John Leguizamo is marching smartly through the noonday wilds of the Lower East Side making a convincing case for why an artist should live on the frontier fringe of civilization. "You want life to be raw," he says with an evangelist's furor. "You want to be the first to discover it. You need strange atmosphere and strange things happening to you to make your juices flow."
On this very street where he lives by way of illustrating that truism he has found some of the off-centered eccentrics who inhabited his one-man, multi-charactered theatrical odysseys Off-Broadway (Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama) and now, this month at the Cort Theatre, on Broadway (Freak). "I've found people here on the street and listened to their voices, their accents. It looks like I'm not really paying attention, but I'm just studying every part of their body, the way they move then I can use it somehow in the Rolodex of my mind."
Right now, walking his "land," the role that pops out of the Rolodex is Tour Guide for the old neighborhood. "Do you know what this used to be?" he asks, gesturing at a row of houses. "This used to be the homes of sea captains. And over there, where those projects are that was the harbor. Before that, in the early 1800's, everything from Alphabet City down that way was marsh and swamp. Alphabet City is landfill, from A over to D. They filled it up with dirt and garbage. When the global warming happens, we'll probably be under sea level."
Eight blocks farther uptown is P.S. 122 where Freak, like so many other performance-artist pieces, had its theatrical genesis. A lot has happened to the show since, in terms of shaping and sharpening, but the text Leguizamo wound up with from that gig has been published by Riverhead Press, under the telling subtitle, A Semi-Demi-Quasi-Pseudo Autobiography. That's about the size of it, too.
"What I did was I took my life and turned that into this play. I'm playing all the characters no costumes and no props just becoming all these people." Previously, with both Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, "all" came down to seven characters each but, with Freak, he gave his family tree such a shaking that out of it toppled 30 or 40 characters. During the course of the evening, he impersonates them all Mom, Dad, brother, cousin, three girlfriends, his three best friends, some Irish-Italian toughs who gave him a street beating, Lee Strasberg, Jerry Lewis, Marlon Brando and, of course, himself the Freak.
"It, literally, is the story of my life from being born [in Colombia, South America] on: coming to America for the first time, masturbating for the first time, devirginizing, parents' divorce, fights in the neighborhood, all the girls I've dated, getting into trouble and finally finding myself in my art."
Hardly Freakish behavior. Why, then, that title? "Because I've always felt I didn't fit in. I guess I still do. When I was growing up because I wasn't born here I didn't feel I was really part of this country. Then, when I went back to Latin America, I didn't feel I belonged there. I was with street kids, but I wasn't street enough. And with the nerdy kids, I definitely wasn't nerdy enough. I'm still hard to peg. I do comedy, but I do drama, too. People don't know how to label me dramatic actor or comedian.
"When I started out doing this show, what I wanted to do was a marriage of stand-up and theatre. It's something people haven't really done, and I didn't know if it was going to work. It was hard at first. I wanted the show to be fiercely funny, then hit all the theatrical demands that were being put on me creating all the characters so that they would talk to each other. Sometimes, there are five or six characters in a room talking to each other. And I've got to keep them all alive, and the audience has to know which character I am instantly without losing a second, so they forget that I am there at all and just believe they're seeing these people living these lives in that apartment or on that street corner. When I do it really well, I lose myself completely. It doesn't always happen I have to play it really hard for that to happen but, when it happens, it's like mystical. I'm not really trying to do anything. It's just happening by itself.
"This show wasn't as much fun to create as the other shows. It was a lot more difficult because there are a lot of places you don't want to go. Luckily, the director [David Bar Katz] is my friend, too. He knows all my life, he knows all my family, and he made me go places I didn't want to go. We had Q&As at P.S. 122. Lot of people came in, suffering through the indulgence at the beginning when it wasn't edited. They were like 'No, you gotta go deeper. It's too funny. We want more people stuff.' And I was like 'Awww, please. I don't want to have to go there. I want it to be a light fluffy piece.' So I started going deeper and deeper and deeper and darker and, finally, the show became what it wanted to be, and I had to step aside."
Then, are we to take Freak for fact? Yes and no, he hedges: "It's toned-down in some places, and it's exaggerated in other places, so it'll be funnier as opposed to morbid or pathetic. I don't want to be remembered as pathetic."
No chance of that. For 70 performances on Broadway, John Leguizamo will see his life pass before his eyes see it with an intensity that allows us to see it as well. "I'm putting every ounce, every molecule, every electron in my body into this," he promises. "Something has got to come out of it. The sheer force of that energy could propel me out of the theatre, you know."