Backstage

In Sync With a Hollywood Legend

Steve Cuiffo, left, and John Epperson perform to a recording of a 1973 interview in
Steve Cuiffo, left, and John Epperson perform to a recording of a 1973 interview in "Lypsinka: The Passion of the Crawford." (By Liane Jacobs -- Studio Theatre)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Actor-magician Steve Cuiffo has a hunch why audiences so eagerly buy into Lypsinka, performer John Epperson's golden-dames-of-Hollywood stage persona. "It's misdirection, the disembodied voice," says Cuiffo, who lip-syncs alongside Epperson to the real voices of the characters in "The Passion of the Crawford," at Studio Theatre through March 11.

The centerpiece of the show is an interview actress Joan Crawford did in 1973 at New York's Town Hall. Cuiffo plays the interviewer, John Springer, and compares what they do onstage to ventriloquism and magic.

"People forget, and it really is a very strong illusion and then all those details of the throat moving, that's just technique," Cuiffo says.

He began by working alone with a transcript and an audio track of the interview (no video was made). "I probably worked about a week or so on it myself, just to kind of find my way with it a little bit," says Cuiffo (pronounced Chiffo). After that, Epperson, the master lip-syncer, gave him a few pointers, a few "trade secrets."

In this Studio run, nearly two years after first doing the show at New York's Zipper Theater, Cuiffo says he continues to find subtle sounds on the recording that help him physicalize and add nuance to his slightly fawning Springer. "The more I listen to it, the more explicit it gets. You pick up on his breathing . . . getting into his rhythm."

He has been surprised by how organic a thing the show is. "I thought, okay, once we do it and learn it, that's it. It'll be the same thing every night. But what started happening -- and still happens -- was . . . it changes," Cuiffo says.

His Springer asks what seems like an innocent question and Epperson's Crawford will shoot him a skull-melting glare. That began as improv in rehearsals, Cuiffo says, and director Kevin Malony used the evolving relationship between star and interviewer to help shape the evening. They're still having fun honing their byplay and the collaboration feels so electric, Cuiffo says he asked an actor friend, "What is that?"

"She called it the 'divine third,' which I thought was pretty cool. You have one actor and then another actor, and there's that zone in between them that really brings it to life . . . every night it changes. That's why it's interesting for me to do it. Even though we have to be technically spot-on," he adds, "otherwise the illusion fails."

Will, to the Power of 15

On Sunday the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Will Award (officially the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre) will go not to some Broadway, Hollywood or West End deity as in the past (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench, most recently) but to 15 actors who regularly perform key roles at the Shakespeare, some of them for nearly three decades.

The honorees are Emery Battis, Avery Brooks, Helen Carey, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Edward Gero, Philip Goodwin, Tana Hicken, Floyd King, Claire Lautier, Andrew Long, Patrick Page, Nancy Robinette, David Sabin, Ted van Griethuysen and Geraint Wyn Davies.

The recognition, as the theater moves toward the projected October opening of its big mainstage venue in the Harman Center for the Arts, "just seemed really appropriate this year," Artistic Director Michael Kahn says. "This one is for those people who just worked here and worked here and made this theater what it is."

Floyd King likens the regulars getting the award to "the foot soldier who got the medal of honor." King first appeared as "a very very young actor" in "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1980, when the company performed at the Folger Shakespeare Library. "I sort of learned in the trenches, as it were," recalls the Port Arthur, Tex., native, known for his classical comic roles. In the current "Richard III," he is a somber, dying Edward IV, but in the recent "Beaux' Strategem" he was a hilarious mustachioed French cleric, who introduced himself with "I am Foigard!"

King, who also teaches acting at Juilliard and Oxford, says a true classical actor is "anyone that devotes the major part of their career to the classical theater. You're available when they call you and maybe actually take a job here rather than a job doing 'No, No, Nanette,' though 'No, No, Nanette' may pay more money -- because you like language and you like the kind of acting that's required."

Claire Lautier, one of the newest and youngest company regulars on the Will honors list, studied under Kahn in Juilliard's graduate acting program. She first came here to play Roxanne in "Cyrano," returned to play the Princess of France in "Love's Labor's Lost" and is Lady Anne in "Richard III," which runs through March 18. Lautier says of the company's veterans, "They're wonderful, they're friendly, they're open, they're helpful, they're fun to be around, fun to work with."

She'd love to play Hedda Gabler, or Lady Macbeth, sooner rather than later: "I haven't had the opportunity to bite off more than I can chew, which is something that I'm looking forward to."

On Sunday, along with her fellow honorees, Lautier can bite into some classic dinner rolls, at least, and take a bow toward the future.

Follow Spots

· The Arlington-based Washington Shakespeare Company is adding a benefit performance of "The Rape of Lucrece," its world premiere stage adaptation (by Callie Kimball) of Shakespeare's epic poem. Tickets are $15 for the performance, at the Clark Street Playhouse March 9 at 10 p.m. Kimball's own troupe, DC Dollies & the Rocket Bitch Revue, will give benefit performances of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" March 6 and 7 at Clark Street. Tickets are $20. Proceeds from both events go to DC Rape Crisis. Visit http://www.DollyRockets.org.

· The Helen Hayes Awards has added Theater of the First Amendment's family musical "Lift: Icarus and Me" by writer-lyricist Mary Hall Surface and composer-lyricist David Maddox to its list of nominees for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical. It replaces "The Faculty Room" by Bridget Carpenter, done by Woolly Mammoth, which was mistakenly categorized as a world premiere. The awards will be announced at an April 16 gala.


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