'The Zoo Story'

Turnabout is more than fair play

'The Zoo Story'
Photo courtesy of Thao Nguyen

Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud did it with Romeo and Mercutio. John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman did it with the brothers in True West. And over in London, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are currently doing it with Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature in Danny Boyle's new stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. "It" is alternating roles during the run of a show, and it's one of theatre's grand traditions: part stunt, part study in role reversal, part acting duel, part head trip for audiences who see one story told two ways by the same people – creating something like a glimpse into parallel universes.

Now, Tom Truss and Joey Hood are giving local audiences the rare treat of the role swap in a new staging of The Zoo Story. For six weekends starting April 16, the pair will take turns playing Peter and Jerry, the characters whose fateful encounter in a park launched Edward Albee's playwriting career. The project came about through Truss, who had worked on the script while pursuing his master of fine arts in acting at the University of Texas and was hungry to play both parts. This past June, when he and Hood first read through the play twice, alternating characters, director Courtney Sale says it felt "epic in the right way." They decided then that would be how they would stage it.

Having actors switch parts in a show requires some extra consideration when it comes to rehearsals, and Sale notes "there were lengthy conversations about how we would work." Her idea to "flip-flop the casting" midway through each rehearsal didn't suit Truss and Hood, who "were eager to experience the full through-line of each character," she says. So they spent the fall working with Truss as Jerry and Hood as Peter, then changed to Hood playing Jerry and Truss playing Peter in January. Sale calls the first rehearsal with the flipped cast, coming after four months of working on the play the other way, "one of the most extraordinary moments in the process. ... The experience was so fleeting – another 'start' in the life of the play – and it was difficult to not compare all the specificity of the original casting with the newness of the switch. I felt like we had jumped over a cliff and were really not sure how we were going to land."

Now that she's had a few months to work on the swapped version, though, Sale has a clear view of the landing, and it's "two beautifully nuanced, complicated stories" being told by her cast: "Tom and Joey are very different creatures, and their interpretations of these characters vary because of who they are in life. Each character's qualities ignite and inspire Tom and Joey differently. I would say Tom's Jerry – and yes, there have been many cartoon jokes – deals more with a lost soul desperate for communication; his Peter, a refined but interminably disconnected individual. Joey's Jerry is more ruthless and calculated; his Peter is an unabashedly dissatisfied loner."

How these figures – and the actors inhabiting them – play off each other is now something you can discover for yourself, and in settings more varied than the versions of the show. Secondhand Theatre is presenting its Zoo Story in five different outdoor locations, including Eastwoods Park, Old Settlers Park, and Little Stacy Park. Call it one more layer of recasting in a production that encourages you to see its story in different ways.

The Zoo Story will run April 16-May 22, Saturdays & Sundays, 1:30 & 4pm, in various outdoor locations in Austin and Round Rock. The performances April 16, 17, 30 and May 1 will take place in Eastwoods Park on Harris Park Avenue just north of Dean Keeton Street. Look for the red balloon on the north side of the park by the baseball diamond. For more information, call 981-7332 or visit www.secondhandtheatre.biz.

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The Zoo Story, Secondhand Theatre, Courtney Sale, Tom Truss, Joey Hood

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