Ricci got a rough ride to theatre
TO hear Christina Ricci tell it, she spent all of 2010 half-paralysed with stage fright. A professional film actor since she was 9, Ricci waited two decades to attempt her first stage role, replacing Alicia Silverstone in Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still on Broadway.
“I was really anxious during rehearsal and really anxious through most of the play,” she said. “Every day I felt like I was in a state of crisis.” The only reprieve came during curtain calls: “I loved the applause. It meant it was over, and everything went OK, and I could go home.” After the play closed, she retreated to the screen, filming an adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant novel Bel Ami, due for release in June and starring in Pan Am, an ABC series about four flight attendants in the 1960s. Its prospects for renewal remain ambiguous. With the film in the can and the TV show wrapped, Ricci made a seemingly masochistic decision to enlist in another play.
She will appear as Hermia, one of the four lovers whose retreat to the Athenian woods propels the action of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Classic Stage Company production, which includes Bebe Neuwirth, is in previews and opens on April 24.
In many ways Hermia doesn’t differ greatly from many of the parts that Ricci has played. (Though at the age of 32 – which she doesn’t at all look – she has played a range, from Wednesday Addams to the serial killer Aileen Wuornos’ lover.) Grecian garb aside, the role is not too distant from Maggie, her Pan Am character, a lippy young woman who balks at wearing her girdle.
In the script other characters describe Hermia as small, dark and feisty. She’s outspoken, strongminded and not afraid to use her fingernails in a fight. To hear Ricci snap, “Do you not jest?” or insult a friend as “thou painted maypole” – refashioning the iambs into a California lilt – is to realise that Shakespeare and Ricci both know a thing or two about mean girls.
Tony Speciale, the production’s director, praised Ricci’s interpretation of the part: “It’s fresh, it’s edgy. There’s a little bit of darkness in it.” But if she suffered so much during the Time Stands Still run, what induced her to do another drama, let alone her first Shakespeare? Ricci considered the question while she refreshed herself with a Diet Coke just outside a theatre district rehearsal space. Clad in skinny jeans and assorted necklaces, her nut-brown hair skimming her gray sweater, she half-closed her eyes, which really aren’t quite as big as saucers. She seemed drained, having spent the past several hours stumbling through a spirited scene in which the lovers suffer the effects of a floral drug.
As Speciale imagines it, this is a vigorous sequence, with Ricci, who barely tops five feet, and the equally diminutive Halley Wegryn Gross, frequently asked to climb and claw their lofty male costars, Nick Gehlfuss and Jordan Dean. Occasionally Speciale would halt the action and require the actors to perform jumping jacks or run in place before resuming. This was rehearsal as boot camp.
Who would sign up for this? “I wanted to do more,” Ricci said, nibbling at a square of dark chocolate. “I feel like you learn so much more every time.” Like what? “You learn that you can actually trust yourself. As scared as you are, your body will carry you through.
It’s good to know.” Having never studied theatre formally, Ricci said a lot of what she had learned has come from her fellow actors. During the brief rehearsal period for the remount of Time Stands Still the cast members Laura Linney, Eric Bogosian and Brian D’Arcy James – as well as the director Daniel Sullivan – helped her to navigate theatrical methods and mores.
During their first run-through “I didn’t know you weren’t allowed to stop in the middle,” Ricci said.
“Laura had to tell me. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry.’ ” She feared that everyone doubted her abilities. “This girl knows nothing about theatre,” Ricci said, conjuring an internal monologue for her co-stars. “She’s never been onstage before. What if she totally falls apart?” Sullivan said Ricci need never have worried. “It was clear from the moment Ricci began her audition that she would know how to handle the stage,” he wrote in a recent email. “She has the power and energy to fill a large space, and let’s face it, you could read those eyes from the back row of Radio City.” Despite the positive reinforcement that followed (in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood called her performance “a confident, appealing Broadway debut”), Ricci said she had found the Midsummer rehearsals no less stressful, even as she enjoyed many aspects of the process, particularly “table work,” the period in which the cast studies the script together. “It’s all about interpretations and analysing and decoding – and theories,” she said. “There are a lot of theories about Shakespeare.” You might think that the fears Ricci described would appear in the rehearsal room, disturbing her co-stars, but they appear not to have noticed. Neuwirth, who plays the Amazon princess Hippolyta and the fairy queen Titania, and who herself has negotiated the screen-tostage transition many times, wrote: “If she’s anxious, I don’t see it. In rehearsal she’s intelligent, focused, diligent, professional and a lot of fun.” Two weeks after the initial post-rehearsal conversation Ricci agreed to a brief follow-up chat. Asked if her worries had been eased in the intervening weeks, she said they had not calmed entirely. Yet she had taken some comfort in discovering that most of the cast felt nervous too.
“It’s nice to have a group of people you can talk to about it,” she said. “Who can share in it. It’s a shared mess.”