Connor Toms on Playing ‘Sociopath’ Victor Frankenstein

For actor Connor Toms, playing infamous literary Doctor Victor Frankenstein is a piece of cake. “All you have to do,” he says, “is live in the mind of a sociopath for two hours a night.” Toms is tackling this demanding role as the lead in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s well-received production of Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus. “Only in theatre,” Toms says, “does someone get the opportunity to be an obsessive genius without literally creating an atomic bomb or a new strain of smallpox or something disastrous like that.”

Frankenstein, for those who may not have read the original book by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, isn’t the monster, and certainly not the cartoonish green one we know with the bolts in his neck. No, Frankenstein is young doctor Victor, the man who creates the monster. The novel was published in 1818 when she was 20 years old. The novel deals with monumental and everlasting themes: Is there a God? What happens after death? What is life? Who, in the end, is the monster, the doctor or the creature he created?

“The problem” Toms says of producing work as recognizable as Frankenstein, “is that there are so many unfortunate pre-conceived notions about Frankenstein and artists have to battle with the clichés associated with it or are forced to try and create something new from it.” Fortunately for Toms, and the rest of the cast and crew, they were dealing directly with the source material. “With that,” he says, “one only needs to tell a story.”

Book-It is different than many other theatres in that it preserves the author’s exact words—everything heard on stage is taken directly from the original page. “The glory of Book-It,” says Toms, “is at its most fundamental and basic concept, it’s a vehicle for storytelling. Book-It succeeds in affecting us at our most primitive levels of attention. We all want to be told a good story. It’s great to perform under that conceit.”

The production, which also stars Jim Hamerlinck as the monster and Sascha Streckel as Victor’s love interest Elizabeth Lavenza, is far from disastrous—it’s received largely glowing reviews. It also marks an important transition for Toms himself. “When I heard that Book-It would be doing an adaptation of Frankenstein, I jumped at the chance to audition,” he says. But he never thought he’s land the part of Victor. “It’s a gigantic role and my graduation from young dude to leading man has been rather protracted. I’m very grateful for [director] David Quicksall’s faith in me.”

There’s no question that Toms is officially a leading man. He commands the Book-It stage for nearly the entire length of the two-plus hour production. At turns serious, funny, loving, frightening—it’s a lot for one actor. “The ability to show a disturbing range of emotions is so exciting,” Toms says. “From joy to rage to despair and back again. It’s an exhaustive blessing.”

In addition to becoming a leading man, Toms is also becoming a bit of a workhorse within Seattle’s acting community. Right before taking on the role of Victor Frankenstein he was in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He will soon be seen, with his wife and fellow actor Hana Lass, in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Until then, he will spend his evenings in the skin of a sociopath, who, Toms says, “goes down a serious rabbit hole every night. We’re all pretty blessed performing.” And audiences are blessed to see Toms perform.

It Takes a Village: Why Brian Yorkey Returns Home

Brian Yorkey has come home. In the middle of a flourishing Broadway career, the writer/director has returned to the Village Theatre in Issaquah to direct the award-winning comedy The Foreigner, and he’s delighted to be back. “It’s always a joy to return to Village Theatre, and work with artists who are like family to me,” he says.

Yorkey has been involved with Village Theatre since he was knee high to a grasshopper. In junior high, he was a KIDSTAGE student at the theatre. “They used to let the teenagers take over the theatre to do a musical of our own. It was thrilling,” he says. “And terrifying. And galvanizing. For me KIDSTAGE was about being a part of a community. I practically lived at that theatre.”

He’s lived there, on and off, ever since. His high school job was as Village Theatre’s house manager. After college, he graduated from Columbia University, and went back to Village Theatre as their associate artistic director. During his six-year tenure he also wrote five musicals: Funny Pages (1993), Making Tracks (2002), The Wedding Banquet (2003), Play It By Heart (2005), and A Perfect Fall (2007), before staging Next to Normal. The musical was given a reading at Village Theatre back when it was still called Feeling Electric—eight years before it landed on Broadway and won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

And now, The Foreigner. As associate artistic director, Yorkey lobbied for it every year. And now it’s here, with him in the director’s chair. “I’ve loved the play since I was a kid.” The play, written by Larry Shue, earned two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards as Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production. The show centers on Charlie, a man who wants a little peace and quiet. So he goes to a fishing lodge in Georgia and masquerades as a foreigner who can’t speak English. It seems harmless enough, but he soon realizes that people will say the most extraordinary things when they think no one can understand them. Cue the drama and intrigue.

Not only does Yorkey adore this play, he’s not kidding when he says the folks at Village are like family. He’s known Sharva Maynard, who plays Betty Meeks in The Foreigner, since he was 15 years old. Angela DeMarco, who plays Catherine Simms, was in his production of The Importance of Being Earnest years ago. Designers Matt Smucker, Tom Sturge and Melanine Burgess, he says, “are the bee’s knees.”

After The Foreigner wraps up, Yorkey still has plenty going on at the Village. He’s working on a new musical, Jesus in My Bedroom, with Tim Symons, Village Theatre’s resident music director, and Melanie Burgess, costume designer. “We had a reading during the 2013 Festival of New Musicals,” Yorkey says, “and will be doing our second reading at Village this June. We are thrilled that Village has invited us back to develop it further.”

Other developments for Yorkey? Plenty. During The Foreigner‘s run in Issaquah he’s returning to New York City for rehearsals of his next Broadway show, If/Then, starring Idina Menzel, making her Broadway return 10 years after starring in Wicked. He’s also been working with Tony Award-winning playwright John Logan and rock legend Sting on The Last Ship, a Broadway show drawn from the world of Sting’s own childhood. “Sting has written the most exquisite score for it,” Yorkey says. “I can’t wait.”

Despite his soaring career, Seattle theatergoers are lucky that Yorkey is never a foreigner to the Village, no matter how much he has going on. “It was a very special time,” he says, looking back at his days as a kid at Village Theatre, to his time as an artistic director, to the creator of Broadway musicals. Now, he’s creating an equally special experience for audience members.

Director Rosa Joshi’s love of Shakespeare

“I guess I don’t just like Shakespeare,” says Rosa Joshi, director of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s current production of Richard II. “I’m really rather passionate about it.”

Passionate is right. Joshi, who is on the faculty of Seattle University as an Associate Professor of Fine Art (Theatre), has directed 11 productions of 10 different Shakespeare plays.

Her Shakespeare-heavy resume includes directing two all-female productions with upstart crow, a company she cofounded with actors Kate Wisniewski and Betsy Schwartz, which produces shows with all-female casts. The two all-female productions she’s done with the company are King Johnand Titus Andronicus.

“I love the expansiveness of Shakespeare’s world and how it encompasses the whole array of human emotions,” she says, her passion picking up steam. “I love that the world Shakespeare makes is created through language. I love how the richness of the language heightens and intensifies the characters’ emotions and relationships. I love how the plays can veer from the heights of poetic imagination and philosophical inquiry to the most naturalistic of everyday human encounters. And I love the ambition of vision that would let those things live side by side in a work of art.”

Joshi’s own vision turned to Richard II, after Seattle Shakespeare Company artistic director George Mount saw her upstart crow production of Titus Andronicus. They got to talking about how much Joshi loved Richard II, and Mount mentioned that he was already considering it for this year’s mainstage season. “I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a play I love with such a fantastic company,” she says. 

The play is daunting and not often produced. The history play, written in 1595, is based on the life of King Richard II of England who ruled from 1377 to 1399. The play focuses on the last two years of Richard’s life. Language is more key in this play than in many other Shakespeare works because it is written entirely in verse. Only one other Shakespeare play, King John, is written in verse—a big reason that both plays are more obscure than some of Shakespeare’s beloved classics like HamletRomeo and Juliet and All’s Well That Ends Well. But Joshi doesn’t see the form as an impediment. 

“I’m not sure why it isn’t staged as frequently,” Roshi says. “It is a gorgeous play. It’s very moving and combines tragedy and history in a way that I think is really seamless. Richard II is one of the great male roles in the Shakespeare canon.”

For that, she looked to Mount, who is playing the deposed titular king. “He’s committed to the vision and the work,” she says, “so the collaborative process is rewarding.” The work was intense, she says. Hard. “Where you feel like you really accomplished something.”

In addition to the challenge of verse, Richard II also has no big battle scenes. Really, it has little physical action of any kind on stage—another daunting prospect for a director. But she welcomed the challenge, and finds working through it appealing. Through simple yet arresting set designs by Carol Clay and fine actors (Mike Dooly, David Foubert, Reginald Andre Jackson and others take the stage with Mount) it’s the language that Joshi focuses on. “I think some of the most theatrical and moving storytelling can happen when all you have is language and actors on a bare stage.”

At the beginning of February, the stage at Seattle Shakespeare Company will be bare when the production of Richard II ends (The Importance of Being Earnest opens in March). Joshi will return to her academic pursuits at Seattle University. In the spring she plans on directing a production of Charles Mee’s Big Love.

Big love. That’s what Joshi has—for Shakespeare, for language, for theater.

A Crook Turns into Ebenezer Scrooge

“The cold within him,” Charles Dickens wrote, “froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke shrewdly in his grating voice.” That could be none other than Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold-hearted, miserly misanthrope at the center of Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol. Peter Crook’s nose isn’t pointed. His eyes aren’t red. His lips are not blue. His voice is rich and resonant. He is an actor though, a long-time fixture in Seattle’s theatre community, so it’s not hard for him to transform into Scrooge most every night this holiday season in ACT’s A Christmas Carol.

That’s not to say Crook doesn’t have big shoes to fill. He does. It is Ebenezer Scrooge after all. On screen the character has been played by the likes of Alastair Sim (Crook’s favorite interpretation), Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Jack Palance, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine and Jim Carrey, and that’s just a handful of the actors who have been visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. There are also the actors who came before Crook at ACT. A Christmas Carol has been going on strong at the theater now for 38 years.  Currently, Crook is sharing the role with ACT’s artistic director Kurt Beattie, who has not only played Scrooge before but has directed ACT’s production of the holiday favorite in the past.

“I can only do it as I can do it,” Crook says. “I have my own life circumstances; my own theater training; my own passions and understandings of life. That makes Scrooge my own.” He talks of the first fitting during rehearsals, trying on coats and hats and frocks that had been worn by Scrooges gone by.  A few Seattle acting legends who have put on those coats, hats and frocks include David Pichette, R. Hamilton Wright, Jack Clay, Sean Griffin and the aforementioned Beattie. With only a three-week rehearsal schedule, the big shoes need to be filled quickly, the coat needs to be quickly thrown over one’s shoulders. “With each performance it’s as if you’re saying the words for the first time. That’s challenging. That immediacy. That need to keep the play newly minted each time.” Crook, now 56, is up to the task.

His acting credits are long. He played Dorn in The Seagull Project’s The Seagull. He’s been in ACT’s Mary Stuart, Book-It Repertory Theatre’s Cider House Rules, and Intiman’s Angels in America. He’s been on Broadway as Mozart in Amadeus and on TV in “Designing Women.”

“It’s a great story,” he says of A Christmas Carol and why it still resonates with us a century and a half after it was written. “It’s full of hope,” he says. “There’s redemption. There’s a reclamation of spirit.” If joy can touch Scrooge, joy can touch us all. “Life is not singular,” Crook continues. “It’s not to be done alone.”

Of course, A Christmas Carol isn’t done by Scrooge alone. The cast and crew bring the story to life every night in the round—Scrooge, the ghosts, Fezziwig and all the rest. Crook hopes it’s a meaningful Christmas tradition for audiences. “Traditions,” he says, “are powerful.” Traditions, he says, “are who we are.”

Hound of the Baskervilles? David Pichette is on the Case

Sherlock Holmes was dead to begin with. His author/creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had killed him off in 1893 in the story “The Final Problem.” But, after returning to England from a stint in South Africa during the Boer War, Doyle began crafting a novel about an attempted murder in England’s West Country. Was it a man doing the killing or a diabolical hound of supernatural origin? Serialized in Strand Magazine in 1901 and 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles became one of Doyle’s most beloved novels.

A century-plus later David Pichette picked up a pen to revive Sherlock Holmes again. Pichette, a Seattle actor currently playing Fagin in Oliver! at the 5thh Avenue Theatre, began crafting his stage adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles with writing pal and fellow thespian/playwright R. Hamilton Wright. The adaptation recently had its world premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre. “When Bob [Wright] and I knew that our adaptation of Double Indemnity was going to be done at ACT, we decided to start another right away, in case Double Indemnity tanked. We pitched the idea of the Holmes story to [SRT artistic director] Jerry Manning, and, to our surprise, instead of throwing us out of their office, they offered us a commission.”

Pichette and Wright are some of the best known stage actors in Seattle today. Pichette has been acting in Seattle for over 30 years; his first performance was at ACT Theatre, playing Odysseus. He recently played Major-General Stanley in the 5thh Avenue Theatre’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. Wright has been a professional actor for 35 years, with over 50 productions at Seattle Rep. He also recently directed the world premiere of Assisted Living at ACT and, with Pichette, adapted James Cain’s Double Indemnity to sterling reviews.

How does one take Holmes from the page to the stage? Carefully. “The trick is to remain absolutely true to the spirit of the material and the voice of the author,” Pichette says, “but to remember a play has very different requirements from a novel.” Stylistic roadblocks included the fact that Doyle’s book has long stretches of little or no dialogue, and that in the original story the villain is revealed three quarters of the way through the book rather than at the end. The setting itself was a huge challenge—how do you create the vast, creepy expanse of the English moors on a stage? “The challenges were myriad,” Pichette says, “with demands for locations, swift movement and a spectral dog, but the Rep successfully met all of them.”

While the adaptors retained a great deal of the book’s original dialogue, die-hard Doyle fans will notice that about 80% of what one hears on stage is Pichette and Wright’s creation. They introduced new scenes, shifted others, and borrowed bits from other Holmes stories for the sheer joy of it.

Under the direction of Allison Narver, Pichette and Wright’s adaptation took shape on stage. The cast of the world premiere included Basil Harris as Henry Mortimer, Connon Toms as Sir Henry Baskerville, Andrew McGinn as Dr. Watson and Darragh Kennan as Sherlock Holmes. “Every actor wants to play Sherlock Holmes,” Pichette says. “He’s the best known character in fiction.” 

“From start to finish,” Pichette says of the production, “the staging has been a joy.” Pichette’s not finished yet, undoubtedly. There’s more shows to act in, more productions to star in, more adaptations to dream up. It won’t be hard, in other words, for Sherlock Holmes to find Pichette. He just has to go to a show.