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Picnic - Broadway

Roundabout Theatre Company presents the revival of William Inge's comedy.

Elizabeth Marvel on Shakespeare, Picnic and the Fun of Playing ‘Tenacious’ Women

Elizabeth Marvel on Shakespeare, Picnic and the Fun of Playing ‘Tenacious’ Women
Elizabeth Marvel
Elizabeth Marvel reflects on starring in some of the most striking off-Broadway productions of the past decade.

When it comes to intense characters who aren’t afraid to do verbal battle with the guys (or gals) on stage, Elizabeth Marvel is every director’s dream. Marvel offers a magic mix of honesty and fearlessness, whether she is playing the author of a family expose in Other Desert Cities or Blanche DuBois lounging nude in a bathtub in a raucous rendition of A Streetcar Named Desire. The four-time Obie Award winner is currently on Broadway as feisty schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Picnic and can be seen on the big screen in both year-end presidential dramas, Lincoln (as Mrs. Jolly, paired with her real-life husband, Bill Camp) and Hyde Park on Hudson (as FDR’s secretary, Missy). Given the huge array of shows in Marvel’s 20-year career, we couldn’t predict what her Role Call might include—and most of her choices were, indeed, surprising.

Role I'm Most Proud to Have Played
The Little Foxes [2010, as Regina Giddens] is the production I’m most proud of. It’s a perfectly written play, with such a strong structure. What [Marvel's frequent collaborator, avant garde director] Ivo van Hove asks of actors is so difficult: Usually, some people are on board with him and some aren’t, but in this company, everybody was on board. The sentence that defines the play is, “There are people who eat the earth and there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.” That’s very timely. Regina is tenacious, but she is also a realist. She works with what is in front of her, and I loved being inside of that. While I was preparing, I watched the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. Ali was not as strong a fighter, but he came up with the rope-a-dope and ended up winning an unwinnable fight. That’s the story of Regina.”

Role That Launched My Career
“My first professional job, and definitely one of my highlights, was playing Isabella in Measure for Measure at Stratford [Ontario, 1992] with Colm Feore and Brian Bedford. The King James Bible came out as Shakespeare was writing the play, so I spent a lot of time reading the Psalms when I was researching, since Isabella is a novitiate. I was so young when I did it, I was working on impulse; I didn’t have the complexity of thought I would have now, so it wasn’t as difficult a role. The thing that’s interesting about Measure for Measure is that Isabella’s scenes with Angelo are really erotic linguistically. They take each other’s words and enter each other’s sentences in a way that’s totally different from the language in the rest of the play.”

Role in a Fabulous Ensemble
“I must include the experience I’m having now in Picnic, because it has been incredible. Rosemary Sydney is a self-proclaimed ‘old-maid schoolteacher’ who lives in a boardinghouse with a single mom and her two daughters. You watch the character round that corner of facing mortality, and what that does to people. I’m 43, so I’m entering that time in life when we begin to realize time is passing—we’re not 20 anymore, and life doesn’t go on forever. Picnic is another play that is beautifully constructed. It’s a story about community, and [director] Sam Gold has put together a beautiful ensemble, which is always thrilling for an actor. Unfortunately, it’s rare, but when it happens, it’s wonderful.”

Role That Was the Most Emotionally Challenging
Fifty Words [2008, as Jan] was a great experience, but it was very painful, just because of the territory the play covers. It is an intimate portrait of a marriage, almost like an X-ray of a dark night between two long-married people that passes in real time. Norbert [Leo Butz, as Marvel’s husband] was wonderful to work with. We actually work very differently, which can be hard in a two-hander, but we found a trust very quickly. I went into the play with a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but [director] Austin Pendleton gave me space to explore, to get to a place of letting the character come forth from wherever I was that night. It was a freeing experience of trust and simplicity.”

Role That Was the Most Joyful
As You Like It [1994, Guthrie Theater, as Rosalind] is such a joyful, joyful play, and doing it with my husband [Bill Camp] as my Orlando was amazing, although we weren’t even together [in real life] at the time. We met at Juilliard and had been together before, but at that point we weren’t. Rosalind is a life force, and the play is a cathartic experience because she moves from such darkness to such light. One of the few things I am longing to do at this point is get back to Shakespeare. I was in several Shakespeare in the Park productions in my younger years, but I’ve been busy with other things for a while.”

Role That Was the Most Surprising
“I was most surprised by Hedda Gabler [2004; Obie Award] because I hate that play and I never wanted to play that part. AT. ALL. [Director] Ivo [van Hove] and I were supposed to do Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage but we didn’t get the rights, so he we had to find a different play for that slot [at New York Theatre Workshop]. I expressed my lack of interest in Hedda, but I will pretty much do anything Ivo asks me to do, and it ended up being one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. It’s hard to talk about because the play is such an existential piece, but it was very interesting to explore the way Ivo approached it musically and physically—I loved the territory we were living in during that play.”

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