Sunday, June 25, 2006

Christa Kirby: Giving an Actor Her Due 

I opened up Time Out NY late Thursday night and read the following:

"...Kirby may be the best NYC actor that almost no one has heard of..."
The actor in question here is my friend, Christa Kirby. She is indeed a brilliant actor and I was certain that I'd already blogged about a mind blowing performance I saw her give in Burning Habits back in 1993. In fact, I was 100% certain I had covered it in The Price of Admission because it was a moment that entirely changed my perception of what I like about theatre; indeed it changed my perception about what is possible in the theatre. So when I read the review, I thought, "HA! I am two years ahead of Time Out!" But if I ever Evangelized Christa's brilliant performance, I myself cannot find it amongst my posts. It's high time I corrected that.

Christa and I met back in the hot, steamy summer of 1991 at The Astors' Beechwood. We did "living history tours" together. We spent day after day pretending to be robber barons from the 1890's; giving tours of one of Newport, RI's mansions on Bellevue Avenue.

It can be a dizzying experience spending your day as someone else, not breaking character for hours at a time. But we pretty much thrived on it, especially Christa. (For careful readers, this was the same summer I ended up pretending I was someone else for money during my off hours, too.) She was great at deep character work and frighteningly daring. She really loved to push the envelope.

In fact, I always knew if we were at a party and someone was referring to her by any other name than her own (most often she went for the stupendously unlikely name of "Bathsheeba"), that she hadn't liked them and decided to "enjoy" their company by pretending to be someone else. (I don't want to give the sense that Christa was kooky. Just too smart not to seize the opportunity to goof on a drunken oaf trying to pick her up and to use it as a chance practice her acting skills at the same time.)

We were both young and inexperienced actors, but I had a lot of work to do on my craft. So I went to spend the next two years at Trinity Rep Conservatory and Christa was drawn to the actor-magnet that you call New York and I call (with as much joy and pretension as all of the millions of thronging co-habitants call it) The City.

By the time I arrived in NYC, I was a competent actor. Not brilliant by any stretch, but given my past history as a yawner, a vastly improved actor thanks to Conservatory. In the meantime, Christa had flourished into a force to behold onstage. Agents weren't flocking to her door, but her choices weren't likely to allow that. She was doing very downtown theatre and agents don't generally have much interest in that. There's no percentage for them in it.

During its original run, Burning Habits was being performed at a tiny gay bar called Crobar (or maybe Crowbar). Young actors generally flock to each other's shows to be supportive, and so I trekked from the Upper West Side down to the Lower East Side and then walked East for blocks into Alphabet City. The decor of Crobar, like many gay bars that I recall from the era, consisted mostly of black paint. There were never enough chairs for Burning Habits and I recall sitting on the floor for at least one performance, maybe several.

The night in question - the night that should have been hallowed in The Price of Admission post - was a night where Christa was forced to switch back and forth between her evil nun character (Sister Godelieve Machiavelli) and her sweet Southern housewife character (Thelma D'Gretts).

If it isn't plain from this introduction that Burning Habits is a campy soap opera, I think the character names spell it out pretty plainly. In fact, BH is performed as a serial every Monday night. (Monday nights are when most theatres are dark, which means that actors can do labors of love - e.g., perform in shows like BH - and the rest of the theatrical denizens can go see them. If you have any interest in seeing "insider" performances, find shows that only run Monday nights.)

So...returning to the performance. I cannot give you all the plot details. But I will give you a summary of what I recall and tell you why it mattered to me.

The parts of the show where Christa was performing as her evil nun character were raucously funny. I recall hooting and hollering until I was in a sweat. And the crowd was going nuts in response.

In a scene immediately following the mayhem, Christa came out as sweet, loony Thelma. In a typical plot twist, her no-good husband Otis began to brick her into the basement. At first, this nonsense was funny. Thelma was standing still. In her childlike way, she had fallen under some simply ruse of Otis' and was simply standing still while he began to build the brick wall.

As the wall came higher, it began to dawn on Thelma that she could not escape. And suddenly, the room lurched from comedy to deep tragedy. Thelma began to cry and I found myself weeping for this poor imaginary character standing not ten feet in front of me. To make matters more interesting, my memory says that there was in fact no wall being built on the stage. The wall getting higher was represented by a spotlight that got smaller and smaller until it was only on Thelma's face.

I recall leaving the performance that night with a sense of catharsis I'd never experienced before. Something about ricocheting back and forth from hysterical laughter to crying left me feeling free and alive. It had never occurred to me that these states could be created in such close proximity by a stage performance. It opened up my eyes to a whole new variety of theatrical possibilities.

Soon after, I rushed off with my friend Robin to see her friend Sturgis Warner in Jeff Weiss' Hot Keys after it moved to PS 122 from Naked Angels. Talk about pushing boundaries! From a description in the New York Times in 1993:

In Jeff Weiss' "Hot Keys," recently reopened in the East Village, a father and his teen-age son, both amateur wrestlers, strip off their shirts to debate the need for brutality in their incestuous relationship. They also reminisce about the various boys -- schoolmates of the son -- they have raped and murdered.

And by the way, the scene is played for laughs, as this continuing soap opera -- with a new episode presented each weekend -- spoofs the stuff of tabloid headlines and the outlandish daily parade of confessions on TV talk shows that are no less disturbing for their ludicrousness.
I recall that Weiss ended each performance of Hot Keys that I saw by singing "Where or When" with a ferocity of raw emotion that poured out over the audience and left everyone in tears. It was truly shocking.

In any case, this all started as a paean to Christa's remarkable talent. She's turned it into a true force for good. She rarely acts in public now. Instead, she does drama therapy in war torn lands, helping to heal individuals and society.

I know this is a higher calling, but I can't help hoping that the current slew of positive notices for the Burning Habits revival will attract the attention of the right kind of producer. Someone who will find a great piece for more people to experience Christa's talent on stage. Because I know that for me, ever since I saw what she could do in that 1993 performance of Burning Habits, I go to the theatre in the hope of feeling the unexpected. A possibility I had never considered until that time.
I agree. Just saw her tonight for the second time in Burning Habits and thought she was amazing.
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