NorthJersey.com  
Actor enjoys working in a new light
Sunday, June 22, 2003

When the doors open Tuesday at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, will droves of "Jekkies" show up to pay homage to Robert Cuccioli?

"Jekyll and Hyde," in which Cuccioli originated the title roles, thrived off a cult following during its three-year Broadway run starting in 1997. People became obsessed. Some came back 10 times. Fan clubs emerged. Cuccioli was suddenly part of a new twist in pop culture.

"The Glass Menagerie," by Tennessee Williams, begins previews Tuesday and opens Saturday, running Tuesday through Sunday, through July 20. Performance times and ticket prices vary. For information, schedule, and tickets, call (973) 408-5600 or visit shakespearenj.org. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is at 36 Madison Ave. (Route 124) on the Drew University campus. Parking is free.

 

It sounds a far cry from what the actor is doing these days, as he spends most of his time in Madison conducting final rehearsals for the Tennessee Williams classic "The Glass Menagerie." But believe it or not, there may be a certain symmetry between the two experiences - if not the material.

Whether spending a month rehearsing Williams' delicate portrait of a family, or spending a year playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the over-the-top musical thriller, it's all about discovering something new each time you do a scene over, and over, and over again.

"We had a moment today where we rehearsed a scene for the umpteenth time, and a certain new light came upon it at that moment. No matter how much you work on something, you can find a new light that is shed on it," says Cuccioli, who is making his directorial debut with the company.

"Having four weeks of rehearsal with only four cast members is bliss. We have been able to take our time and deconstruct things, finding different options," Cuccioli says. What's interesting about the theater, though, is that the deconstruction doesn't necessarily end once rehearsals are over and the run is well under way, he adds. He learned firsthand while playing in "Jekyll and Hyde" on Broadway, a performance that brought him a Tony nomination in 1997 as well as a Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award.

"You're constantly finding new things. You might be saying a line a certain way for a good year, and all of a sudden, because you have grown in your own life that year, you suddenly discover a new aspect of what that line means. That then becomes a domino for other things in the play," he says.

To that extent, a play - or a performance - may never quite be "done," as it were. But, if nothing else, it will be ready for an audience on Tuesday, when it begins performances at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and runs through July 20.

"The Glass Menagerie" is a semi-autobiographical account of Williams' early days in 1930s St. Louis, and centers on a family struggling to get out from under the burdens that keep them from living their lives. The memory play is told by narrator Tom Wingfield (played by Robert Petkoff). Tom's mother, Amanda (Wendy Barrie-Wilson), has been abandoned by her husband and now lives solely for her children. Tom's unmarried sister, the extremely shy and fragile Laura (Katherine Kellgren), hides from the outside world by losing herself in a menagerie of glass animals and Victrola records. Tom himself is conflicted between his responsibility to support his mother and sister and wanting to break free from the family so he can live the life he really wants.

"I think everybody can see a piece of their own family dynamic in this family. I know I did," says Cuccioli. "There's the element of responsibility. ... Kids certainly feel that about home life, in terms of what they really want to do vs. the responsibilities put on them, and parents feel a responsibility to their kids."

As a director, Cuccioli feels a responsibility to his cast as much as any parent could to his children. Thankfully, he says, this company is a much happier family unit than the one in the play.

"I love actors, and I totally understand their process, and that each actor is different, and what they need is different. And it is because I can connect with that so well that I can allow them the freedom to explore, and I think they know it is a safe environment to do so. They are not going to be judged. Nothing they do is 'wrong.' So it becomes a more organic process, because of that."

This is only Cuccioli's third time out as a director, having overseen two regional productions of "Jekyll and Hyde." Cuccioli's other performing credits with the company include the musicals "Carnival!" and "Enter the Guardsman," which transferred to off-Broadway's Dimson Theater. He played Javert in "Les Miserables" on Broadway and Marc Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and recently appeared at McCarter Theatre in Princeton in "Fiction."

Cuccioli admits there's a certain gratification that comes with directing a production. But in the end, it's still the sum of all its parts.

"I like the part of it that is having more control of the final product," he says. "But as a director, I am very much a collaborator. ... I've never seen a production of 'The Glass Menagerie' before, so I've never had any preconceived notions of it, or 'how it should be done.' So it's been a discovery for all of us, in terms of what the play means, and what the intentions are," he says.

"We're making this ours, basically because we have no pre-conceived notions of it."

John Petrick's e-mail address is petrick@northjersey.com.