by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
favorite part of acting — doing and watching — is the stuff in between the lines. They call it stage business (not to be confused with show business) — an actor’s movement and interaction with props — but the term gets a bad rap. People use it to mean “an indulgent excess of activity” or “scene stealing” or stop moving around so much, we don’t need to see you.
Beginning in high school, I developed a fondness for moving around on stage when it wasn’t my turn to talk. I was always in the ensemble for musicals, so I’d make sure “my character” had a giant purse to sift through, or a finicky pair of tap heels to constantly re-buckle. In college, when I played an apple-seller in the opening scene of Carousel, I developed complicated routines based around my relationships with the townspeople: a chummy “co-worker” wave to the cotton candy seller, a complex transaction with a child and his parents (I made up the rule that I wasn’t allowed to sell apples to minors), a refusal to sell an apple to this one guy (just because I thought it was funny). This all happened far stage right on the outskirts of an otherwise very busy scene, but proximity to the main event didn’t stop me from writing a whole show starring the apple-seller and entertaining myself as I went along. If you had told me I was distracting, I would have been inclined to hear it as praise. I’ve since refined my judgment as to what kinds of stage business are more for the story’s sake and less for the sake of my mom being able to say, “I saw you do that!”
In Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the stage business is big business. Details show up bold in this small, contained play, which tells the story of Maria (played by Deanna Dunagan) — an elderly Polish woman and Holocaust survivor who hosts her young American distant cousin David (Seamus Mulcahy) as he attempts to rewrite a novel. The handful of days spent inside a tiny apartment yield a snapshot in two characters’ opposing, briefly colliding lives. (I overheard one patron say on his way out of the theatre, “Just two lost souls on the highway of life,” which seems to have informed my collision metaphor.)
Though the play is about two people, it’s Maria’s world upon which David intrudes and Maria’s history at which the play chisels away. The apartment and all its stuff is hers, and she interacts with almost every part of the set. There are stretches when Maria and David are in separate rooms and no one is speaking, and in the words of the highest compliment someone could have paid High School Me, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
I noticed the way she walks, the steady pace that’s not slow or fast. It struck me as the unhurried, deliberate gait of someone with nothing pressing to do, but for whom free time is so abundant that it must be measured out. The consistency of her movement evokes years spent traversing the apartment — alone — to grab this or clean that, to sit here and then there, all to fill up time before bed. Watch Maria travel across the flat to answer a ringing phone, and you’ll notice a purposeful, almost eager pace. Discover that she knows the call is from an anonymous fundraiser, and that pace becomes poignant.
If you could observe me at home, you’d find alternating periods of slow movement and fast, lazy and then rushed. On a nervous day, my movements are abrupt: I start brushing my teeth in the bathroom, put on shoes in the bedroom, scamper back to the bathroom to spit, stumble back to the bedroom to check the time. On a confident day, I dance in between tasks. And the way I move in my apartment corresponds with who else is home, and whether or not I want to be heard (quiet and slow if I don’t want to be bothered, loud and bouncy if I’m feeling social). I have many speeds, and Maria has one. I have witnesses to my behavior, Maria has none.
Or take the way Maria prepares food. She pulls a whole chicken in a roasting pan out of a toaster oven and carries it to her small square of counter space. The chicken’s gotten cold, so she covers it with a recycled piece of wax paper that’s kept just below that counter space. Then she walks it back to a microwave on the lower shelf of a cart and warms it up. When it goes uneaten, she puts it in her mini-fridge. Perhaps it’s tedious to read about this sequence of events, but it’s compelling to watch: it’s the behavior of someone who’s done this many times before — who won’t spend money on new wax paper, who has leftovers because she cooks for one, who doesn’t throw away food because she (admittedly) once went for two weeks without eating.
If you were to witness the way I cook and handle leftovers, you’d see me wash a skillet right before use, grab the hot sauce that wasn’t put away the night before, occasionally toss a half tomato in the trash (for lack of a plastic bag). It’s the dance of someone who doesn’t wash dishes immediately, who makes eggs-in-the-morning and nachos-at-night so often that the hot sauce needs to stay out — who doesn’t go to the grocery store often enough to properly restock. From all this, you’d gather that my schedule is sporadic, and that my self-care vacillates between neglectful and indulgent. When you watch Maria, you know that her schedule is stable and her self-care is humble. She boils water in a kettle on a hot plate, not in her microwave. She dices food in even pieces, clutches family photos tenderly, rarely touches her hair. She puts glasses on to watch TV. And perhaps because we have seen her inhabit her tiny world so precisely and repetitively, it breaks our hearts to picture her doing it all again, long after David leaves, as though nothing ever happened.
You could watch The Revisionist without sound and mostly understand Maria, give or take a secret or two, because of the intricate and intentional ways the actress moves about. (Coincidentally, there were five minutes when I couldn’t see at all, because I touched my eyes with the same hands that I’d used only a half hour before to shred fresh jalapeños over a bowl of pho: the movements of someone who adds spice to food despite her fussy stomach, races through meals, arrives at theatres too late to use restrooms — preventing her from washing hands and preventing ocular injury — who still touches her face despite so many warnings that it’s bad for her problematic skin.) The ways we interact with the physical world and the tiny movements we make over and over again, they all add up to a life. They’re code for personality and lifestyle and history, or in the world of a play, for character and story and meaning. If you’re an actor, stage business can be powerful. It’s like that old saying: “Use a prop like someone’s watching.” I guarantee someone is.
NOW PLAYING: THE REVISIONIST by Jesse Eisenberg, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Through April 17.
In The Revisionist, David arrives in Poland with a crippling case of writer’s block and a desire to be left alone, while his second cousin Maria welcomes him with an overwhelming need to connect with her American family.