12 Washington actors we love to watch

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the role played by Rachel Zampelli Jackson in No Rules Theatre’s “Stop Kiss.” This version has been corrected.

September 14, 2012

What they do for love.

No other rationale adequately explains the uncommon devotion of actors who work regularly on Washington’s stages. It’s not filthy lucre that keeps them coming back: someone making a full-time living as a performer in plays and musicals here remains the extreme rarity. Actors tend to work on every role as if their lives depended on it — and yet get paid as if every role were still a hobby.

Like others who attend theater in this town, I have relationships with many actors in Washington — only they don’t know it. One of the pleasures of a fairly compact theater community is that you can grow to be on intimate terms with actors and their singular styles, and when, after a while, they have the opportunity to reveal to an audience other facets of their capabilities, the epiphany is deep and personal. Who knew that classical actress belted like Patti LuPone? Isn’t that actor getting laughs in the LaBute play the one I just saw carrying a scabbard in “Macbeth’’?

The potential in the city for a diet of rewarding, substantive work is the force that draws actors and, increasingly, holds them here. And why, in a sustained career, so many actors in Washington develop stage muscles that ripple. The downside, at least for them, is that as a source for other acting options, in TV and film, Washington continues to be a backwater. Some actors make ends meet recording books. Others land gigs in government training films. Others teach or write or secure regular office jobs.

Some even end up leaving, for New York or Hollywood. But a surprising and gratifying number stay — or live close enough to become pretty much permanent fixtures in the region’s diverse assortment of rehearsal rooms, green rooms and dressing rooms.

The accompanying portraits are a salute to all of those who try to make it here — again and again. Space would not permit us to fill a Sunday Arts gallery with all the deserving players, so as another theater season begins, we’ve unscientifically chosen a dozen from among the region’s talented cadres, who’ve all earned the distinction of being Washington actors. They’re not meant to be the top 12, or the most illustrious dozen. But they’re all good at what they do. They’re veterans or relatively new to the game; they’re singers, acrobats, chameleons, clowns. Some are all of the above. Some have qualities that are harder to define, and yet all of them possess some facet of an ineffable magnetism that makes watching them a pleasure.

DAWN URSULA

In the pair of characters assigned to her in “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning examination of racial attitudes in two epochs, Ursula gave the Woolly Mammoth Theatre production its humility and then its bite. In the first act she was the housekeeper for a white middle-class family of the ’50s, absorbing the indignities — intended or not — meted out by her white employers and their neighbors. In the second, she played a fiercer, more confident character of the present day, a woman dreading the arrival to her community of affluent white couples, disconnected from the struggles of the neighborhood’s black families.

The roles were breakthroughs for Ursula, who has done other fine work for Woolly, notably as a bombastic African official in Norris’s earlier “The Unmentionables” and an aid worker in Liberia in Danai Gurira’s African war drama, “Eclipsed.” It was through those juicy twin parts of “Clybourne” that audiences had the opportunity to glimpse something deeper in her talent, an ability to project, in tense cohabitation, sorrow mixed with rage.

EDWARD GERO

For his everyman polish, his seamless segueing from the japes of William Shakespeare to the epithets of David Mamet, Gero belongs on any list reserved for pros. Though he has a knack for gruffness, as his turn as Scrooge reveals in Ford’s Theatre’s annual holiday-time “A Christmas Carol,” no actor in or around town conveys more in the way of grace.

He’s a man for all temperatures. As the doomed Gloucester of director Robert Falls’s “King Lear” at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Gero was the chilling counterpoint to Stacey Keach’s deeply moving Lear. Playing a troubled patient awash in lukewarm insecurities, Gero imbued Studio Theatre’s “Shining City” with potent psychological realism. And as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in the Arena Stage bio-drama “Red,” he put audiences in touch with bona fide artistic heat.

KIMBERLY GILBERT

The bloodstream of a play pulses with a less predictable rhythm when Gilbert is coursing through it. She’s blessed with that ineffable gift, of bringing what feels like all of life with her onto the stage, and making her experience seem funny, and real. That’s something of a challenge when you’re playing a fairly ordinary person, as she does sometimes, in a piece such as Renee Calarco’s “The Religion Thing” at Theater J.

There’s more of a wow factor when she plays more vivid roles, which she does with ever more dexterity. Let’s see: there was the manic, loud-talking big box worker she played in Sam Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise” at Woolly, where like Ursula and Mendenhall, she is a company member; the sensitive hysteric pleasured by a newfangled electric appliance in Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”; the hot-to-trot journalism major of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s apocalypse comedy, “Boom.” I could go on. Better yet, Gilbert should — again and again.

CRAIG WALLACE

He regularly turns up in productions overseen by some of the city’s most respected directors: Michael Kahn, Aaron Posner, David Muse, John Vreeke. So clearly they know what you do, too: For assured support, rely on Wallace. Although he occasionally snares a leading role, as he did when he portrayed the Aviator in Round House Theatre’s adaptation of “The Little Prince,” Wallace is more frequently a key collaborator in a work with a strong group dynamic.

So he’s as right for Folger Theatre (Posner’s classily cerebral “Measure for Measure”) as he is in modern ensembles, whether playing a lovelorn 1950s bachelor (Woolly’s “Starving”) or an overindulged yuppie (Theater of the First Amendment’s “24, 7, 365.”) His ability to to behave as convincingly in a doublet as in a seersucker suit is a major reason a chorus of Washington casting people seem to say, in Wallace we trust.

STEPHEN GREGORY SMITH

Don’t let his sweet expression fool you. Smith can commit serious mischief on a stage — and one can only hope that Washington theatergoers get to focus more regularly on that dark side. His home base is Signature, where his skills as a utility player have revealed a true team spirit. In one musical, he is cast in the starring role (Signature’s “The Boy Detective Fails”); in another he takes a featured part (Ford’s Theatre’s “Meet John Doe”). And then, he may just turn up next in the ensemble (Signature’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”).

That’s dedication for you. And when the role’s a bit tangier, a little more twisted, some other facet of Smith’s ability is laid bare. In Studio’s musical descent into nihilistic expressionism with “The Adding Machine,” Smith portrayed a shrill psycho by the name of Shrdlu. The psychic torment that spilled out of him in song was strangely beautiful — a pain that anyone appreciative of an actor’s striving for excellence is only too glad to bear.

ALEXANDER STRAIN

From the beginning of his excellent acting adventure seven years ago, playing a servant in “Medea” at Washington Shakespeare Company (now called WSC Avant Bard), Strain has demonstrated a refined intelligence and a preternatural maturity, attributes that stamped him as forever watchable. Time and a nonstop theater career, onstage and in a director’s chair, have only confirmed that early impression.

He can embody innocence, as he did so touchingly as a young man unsullied by the brutality of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Theater J’s “Pangs of the Messiah.” But he’s gravitated to roles of more complexly rendered thinkers for some of his most memorable work: the 17th century Portuguese Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza in “New Jerusalem,” also at Theater J; a monstrously rational Caligula in Albert Camus’ play of that title at Washington Shakespeare. In Strain’s performances, wise can come across as downright sexy.

ALEX MILLS

Mills sometimes appears to have a skeleton made of something spongier than bone. (His “X-Men” name would no doubt be Slither.) Still in his 20s, this actor-acrobat overnight became a trademark Synetic Theater performer, a go-to guy for the undulating style of movement the troupe has made a hallmark.

The company’s wordless adaptations of Shakespeare are another of its signatures, and in them, Mills has made some of his most compelling impressions. His contortionist Puck helped give director Paata Tsikurishvili’s otherworldly “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” its carnival-like patina, and now there’s the possibility of doubling the Millsian pleasure: he’s the title character in “Jekyll and Hyde,” Synetic’s new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

NOVA Y. PAYTON

Yes, tornadoes do wear lipstick and heels. For dramatic confirmation of this meteorological oddity, consult the burgeoning career of Payton. Signature Theatre, the local epicenter of the modern musical, has thrown open its doors to her (and her glorious lungs), and the payoff is now on display in show after show.

Payton’s portrayals of Motormouth Maybelle in last winter’s “Hairspray” and as a muse with ’tude in last spring’s “Xanadu” put the region on notice of a far more reliable power source than Pepco. She’s currently delivering needed spark to Signature’s revival of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Soon, she takes on the dream role in the company’s “Dreamgirls,” playing cast-aside singer Effie White. And I am telling you, I AM going.

NANCY ROBINETTE

If anybody ever suggests to you that Washington doesn’t have actors they’d gladly pay to see, your immediate outraged response should be: Nancy Robinette! It’s hard to know, exactly, what is Robinette’s secret: meeting her, you encounter a gentle soul, the sort of person you see board a bus and to whom you instantly feel you should give up your seat.

And then, on a stage: wham! She can be solid steel or its opposite, a fluttering pile of ruffles. Have you witnessed any of her priceless comic turns for Shakespeare Theatre Company? Her addled Mrs. Malaprop in “The Rivals”? Her deluded Lady Bountiful in “The Beaux Stratagem”? Or, conversely, the tragic dimensions of an anguished mother of a young murder victim, in a play such as Studio Theatre’s “Frozen”? Beneath that unassuming countenance, there lies heavy artillery.

JENNIFER MENDENHALL

Which Jennifer Mendenhall do you prefer: the control-freak Vermont acting coach in “Circle Mirror Transformation”? The tragically oppressed Afghan intellectual in “Homebody/Kabul”? The 1950s housewife struggling to fend off grief in “Clybourne Park”? You see, there are just so many Mendenhalls to choose from — the happy conundrum with which Washington theatergoers continually must find some way to cope.

A passionate advocate of locally grown theater, Mendenhall exudes authority both onstage and off. She’s a true believer in the immutable force of theater, and somehow she’s able to carry that intensity of belief into her performances. All this, and a gift for comedy, too.

FLOYD KING

How many actors in these parts receive entrance applause? That level of audience approval is hard-won, and one of the few local earners is King. He ventures beyond the confines of Shakespeare Theatre Company turf now and again, playing a British schoolteacher with unsavory predilections (“The History Boys” at Studio) or a Roman slave with a penchant for Sondheim (Signature’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”).

But Shakespeare’s been his home for many years, and with his genetic gift for comedy, he’s made the Bard and other classical playwrights feel like home for many a Washingtonian. Did you get to hear him cough up half his internal organs in David Ives’s uproarious “The Heir Apparent”? How about his turn as a helplessly sclerotic Verges in “Much Ado About Nothing”? These are only the latest in an endless stream of turns in which he uses his natural instruments — that brass section of a voice, those eyes the shape of cymbals, those strands of hair like mangled guitar strings — to orchestrate his share of laughs.

RACHEL ZAMPELLI JACKSON

Jackson does weird really well. Scary well. If you caught the Andy Warhol bio-musical “Pop!” at Studio Theatre last summer, you might — heck, you would — recall her as the creepiest of the grotesques in the Warhol sideshow, an ultra-militant feminist and would-be playwright named Valerie Solanas, who’s so unhinged she nearly succeeds in killing the celebrated artist. It was a mesmerizing portrayal, in no small measure because the actress managed to infuse a wholly irritating character with some bizarrely, malevolent allure.

When talent demands notice, a theater lover can do nothing but comply. And so over the past year, I have, watching Zampelli Jackson satisfyingly assay a passel of parts: the girlfriend of a lesbian battered into a coma in No Rules Theatre’s “Stop Kiss”; a witch casting enchantment over Rasputin in Signature’s original musical “Brother Russia”; the devoted (rock balladeer) wife to our seventh president in Studio’s rollicking “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” In that last show, her character was named Rachel Jackson. And so it can be fairly said that Rachel Jackson wrings every drop of drama out of Rachel Jackson.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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