orbit. And because he was a smart monkey to begin with, as more satellites were shot up, he gradually learned how to talk and think from picking up radio and television waves."
Considering that he shares the stage with a man who kisses like an affectionate airedale, how physical does Jordan's ape-man get? "I observed primates at the zoo in addition to videos on YouTube. What's more important about Davy, however, is his thought process. He wants to fit in with the rest of the spaceship crew, especially Col. Kate McBride [the group's lone female astronaut], so he tries to impress her by behaving like a gentleman-with emphasis on man."
Not even motorized computers are free of emotional conflicts, though more daunting initially were the technical skills demanded by Wissel's text. Says Kaelan Strouse, "Playing a robot is intimidating enough for actors, but Manuel is a comical robot with a Spanish accent, who sings a Mariachi song at one point and spends all his onstage time on roller skates. But once I was cast, I could craft each of these aspects— like learning to sit down in that cardboard-and-felt cage, which has to be the most unique costume I've ever had to wear."
And what's on our tin man's metallic mente? "Manuel has been a robot from the day he was programmed, but the playwright named him after an actual historical figure at the Battle of the Alamo. Based on that decision, my theory is that the unnamed "force" planning to attack the space station is actually a robot revolution, but Manuel chooses to stay and protect the people he's grown to love." Strouse grins slyly. "It's really a sweet Pinocchio story, you see. Manuel is a machine who gradually develops a soul to become a 'real boy' at last."
Ephemera plays at the Josephinium Academy through May 1.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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