As She Likes It: Lea DeLaria Tackles Shakespeare and Mark Linn-Baker at Williamstown

As She Likes It: Lea DeLaria Tackles Shakespeare and Mark Linn-Baker at Williamstown It's a Saturday afternoon, her show is about to open, and Lea DeLaria is going places -- literally.
Lea DeLaria with Jesse Tyler Ferguson at the Friends of New York Theatre Awards June 13.
Lea DeLaria with Jesse Tyler Ferguson at the Friends of New York Theatre Awards June 13. (Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

It's a Saturday afternoon, her show is about to open, and Lea DeLaria is going places -- literally.

On a break from rehearsing at the Williamstown Theater Festival, where DeLaria is playing Audrey the Goatherd in As You Like It, the busy actress spoke to Playbill On-Line via cell phone, as she rushed from one New York City appointment to the next. "I hope you don't mind," she apologizes in advance. "Things are just a little crazy today."

Crazy schedule or not, DeLaria is in high spirits. Though she's never done Shakespeare before, the stand-up-comic-turned-Broadway-star is pleased with the way the production has been going. "The director, Barry Edelstein, has been really good at helping me get past where I freak about the iambic pentameter," she says. "It's been a pleasant surprise. I've been getting a lot of laughs from people, so I figure I'm on the right track."

For DeLaria, that's saying a lot. While she's perfectly at home telling off-color jokes or belting out show tunes on stage, reciting the Bard's lines is a different story. "I've never wanted to do Shakespeare in my whole entire life," she confesses. "I mean, the only reason I'm doing it is because I'm afraid of it, and I'm trying to walk through my fear."

Well, maybe not the only reason. The fact that Gwyneth Paltrow is playing Rosalind doesn't hurt either. "What am I gonna do? Say `No'?" she laughs. "I get to be next to Gwyneth Paltrow in a room? I'm there!" A highly physical performer, DeLaria says she's found her perfect match in Mark Linn-Baker, who plays Audrey's love interest, Touchstone. "Mark and I are both such clowns. We've been doing a lot of creative stuff in rehearsals, and we've come up with this sort of wrestling relationship. He keeps jumping her, and she keeps pinning him. All through the second act, he's trying to get into her pants, and she's saying, `No.'" She starts to laugh. "Now that's something I can relate to."

Even over a cell phone in the middle of Manhattan, DeLaria exhibits a candor that's refreshing. Whether she's talking about her career ("Unfortunately, I was on `Matlock' for two seasons.") or her sexuality ("Where do I feel most comfortable? I'd have to say in a really pretty girl's bedroom."), the actress pulls no punches. She also remains remarkably focused. After a brief interlude in which she hails a taxi in her Ethel Merman-esque voice and a subsequent confession -- "I'm sorry. I've got three things going on here." -- DeLaria jumps right back into the conversation without missing a beat. "Seriously?" she says as she settles into back seat of the cab. "I feel most comfortable doing anything that's on stage. Whether it's a musical or a play, I'm definitely more comfortable with an audience in front of me."

The daughter of a jazz musician, DeLaria has been singing since she was a teenager. But it was as a stand-up comic that she first made a name for herself. Out of the closet long before "lesbian chic" became a catch phrase, she attracted a large gay following with her daringly blunt act. When she announced "I'm a big dyke" on the Arsenio Hall show in the early 90s, she gained national attention.

In 1997, DeLaria scored the plum role of Hildy in the Public Theater production of On the Town, which moved to Broadway's Gershwin Theater the following year. Her spirited performance and powerful voice drew raves from critics, and a musical comedy star was born. "Nobody knew I could sing like that until I did On the Town," she observes. "It really blew people away. Of course, my family came to On the Town, and to them it was nothing. My sister said, `I don't know what all the hype is about, Lea. I've seen you do this your whole life.' I was like, `Well you haven't seen me quite do it on Broadway yet, have you?'"

How did On the Town change her life? "How about completely?" she responds quickly. "I don't have to struggle for stand-up gigs any more. Actually, nobody really wants me for stand-up any more."

They seem to want DeLaria for everything else, though. After As You Like It, which runs from August 4-15, she'll play the Hollywood Bowl with Alan Cumming, Anne Miller and Charlotte Church. In November December, she's back in New York City for a return engagement of her popular cabaret act at Joe's Pub. Her film, "Edge of Seventeen," has received positive notices. And DeLaria even found time to belt out a rendition of "Feelin' Alright" on the upcoming VH1 pilot, "Celebrity Karaoke."

When asked which stage role she'd most like to play, DeLaria begins laughing hysterically and inexplicably. "I'll tell you in a minute why I'm laughing," she says. After she finally catches her breath, the actress explains, "It was because I almost died."

As the cab continues on its course, DeLaria lists her dream roles: Mama Rose from Gypsy and George in a lesbian version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. "There's a million Sondheim roles that I would love to do," she adds. "I've also always wanted to do Guys and Dolls with all women. Call it Gals and Dolls. It would be a classic butch-femme musical."

For now, though, DeLaria is happy to be doing Shakespeare. "The big dream role for me is the one that hasn't been written yet," she says, still winding down from the narrowly missed traffic accident. "Somebody is going to write me a great musical someday. I hope, I hope, I hope."

-- Alison Sloane Gaylin