Thursday, January 26, 2012

Robin Singer in a Wild New Play


Robin Singer in a Wild New Play

(from 1/31/11)

'My nomination for most intriguing title around town is this: A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians. Who? What? Where? Well, it's the first play by novelist Dorota Maslowska, who is in the vanguard of young artists in Poland who are producing works that are Western-influenced yet distinctly Polish. Dorota, we've been warned, delights in playing provocateur and taking an unprepared audience on a thrill ride without seat belts. Described as a grotesque travelogue, Maslowska's unsettling, adrenaline-pumping comic tragedy has been translated into English and performed in London, Chicago, and elsewhere, and critics and a fans have been united in their praise, which includes expressing gratitude for something entirely new in their theater-going experience. Now it's New York City's turn to see what all the hoopla is about. From Feb 4 to Feb 26, except for Mondays and Tuesdays, the Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street, in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute, is staging the East River Commedia's production of Maslowska's controversial play, and surely it will make daring theatergoers ignore the citys weekly blizzards. You may be familiar with director Paul Bargetto and male lead Troy Lavallee as the cofounders East River Commedia. I better know Robin Singer, the female lead, a singer, dancer, and actress who was the title character in last summer's indie film, Kisses, Chloe. Singer has a gift for both comedy and drama so I'm really looking forward to seeing her in this play, doing both and everything in-between. I enjoyed speaking to this rising star when Kisses, Chloe played at the Hamptons Film Festival, so I made sure to interview her again in anticipation of the play's Friday night opening. (Alert: At the end of the interview is some cool bonus material about another Singer project.)

DP: How did you get involved in this unusual play?

RS: I came in to audition through Troy Lavallee, who plays Blighty, the lead male in the show. Last year, I worked on the web series C E BrOs, which he wrote, produced, and starred in. I was on the set for only one day and actually played opposite a different actor. Troy and I kept in kept in touch but had no plans to work together, but then I saw a casting notice for this play. I just happened to look at the top and saw his name on it! He's an unbelievably talented actor so I loved the idea of working with him and I loved the character of Gina that I auditioned for.

Danny Peary: How were you cast?

Robin Singer: I saw the breakdown and asked Troy if I could come for an audition and he said yes. He was encouraging. There was a lot of competition, but he didnt feel the need to mention that, which is cool. I auditioned for him and Paul Bargetto, the director, for about twenty minutes, working on a scene that they gave me--a long monologue from the end of the show. I did that once or twice, and then there was an additional scene from the middle of the show with Gina and Blighty. Overall, I auditioned for them 3 or 4 times before I got the part. They kept calling me back and giving me different scenes.

DP: So they were looking for an actress who could play...

RS: ...somebody very raw, with a lot of emotional depth.

DP: Tell me about the rehearsal process.

RS: Well, Paul has been really thorough with our preparation, We started rehearsing the last two weeks of December and since the beginning he has had us do a lot of ensemble-building work. My character and Troy's character are on stage for basically the entire show, while the other characters interact with them in one scene each, but still we rehearse as an entire cast. Troy and Paul are part of a company, East River Commedia, so they've worked together several times and that's their process. Most of the other actors have worked with them, so it's only me and two other actors that are new to working with the company. It's going to be an amazing show with such great actors.

DP: From what I've read, the show really vacillates in terms of moods and styles.

RS: That's accurate. It's a really intense show, both in the comic and tragic aspects of it. A lot of the comedy comes from the tragedy--it's really interwoven. As far as the issues it touches on, like class issues, I would say it's a very dark comedy.

DP: Here's what I know of the plot: A foul-mouthed TV soap actor and a single mother who sniffs glue despite being pregnant, meet at a costume party in Poland. Then they hit the road together, pretending be poor Romanians, and meet various people along the way.

RS: Yes, people from the outside world. Blighty continuously tells people that he's a famous actor from a television program. A lot of is it really up-in-the-air.

DP: Are Gina and Blighty a couple?

RS: I wouldn't say a couple. When the play begins, they have just met a couple of hours ago at the party. They kind of bonded instantly, and now they're hitchhiking and getting picked up by strangers. The destination is a ferry to Romania, but they're not Romanian so they're just going to get away, I think. Throughout the course of the journey they come to realize why they were drawn together.

DP: Two people take a journey.
Obviously, travel is easier to show in a movie than on a stage. I know the play has a video element, so is that how the journey is being shown?

RS: There aren't screens with images of trees flying by or anything like that. The journey is being shown through the action. It's a really visceral play, very exposed. Paul is doing some wonderful work, as is Doris Mirescu, who designed the set and costumes, so there are a lot of visual elements. The way it's going to be put on is bare-to-the=bone and fast-paced and it doesn't slow down because there's no intermission, no bathroom breaks! It's definitely very downtown theater. We are even selling beer, and people can drink during the show.

DP: I assume Dorota Maslowska's original play was somewhat political and dealt with class issues in Poland. Do you think the American version, which has been compared to Bonnie and Clyde, is political or is it now more nihilistic?

RS: It's nihilistic, I think. I wouldn't call it a straight-out political play, but it's definitely a generational play. Gina and Blighty are from the first generation of people in Poland who haven't really lived under communism, so their values are the values of a commercial culture and you've got young people doing a lot of drugs. It's basically your typical Drugs/Sex/Violence triad of a journey. I think there are some class issues, dealing with the Romanian people in Poland and most of the Europe. When they dress in costumes of gypsies, third-class citizens, it's like white Americans dressing up as slaves for a costume party. In the play, the general impression is that all Romanians are gypsies. I think that's largely the view in Europe, because theres so much migration from Romania. It's a costume party of people dressing up as gypsies, basically, and these two decide to stay in character. The people that they encounter politicize the play more.

DP: Is there a Soviet influence?

RS: I wouldnt say that there's too much of that in the show. However, there are definitely overtones. For instance the first character they meet is very much of the Communist era--persecuted, with a lot of intense memories of surviving a war state. For a lot of people that translates to Soviet Russia.

DP: This play was previously performed in Chicago.
RS: Right. I know it was done in London and I think it was also done in California, It will translate here. A lot of care has been taken with the translation, so that people will understand everything.

DP: So should New Yorkers be interested in this?
RS: Of course. If you know a lot of Polish theater, I'd say it's a very Polish play. But the themes of any piece of theater should transcend any one country, or any one group of people. It's a human story; it's about people going on what ends up being a very mystical journey, although it didn't set out to be that. Our characters learn whether or not they're able to shape their own realities.

DP: Are they the same two people at the end?
RS: They're not the same. There's a transformation. It begins with a party atmosphere on this fun, somewhat hellish journey but it slowly falls apart, like coming down from the worst high of your life, really. The play is drug-fueled all the way through, and the cracks start to show pretty quickly and reality sets in.

DP: In the summary of the play, it says that the two characters loathe each other at times.

RS: Yes, I'd say that's true. There are lots of exposed nerves, and they know how to push each other's buttons. As the play progresses you learn more and more about their histories and where they're coming from, independent from having just met each other.

DP: With the two characters railing at each other at times, was there worry that it would become just a psychodrama?
RS: No. I know it isn't that. It's just so freakishly well-written. Every time the cast sits in a room together, there are silent moments when we all just look at each other and think, God, this play is so good! Sorry, I'm gushing but Im really excited to be in such a well-written play.

DP: What do you know about Dorota Maslowska?
RS: She's a young playwright and novelist, and I think also a journalist. She unexpectedly won a Nike award, a very prestigious award in Poland. She's coming to the show! She's going to be coming, I think, the week before we officially open. Paul has met with her already and had a chance to talk to her about the show a little bit, but none of the rest of us have met her so we're really looking forward to that.

DP: You play a pregnant woman who sniffs glue. Do you feel guilt at all?
RS: No. It's strange: she has the guilt that any pregnant glue-sniffing woman might feel, but explains that in small quantities it might even be healthy--and her child is already used to it, so she'd better not stop now.

DP: When we talked about your playing the femme fatale in Kisses, Chloe, you said how much you loved her. Is loving Gina the same kind of thing?
RS: I think it's the same. I approach every role knowing that I have to love my character. I just have to understand why they do what they do as much as possible. I love Gina and hope to get people to root for her. When you're playing a glue-sniffing pregnant woman, you still need people to sympathize for whatever reason, because otherwise there's no show. It's too cut-and-dried and uninteresting to watch, unless people have an emotional connection to the character that they're watching. I have to start from that place, where I can push the character forward and make her as lovable as she can possibly be.

DP: But what if the character doesn't love herself?
RS: Still, I as the actor will always love my character, because she is who she is. Gina definitely comes from a place of self-hatred and masochism and an awareness that she may or may not be a monster. As the actor, I can't judge her, or I'm never going to be able to represent her accurately.

DP: How do you go about figuring out your character and finding her lovability?
RS: When I work on a character, I work on the past couple years of her life, and even before that. I write it down, I write everything down. I've done an obscene amount of background work with Gina--I've written a book!-- because she's so far from who I am as a person, and from my situation. It was very difficult for me to insert myself into this part. A lot of Gina's situation is based on her family life--she's a single mother who consistently deserts her child. I think the most important thing for me to remember is that regardless of this, she is a mother, whether or not she wants to be. She has that impulse and she's just really in denial of it. So there was a lot of vulnerability there for me to mine. The circumstances of getting pregnant as a young woman, a 17-year old; the relationship she has with the father of the child; the relationship she has with her father and her mother, who has left her family; and obviously the relationship she has with her child now.
It's a long and grueling process to be able to understand how a person can abandon her child consistently and be able to find emotional justification for that - the extreme reason that people are driven to do things like that. I would never feel comfortable only saying that she just does a lot of drugs. I think there's something more involved and complex about a person that would explain the deeper reason for that.

DP: If you the actress told Gina who she was, would she recognize herself?
RS: Yeah, I think so.

DP: I like the idea of people underrating themselves, and I wonder if your character is a little like that.
RS: I think so. In the beginning of the play, there's the idea that she can be whoever she wants to be. A lot of what I started to work on is: why did the male character pick her out of a whole room of people? Knowing that you're a poor single mother with no future, running away from your life and having an opportunity to get into a car with George Clooney, or whoever he may be may be, is completely illogical, but you're flattered, you are finally handed some freedom, and you feel excitement. It's so far removed from your day-to-day life and where you to come from. You're allowed to put on a costume. It's important for me to give her the permission to be whatever she wants to be. And as the play goes on, reality starts to seep in--she's confronts the fact that her child has been left somewhere, and that this fantasy isn't and can't be permanent. It's like getting rip-rolling high, and then crashing down.

DP: Does your character go from one extreme to the other?
RS: Absolutely, it's a play of extremes. When I started working on my character, I almost started working on two separate characters because of that. I spent a lot of time researching speed, and speed users and meth users and I think that Gina on drugs is probably an idealized version of her, or what shed like herself to be. It's very different from what she is.

DP: Do you think Dorota's writing is autobiographical?
RS: I hate to say this but I think that almost all writing is to some extent autobiographical, or has elements of autobiography. But I may want to take that back already because the script I'm working on isnt autobiographical--I dont think. I can say that the world of this play is so vivid and so graphic that if it isn't autobiographical, Dorota definitely did a hell of a lot of work! It's a very accurate play, I think.

DP: I would imagine that since you like the play so much, you find the male character equally interesting.
RS: If I were to sit back and just read the play, i would say that I find the male character more interesting, which I think is strange. I started reading Dorota's novel, and it's about a male character. I think she definitely has a talent for writing male characters, which is a rare thing for a female writer. Blighty is just a firecracker. He's such a great character, and I swear it was written for Troy. He does the most amazing job with it. The male part is so large that if you had any less of an actor in the part, the play wouldn't fly like it does now.

DP: When you have to play off him, does that help?
RS: I don't think it's unbalanced--the strength of the entire ensemble drives everybody to do their absolute bests. All of the actors in this show are unbelievably talented people who bring so much to their parts. I cant imagine that they're going to be able to single out anybody in a review. They've earned absolutely every bit of praise that they're going to get.

DP: I read that Dorota is a fan of the Oliver Stone movie Natural-Born Killers--did you know that?
RS: I didn't and that's funny,
because the very first thing wrote on the top of my copy of the play after reading it was Natural-Born Killers. That makes perfect sense.

DP: That movie is less connected to Bonnie and Clyde than to Badlands and the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in the 1950s. In some cases the murders are done without real purpose, just to create a stir in a vacuous country.
RS: I think its important to remember that with all the violence in the show, it's not vacuous--there's a kind of mystical purpose to it all, in regard to why these two people have been drawn together and gone on this trip and are either running away from something or trying to get somewhere.

DP: In some of these films, the violence is a substitute for sex.
RS: I dont think that's the case in this show, at least. There's definitely an element of complicity, though--the fact they're operating together as a partnership, scaring the shit out of people. The terror that they wreak on these people is a team effort. There's a love for that, and there's a satisfaction they get from that, for at least part of the play. Then things fall apart.

DP: Finally, what can audiences expect if they come to your play?
RS: A 90-minute runaway train of a play, with unexpected mystical insight. I don't know if there's another one of these. On a lot of levels, it's pretty different - it's all new to me.
Photo credits: Robin Singer and Troy Lavallee (Paul Bargetto); Robin jumping (Richie Baretta); Robin in Duran Duran t-shirt (Leslie Hassler); Robin enjoying being interviewed (Danny Peary)
A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians will be at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street at Pitt Street Feb 4-5, 9-13, 16-20, 23-26. Tickets are $20. 212-352-3101. You can get tickets at and For more information go
Bonus: Read on as the busy Robin Singer and I talk about a quirky comedy web series she's in. Danny Peary: Tell me about the web series. Robin Singer: It's called Public Relations. It's about two PR people who work together and are also friends. The series was created and written by Sarah Paige and Elisabeth Hower, who are also the two leads. I play their actress client, Lilly Lewellen, and I'm in seven episodes. I got involved in a really, really weird way. I got the audition through a friend of mine that I worked with 8 or 9 years ago, when I went through a period of wanting to be a Production Assistant. I wanted to learn the technical side of filmmaking, so I was working on a film called Tony N' Tinas Wedding, starring Mila Kunis and Adrian Grenier. My friend Darren Johnson was the assistant producer. We stayed in touch and all these years later he told me he was producing a web series and said I should come to audition because I'd be great for it. And I did.

DP: How long are the episodes?
RS: They average 3 or 4 minutes. The whole series together, if it were shown from beginning to end, is about 25 minutes. There was no real rehearsing--we rehearsed on set a couple of times, just for the camera, and then we did some physical improvisation. I remember a scene where I burst into an apartment, and the first time we did it my sunglasses fell down and it was really funny, so we kept that. (I think in the end it got cut out, unfortunately.) It's just really random stuff. It was shot over the course of two weekends, I think. It might have been five days all together. We shot the whole thing as one piece and then they just broke it up into episodes.

DP: What was your audition?
RS: We read one of the scenes that's in episode 5. We just did one scene--I showed up ready to go. We shot in the very hottest days of July,
and I was wearing long pants and a sweatshirt--pretty awesome!

DP: It's a little different than regular TV situation comedy, because it's a risque.
RS: It is a bit risque. There's a dominatrix, actually, on the show.

DP: In an episode I saw, Lilly is wearing a revealing top and she's feeding someone on his knees in submissive gear as if he were a dog doing tricks.
RS: Oh, right, dog biscuits.

DP: It's not G-rated, not PG-rated
RS: Not R-rated. Well, maybe a little bit.

DP: Did you have fun with your character?
RS: She was a blast to play. I don't want to call Lilly a caricature, but she's definitely a Hollywood starlet type. She's not especially on the ball but she's loving and lovable.

DP: Did you base her on anyone you know?
RS: She's based on my best friend, let me give you her name...No, no, I'd say she's not based on anybody in particular. She comes from the imagination.

DP: Is there going to be a second series?
RS: I don't know what they're planning because Elizabeth and Tim Rouhana, the director, moved shortly after we finished the shooting. They're actually in L.A. now. I know they've cut a short version of it that they're submitting to film festivals.

DP: You seem to have a good time doing comedy.
RS: Yeah. I've never had a bad time doing comedy. The hardest thing is keeping myself from laughing when some of the other actors are funny. Not ruining the take is the hardest part!


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