From the Ridiculous to the Sublime
Back and forth with 'Twisted Olivia' creators Everett Quinton and Eureka
He's an actor playing a New York drag queen playing 20 characters in a 19th-century English novel, portraying some of them with dolls and one with just a baseball cap on one hand. Outlandish? Certainly, but when the actor is Everett Quinton, outlandish is normal. Quinton is a star alumnus of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Charles Ludlam's fabled New York stage troupe, which built its sizable reputation with productions that mocked classical literature in gloriously over-the-top style. From 1976 to 1996, Quinton appeared in more than 80 shows by the company, including Camille, Bluebeard, Der Ring Gott Farblonjet, The Artificial Jungle, and the 1984 premiere of Ludlam's two-actor, quick-change melodrama spoof, The Mystery of Irma Vep, co-starring opposite the playwright. After Ludlam's death, Quinton became artistic director, and during the next 10 years -- the company's last, as it turned out -- he truly came into his own creatively, writing and performing in such plays as Phaedre, Call Me Sarah Bernhardt, and his one-man version of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.
Quinton found an opportunity to return to Dickens when Zachary Scott Theatre Center Artistic Director Dave Steakley invited Quinton to Austin to perform. He opted to create a new solo adaptation of Oliver Twist with his trusted collaborator Eureka, another Ridiculous alum, as director. The pair arrived on January 6 and previewed Twisted Olivia -- A Meditation on Oliver Twist for their first audience just 26 days later. In a conversation at Zach after that first preview, the two friends explained something of how they did it.
Austin Chronicle: You've thought about Oliver Twist as a project for a while?
Everett Quinton: Since 1995. The last grant that we applied for as the Ridiculous Theatrical Company had Oliver Twist as a project.
AC: Was it a way to revisit something, as you had done with A Tale of Two Cities?
EQ: No, because it wasn't going to be a one-person thing. It was for the full company.
AC: Do you have a long-standing fascination with Dickens?
EQ: Not so much Dickens. I think I am stuck in a 19th-century melodrama time warp. If I could do 19th-century French [melodrama] the rest of my life, I'd be in heaven.
Eureka: So plot-heavy stuff, with plenty of opportunities for ranting and carrying on ...
EQ: ... and lots of fans ... and blood. I remember I was directing someone and I said, "The greatest thing for an actress to do is drink poison onstage."
AC: Do you drink poison here?
EQ: Not in this one, no, but I get to do some other fun things.
AC: I see a meat grinder onstage.
EQ: That was new yesterday. We haven't figured out how to exploit that yet.
Eureka: There's got to be a way.
AC: There's a painting. Where does that fit in?
Eureka: It's a very heavy plot element in Oliver Twist, a portrait of Oliver's mommy. The set designer, Heyd Fontenot, did it. It's supposed to be a very young version of Everett. [Laughs]
EQ: It looks like a very young Ellen Barkin, though. It's nice to know that somewhere inside my face lies the loveliness of Ellen Barkin.
AC: How did you come back to Oliver Twist after lo, these many years?
EQ: This came up. Gerard Lebeda, a friend of mine -- we were in A Christmas Carol together at the McCarter ...
AC: Another Dickens.
EQ: Yes, exactly! He called me -- well, we did Christmas Carol at the Ridiculous for years.
Eureka: Charles wrote a version of it for himself to play Scrooge, and we did it as a Christmas benefit every year, and it was so much fun.
AC: A Christmas Carol is still such a marvelous story if you can get underneath the way it's become an expected thing. There's still all that drama and Dickens' social commentary.
Eureka: The social points that he was making. I think that's true of this, too. Candified versions of Oliver Twist are all over the place, including the musical, but you read the book ... hoo! Strong stuff. I mean, the murder of Nancy in the book is just appalling. [Sikes] kills her, he stays with the body overnight, he keeps looking at her, pools of blood are everywhere, suddenly he realizes her eyes are wide open. It's atrocious. Then there's what [Dickens is] trying to say about paupers and orphans and the social structure. There was so much corruption. He was just enraged. The book is enraged. So some of that is even in this.
AC: Everett, were you at all anxious about taking this particular story back into solo territory?
EQ: No. I've done a few of these one-person things, and I do like them. The problem with them is that you don't have a dressing-room mate where you can sit down and chat with them. [Laughter] But I do love them.
AC: What were the first decisions that the two of you had to make about adapting the story?
EQ: All that pretty, flowery stuff that's so relevant to the novel and is very beautiful, it has to go, because it slows the drama. Like, at one point Nancy is at the bridge talking to Brownlow -- actually, she's talking to Brownlow and Rose, but we had to get rid of Rose because I'm not good enough to have three of them going at once. [Laughs]
Eureka: We try to have scenes with two characters.
EQ: There's this whole great thing about "Look in that dark water," there are people who are found dead in it, and she says, "It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last." And you want to say that, there's almost a Shakespearean side of you that wants to say that, but unless you've got some amphetamines to hand out ... [Laughter]
Eureka: The sentimental side of Dickens was very much there. The book was serialized originally, and a lot of it was stuck in for the housewives that were reading it. That's the impression I get. So you have to really steer clear of it. Also, dramatically, a character like Nancy, the more she doesn't articulate "I will come to this river" and that stuff, the more she just is in the situation she's in, the sorrier we feel for her.
I think the first thing that we decided -- and actually it was Everett's decision -- was to work together. We've done a number of these, and we've always enjoyed it, even under the worst of circumstances. And we have worked under some pretty tough financial circumstances, where we were jumping around from space to space to rehearse and scratching for costumes, scratching for props. But we always had a good time. We're like two little kids in a way, like brother and sister, just having a good time with the story. So the hard things you have to go through just aren't quite as hard.
AC: How do you tell the story?
EQ: Well, there's Olivia, who is this kind of eccentric drag queen who lives in, she calls it, her "old store." Often when I've done these one-person plays, I've had a character who introduces you to it. We did Phaedre, and we had Lily, who was a waitress in a Greek diner, and then it went off into Phaedre. Olivia is based on a dear friend of ours, Minette, who died this year; she was 75. She was a female impersonator, and she traveled around the country back in the Forties.
Eureka: She was a big Ridiculous fan. She used to come to all the shows, and she was so encouraging, even if she saw like an awful preview performance, she was, "Oh, dear, that was so good, you were so great."
EQ: With her Boston accent.
Eureka: She'd come and give us bits and pieces from her "old store."
EQ: She called it her "free store."
Eureka: She was a wonderful person. I thought [basing Olivia on her] was a really nice gesture to honor her.
AC: How was it getting started on the play?
EQ: It's like any play, any venture you take on, it could be an old Shakespeare. There's always that first day, where you feel like you've never acted before, and you feel like you're a total loser, and you start getting impatient with yourself. And then there's that study period. I remember the day it dawned on me -- because this all happened so fast -- this is happening on the 30th, you need to study when you get home from the theatre.
Eureka: It's awful when you write the lines, you sort of think you know them.
EQ: I was so glad when we went to nighttime rehearsals because in the day you have a little more energy [to study], and at night when you're here, you're with a bunch of people, and they keep you on the stick.
Eureka: One of the first things I heard from Everett, even before we left New York, was that he wanted a very high set. He said, "I want something that has lots of staircases and nooks and crannies for me to hide in." So that was a starting point for him, and I wanted to find new ways of doing stuff for a one-man show. Although you do different things all the time, you fall into a rhythm: Here's somebody, here's somebody, here's somebody, here's somebody; you see the actor turning back and forth. We've done some variations on that, but I wanted to find some new ones. I wanted to make it like a stew, all kinds of theatrical traditions and genres and modes of doing stuff. Everett's great idea was that we should throw in some Guignol, and I think that's been a huge help to the show.
AC: What appeals to you about Guignol?
EQ: I just like it, but I didn't know Dickens was into it. It's said that he would do readings of the Nancy and Sikes scenes, and women fainted at the murder of Nancy. That made me realize that he's not a lightweight in terms of Guignol.
AC: Did you get a good, juicy reaction from the audience when you did that scene?
Eureka: We've only done it once, but I was really watching people. They were pretty horrified at the murder, but we put a little funny twist on the end, and they did laugh. So we got just what we wanted. It's fun to play with people's sensibilities that way. It's one of the things Charles would like to do: horror, horror, horror, horror, laugh.
AC: What are you looking forward to in the run?
EQ: I don't know. I want to be as generous as I can. I look forward to mastering it.
Eureka: I think Everett is an actor who never stops working. That's what makes it interesting, to keep on growing in the role, doing different things. He's also a very strong ad-libber. Anything that goes wrong is just gold for him. You should have seen him yesterday. See those skates up there? There's a prop set right next to them, and they were sort of in his way, and he said, "Excuse me, Tonya Harding." It was just right on the spot, and I thought it was so clever.
The show has changed a lot, from rehearsals, lots of rewrites, and just new ideas, and a lot of these come from the stage manager or whoever is around and has an idea. Dave Steakley has been such a huge contributor to this. He was good enough to sit in on rehearsals, knowing it was a new play. In a very positive way, he made huge contributions, especially visually. He's incredibly strong visually.
The collaborators we've had here also are just extraordinary. I was watching Allen Robertson, who does the sound, and there are a lot of scenes, especially the murder scenes, the Guignol stuff, where there's a lot of sound, and it just flows under the action, and watching him work the controls, and you [Everett] up there as Sikes with that silk, I thought, there are two characters working this. He was like another character in the play. He's so good at collaborating and making it happen. He knew exactly what the moment was supposed to be.
EQ: You realize once the sound is in place that you depend on it. It's your other actor.
AC: What makes you valuable collaborators for each other?
Eureka: I think the fact that we were friends and that we grew up in this idiom together. I enjoyed very much our time [at the Ridiculous]. It's the most fun I've ever had in my life.
To try to understand what Charles was about is not easy. It's not just camp, it certainly is not just camp. It's not classical theatre, though certainly it is classical theatre. You have to be willing to be laughed at. To accept that that's such a wonderful thing to be able to do, that everything is up for grabs, everything -- who you are, what you look like, everything -- it's just so liberating.
Twisted Olivia runs through March 30 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Whisenhunt Arena Stage, 1510 Toomey. For information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachscott.com.