By Andrew Gans
16 May 2014
Natascia Diaz, a two-time Helen Hayes Award winner for her performances in the world premiere of Rooms, a rock romance and a revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, can currently be seen opposite Mitchell Jarvis in the Signature Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which continues through June 1 in Arlington, VA. Directed by Matthew Gardiner, this adaptation of the classic piece, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994, features a book by Robert David MacDonald and lyrics by Jeremy Sams and casts Diaz as Jenny with Jarvis as Macheath. I recently posed a set of questions to the multitalented Diaz, whose Broadway credits include Man of La Mancha, Seussical, The Capeman and Carousel; her answers, via email, follow.
Question: How did this role come about?
Natascia Diaz: I'm guessing Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer and associate artistic director (and director of The Threepenny Opera) Matthew Gardiner must have had me in mind for the role, and I was approached a year ago when they were planning Signature's 2013-14 season. Needless to say, I was quite excited about the offer.
Question: How would you describe Jenny?
Diaz: For me, Jenny is literally a representation and embodiment of the futility and irrelevance of love, in Brecht's version of the world. I know that sounds very heady, and potentially difficult to actually play moment to moment, but it is an archetypal idea that resonates deeply with me.
Diaz: I have a few, with and without me in them, but without question, to be able to open the show with the famous “Mack the Knife," or here, “The Flick Knife Song," is an incredible feeling. It feels like I'm doing a twisted Brechtian version of “Wilkommen.” To have the responsibility to bring the audience into the style they are about to spend the night in is very cool. Another moment is “The Pimp’s Tango,” which I perform with Mitchell Jarvis as Mack. Now, I am remiss in that I didn't have the pleasure of seeing Rock of Ages, but I was literally destroyed by the brilliance of his Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror at Studio Theatre here in DC. I was like, Who. Is. This. Guy? And, when can I work with him? What he packs in power, facility, sensitivity and intelligence as a performer is mesmerizing. Though the details of Jenny and Mack's story is somewhat tangential to the action of the show, their relationship is powerfully represented in “The Pimp’s Tango.” And, the forces that are at play between them are very interesting for me to inhabit, especially as the sort of Judas she becomes. Like Judas, her love of and ability to betray Mack coexist. Seriously, what a gift it is to be onstage with a performer like that. And, my last favorite is doing “Socrates Song." It is the most stripped-down and simple I have ever been on a stage. Another fascinating first for me.
|photo by Margot Schulman|
Question: What has been the biggest challenge of the role?
Diaz: Well, the goal of Brechtian acting is by definition and practice the polar opposite of everything I was taught in the Stanislavsky technique. The goal here is to achieve what Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt, or the "making stange" effect. It doesn't matter what your character had for breakfast or what happened the moment before the scene. And, most importantly, and most strange for me initially, is that you are not supposed to elicit or go for any kind of emotional empathic response from the audience. At first I was like, what?? Um, that's why I'm here! That's what theatre is supposed to do! In rehearsal, I didn't even know how to behave in scenes at first.
But Brecht's focus was to serve up the ideas, so that the audience would receive the ideas at play, and think about what they were being presented, and not get lost in the emotion of the moment. I have never experienced being onstage like that. As an actor, purely energetically, I find myself in a very restrained and subdued place, which is very interesting for me, as they are colors I don't often play. Playing Jenny, I feel no catharsis in performance as I have experienced in other highly emotional or demanding and complex material. Here you are a conduit for ideas. Period. Which is hard. But fascinatingly different.
Question: Tell me about working with your director.
Diaz: I have to be honest; my performance and understanding all of the above came as a direct result of my complete, trusting and constant open dialogue with our director, Matthew Gardiner. His guidance and shaping helped me to make this strange stance tangible and, now in performance, comfortably mine. Though I think it’s safe to say Matthew and I have been long-time admirers of each other's work — and we have worked on small concerts, readings and on other tangential projects — this was the first time we actually have worked on a full production together. I think he will agree that our association began when he saw me as Petra in A Little Night Music and then Carnival at the Kennedy Center. He then shortly after launched a "Natascia Diaz needs to play Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman at Signature Theatre" campaign, which resulted, gratefully, in an offer for the role. Since then, in numerous plays and musicals I have seen of his, I have been deeply impressed with the savvy, intellect and command of his directorial hand, and have waited for the day when we could work together. When you feel a connection and understanding as I experience with him, that's as good as it gets. The sky's the limit.
Question: Any other projects in the works?
Diaz: Nope, totally ready and available. Waiting to hear about a certain project's New York possibility (who isn't?), and otherwise I am just attending auditions both in NY and in DC, which is wonderful. I have a solo concert coming up this summer at Signature Theatre in July, and I will be going back to do a night at Brel Returns at Stage 72, formerly The Triad, July 28.
[For tickets and further information visit signature-theatre.org.]Continued...