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Darragh Kennan on playing a man, a woman, and a question mark

November 29th, 2011 by Danielle.Girard

Greg (Alban Dennis) and Tom (Darragh Kennan) at the dog park.

In Seattle Rep’s current production of A.R. Gurney’s heart-warming comedy Sylvia, we witness once again a dramatic convention Gurney has used throughout his body of work—having a single actor play multiple roles. Only this time, he complicates it with cross-gender casting. While the principal characters—Sylvia, Greg, and Kate—are played by different gender-appropriate actors, the fourth member of this cast plays three roles—a man, a woman, and an androgynous psychiatrist.

Seattle-based actor Darragh Kennan tackles the challenge of playing Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie in this season’s production of Sylvia.

Kennan and I sat down in his dressing room to chat about the reality of a male actor playing a man, woman, and man/woman in the same play.

Q: Can you tell us about these three distinctly different characters you play in Sylvia?

Darragh Kennan: Tom is a guy who we meet at the dog park, and he’s a dog aficionado. The way I play him anyways, you know, he’s a lonely guy. And he needs a friend. So that’s pretty straight forward other than the fact that he’s got some issues. Phyllis is this woman that was friends with the character of Kate in Vassar. They were friends in college. She’s Republican; an Upper East Side, Manhattan socialite. She’s got a drinking problem. Leslie is this sort of troubled psychiatrist who is exploring the boundaries of gender identification with his patients.

They’re all people that are struggling, just like Greg is.

Do you find one character more fun or challenging to play than another?

Darragh Kennan as Leslie, the androgynous psychiatrist.

It goes back and forth. You know I’ve played multiple roles before so, you know, sometimes you really enjoy playing one character and then the other one you’re still trying to figure out, and then it flips around. At the moment, I like playing them all. They’re sort of all coming together right now. Leslie was the hardest one. And he’s still kind of – he, she, it – it’s not clear whether he’s a man or a woman, he/she/it, Leslie that is, was the hard one to kind of find. I’m still working through. The characters are like these archetype characters. They’re not real human beings, and yet the challenge as an actor is to make them human beings,but also serve the play, which is presenting these really strange people.

Can you talk more about the actors’ process – your process – of playing three different roles in the same play?

Well, it’s just like playing different roles in different plays; it’s just that this happens to be the same play. You try and make them different people. One of them is a woman, and one of them is just a guy. So that in and of itself has to be different. I don’t see how it couldn’t be different. I don’t think any actor would make those the same. And you know, I mean, they go to extremes to make me look like a woman. Like I have this suit on, with these hips, and I shaved my legs. I put all this makeup on, fake eyelashes, stiletto heels, and cover up any stubble I have on my face [to] really try to make me look like a woman. So it instantly transforms you.

Even before that, you know, any beginning actor goes through some schooling where you take a look at what’s going on, who [the characters] are based on the play and your imagination. Their circumstances are totally different. I mean, they’re not in the same place. I’ve always liked doing that—distinguishing different characters. That’s the least of the battle. That’s the easy part. The hard part is making them believable as real human beings within a farce, within a sketch comedy, not making them caricatures.

Phyllis (Darragh Kennan) and Kate (Mari Nelson) discuss Greg’s obsession with Sylvia.

It’s funny the other day, I was getting ready to leave the house—I have two kids, one’s six and one’s four—and the six-year-old, my daughter, asks, “Daddy, do you feel embarrassed? You know to play a woman and dress-up?” And I’m like “No, why would you say that?” and she says, “Do you feel like, you know, maybe you’ll make a fool out of yourself?” I said, “You can’t think about that stuff, you just got to do your work.” But I thought that it was a really interesting question. It speaks to a lot of people’s fears. Putting on a dress and walking out on stage of the Bagley Wright Theatre, and being a woman, when you’re obviously not, it’s funny, but . . . that’s why you, with any character you play as an actor, you have to really believe who you are and what you’re doing and think about tactile stuff—the fact that you are in high heels, using a high voice. It’ll be fun, and I’m really interested to see what people think of it.


Sylvia plays at Seattle Rep through December 11. Click here for ticket information.

Linda K. Morris as Sylvia and Alban Dennis as Greg. Photo by Chris Bennion.

As Circle Mirror Transformation moves into its last week of performances in the Leo K. Theatre, another show has pawed its way into the Seattle Rep Costume Shop and onto the Bagley Wright stage—fleas and all.

With costume designs by Melanie Burgess, Sylvia is a story of husband and wife…and a stray dog, written by A.R. Gurney. I’ll let you in on a little secret though—the only dogs in the theater will be on November 13 for a very special Dogs Night Out performance of Sylvia—Sylvia, the stray, is played by the incomparable Linda K. Morris. I know! I was as surprised as you are right now. But fret not, Ms. Morris is highly trained and house broken. (If you don’t believe me, check out Morris in our “How to act like a dog” video!)

When reading this play for the first time at the beginning of my internship in September, I was just as charmed by the script as Burgess, a self-professed dog lover. After reading the script, two specific characters particularly fascinated me: Sylvia and Phyllis. Both of these roles require full transformations and lots of creativity from the designer, which Burgess was well prepared for after several decades of work at the Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Darragh Kennan as Phyllis. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Phyllis, played by Seattle actor Darragh Kennan, is an Upper East Side female socialite that Gurney wrote to be played by a male actor. This isn’t unprecedented, even Shakespeare wasn’t the first to use this comedic trick. Burgess looked to create a realistically feminine silhouette on the more slightly built Kennan. With the help of Naomi Weber, draper/tailor at Seattle Rep, and her fabulously talented first hand Laura Me, a one-piece garment complete with hips and a full bust—C cup to be exact—was constructed. The costume may be too realistic though, considering Kennan’s question during the fitting, “Ladies, are my hips too big?” Self-conscious already.

While there are undergarments to help the masculine figure of Darragh transform into a woman, I’ve never heard of doggy undergarments. But after drooling over the renderings that seemed to pop from the page, my fears were quelled. Sylvia has four different looks during the production: stray, groomed, relaxed, and a little black dress number. They all have hints of “dogginess,” but are meant for a feminine physique.

Melanie Burgess (designer) and Joanne Witzkowski (draper) discuss a costume piece for the play. Photo by Corey Davis.

To tackle this issue, Burgess drew upon her past successes with animal characters and left the “mascot costumes” out of the mix. She wanted to suggest the look of a dog, and used the “boho-grunge” style of clothing—with its relaxed fit and messiness—as a resource more than research of man’s best friend. You know, sometimes I confuse the Olsen twins with stray dogs when I’m reading People magazine, so that makes sense…

But Sylvia does make it off the streets during the course of the show, trotting her way to the groomers and into some other ingenious costumes…but for those you’ll have to make your way down to the Bagley Wright Theatre and see for yourself. Hope to see you all at the Rep soon!

Corey Davis is Seattle Rep’s Costume Shop Intern.

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