Meagen Fay was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, studied classical theatre abroad, and served her apprenticeship in the theatre in Dublin, Ireland. When Meagen returned to the US in the late 1970s, she became a part of Chicago’s burgeoning ‘Off Loop’ Theatre scene. There she won several Joseph Jefferson Awards for her work, as well as being named ‘Best New Actress’ by The Chicago Sun Times for her performance in Hide and Seek at the Body Politic Theatre.
Meagen was invited into the resident company of The Second City by famed producer Bernard Sahlins and was again awarded a Joseph Jefferson Award for her work in the review entitled, Orwell That Ends Well which she also performed in New York at The Village Gate Theatre. In New York, Meagen went on to star with F. Murray Abraham and Peter MacNicol in The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, as well as appearing in Broadway and Off-Broadway Productions.
She began her television career in earnest as a regular on Carol & Company (1990) starring Carol Burnett, with later recurring roles on several shows including Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle, and Two and a Half Men. More recent work in television includes roles in Shrink, Transparent, Agent Carter, and Big Bang Theory (as Bernadette’s mom).
In addition to her stage and television work, Meagan has appeared in 25 films. She recently played Mia’s (Emma Stone) mother in La La Land.
Meagen’s directorial debut of Jeffrey Sweet’s play, Kunstler, has won rave reviews. Kunstler is now at 59East 59 Theaters, and runs through March 12. This summer, play will be also presented at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires from May 18 through June 10.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Having spent my entire adult life immersed in my career as an actress, I was surprised by several – seemingly out-of-the-blue offers to direct. In the interest of expanding my understanding and experience of the theater I accepted – and had a blast. The most engaging offer I received was to direct KUNSTLER for the NY Fringe Festival in 2014. Because of my personal connection to the material I was “all in” from the moment I read the script and knew without a doubt exactly what tone and texture I would bring to the show. To be able to realize it fully now at 59E59 Theaters – with sound, and light, and set is the realization of 3-year-dream.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I have always loved acting and have been so fortunate to be a working actress in Television and film but my first, and always, love is theater. It is where I began and where I always come home to. Being able to create in it is a full experience.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
As an actress I have always noted the directors who were of the most help to me and to a production – either because of or despite their various temperaments! So my training has been experiential.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
So far people have been very encouraging!
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I guess some people are surprised by my directing – but it has not precluded my acting – so I don’t think of it as a career change.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I realized I would have an acting career when I was in NY on Broadway. Everything after achieving that seemed a natural progression. As for Directing? I’m still waiting …
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Yes, I had to overcome my innate shyness as a person to be able to direct. You cannot have strong emotions and opinions about a set, a sound, an acting choice, a light cue, a piece of wardrobe and not voice them with full-throated conviction. It’s easier to be a shy actress and lose yourself in a role than it is to be a shy director – so I had to not be shy.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Acting! Sometimes I ACT like I’m a DIRECTOR! LOL!
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am always most proud that I have guided an entire team of designers, actors, and producers, and writers into my vision of a show — And seeing the show succeed for them all — I am extremely proud of that.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
If a project comes along that calls to you – trust your instincts. Honor the knowledge and talent of your team of designers, producers, writers, and actors – but never stop pushing for perfection and unification of expression – because that’s the job.
Opening photo: Jody Frankel photography
What with Hilary Clinton hopefully on her way to The White House and a resurgence of women’s groups focused on everything from reproductive rights to career opportunities, The Public Theater apparently thinks mounting an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew is timely quid pro quo. (All productions in Shakespeare’s time were acted exclusively by men.) Even the show’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, hails from the distaff side.
Lloyd, alas, is the biggest part of the problem here. Seemingly in an effort to emulate Alex Timber’s immensely more successful free-for-all musical take on Love’s Labour’s Lost, we have a concept gone off the rails with no cohesive point of view. Irreverence can be fun, but this…!?
Donna Lynn Champlin, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Crush Jumbo
In brief, Petruchio (Janet McTeer) arrives from Verona “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” When told the likeliest candidate is a shrew named Katherina/Kate (Cush Jumbo), he resolves to acquire the lady by denying her faults. Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) has a slew of suitors. Predominant among these are locals Gemio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Stacey Sargeant), and the newly arrived Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore).
The girls’ father, Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), will not allow Bianca’s marriage before Kate is suitably paired off. He will, however, permit tutors access to his daughters. Lucentio switches places with his servant Tranio (Adrienne C. Moore) and is presented to papa as a teacher of literature. In a really funny scene, he declares his identity and love between passages of Gone With the Wind. Bianca responds “I know you not. I trust you not. (reading) I’ll never be hungry again!” She’s conveniently if irrationally dressed like Scarlett O’Hara.
Not to be outdone, Hortensio masquerades as a music instructor. Lucentio wins. Tranio secures her hand for his master (still disguised as him) by promising a large dowry. After a mix-up involving Lucentio’s faux and actual father, servant and master switch back.
Janet McTeer and Crush Jumbo
Drunk (there’s a bottle in his paper bag) and under dressed in this version, Petruchio weds Kate and drags her off in his hysterical, full sized RV, painted with pin-ups. (Kudos to Mark Thompson.) He deprives his bride of food and sleep at a trailer camp – killing her with ersatz kindness – until starving and exhausted, she gives in to his every whim. Upon returning home for Bianca’s wedding, he bets on and proves the shrew’s change. Kate’s iconic speech about wifely duties/subservience is a surprise to everyone.
A pithy role long relished by formidable actresses, Kate must be an equal to Petruchio for the play to work. She must match him in quickness of wit, intelligence, and stubborn pride – in other words, a prize. The best performances show slow recognition that this strong, attractive man is, in fact, worth having; that it’s her decision to submit, that rather than diminish Kate, it will eventually give her leverage. Petruchio meanwhile grows to admire what he now ostensibly owns and will, it’s implied, relinquish his outrageous test demands. The “doormat” speech is delivered with an arched eyebrow by a woman who has found her water level .
Crush Jumbo, Janet McTeer
Beginning and ending with a beauty pageant, the British Lloyd acknowledges that women were judged by beauty and financial gain. That she paints both female protagonists as unworthy of further examination is as anti-feminist as it gets.
In this production, the heroine is a tantrum-throwing, childish brat (and not believable as that, either). As conceived one presumes by Lloyd and played by an ill-suited Cush Jumbo, her only merit is a dowry. The relationship is meaningless. Kate is a Stepford Wife. Lest we leave with that impression, she has an aria da capo fit of screaming rebellion at the end and is dispensed in a manner that makes no sense. What ?!
Bianca’s air-headed, blonde beauty queen persona is embodied rather well by Gayle Rankin with comedic flair, despite directed shouting. It would work better had she a significant Kate to play her opposite.
Latanya Richardson Jackson, Janet McTeer
Also good are Stacey Sargeant as Hortensio (replete with accordion and some well finessed timing) and Adrienne C. Moore as a genial Tranio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Baptista lacks paternal and class authority.
A call-out should be made to Judy Gold (Gremio) who rescued a stall due to the malfunctioning RV, with ad-libbed comedy, some of which was lighthearted vaudeville, some of which was unnecessarily vulgar.
The best reason to sit through this mishmash is far and away Janet McTeer (Petruchio). This mercurial actress, soon to appear on Broadway in Les Liasons Dangereuses, imbues her swaggering, masculine role with so much visual testosterone, reality feels suspended. She moves, gestures, smokes, drinks and deeply laughs as would the cocky rogue. Petruchio manhandles Kate with confident sovereignty and no regard for the weakness of her sex. Commands are spit, aftermath watchful. McTeer, calculates, manipulates, revels, and gloats in perfect tenor. A masterful turn.
Rose Gilmore, Gayle Rankin
Mark Thompson’s evocative tent and wagon Set seems irrelevant to a piece with not a moment of circus parody or performance. His 1950’s Costumes fair better with the help of Leah J. Loukas’s unflattering (the style then) Hair and Wig Design. The production also, however, utilizes western gear, sometimes adding cowboy hats to suits from another geography. Petruchio resembles a Texas Hell’s Angel. Kate looks like a character from Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park). Nor are the rich dressed any differently than their servants. At least give us that disparity within a chosen genre.
Live music between scenes consists of abrasive, electronic, bass sound with a tad of rhythm and next to no melody. (Sam Davis) Excerpted disco tunes and middle-of-the-road pop are often humorously inserted but rarely from the 1950s and never country/western. Disconnect is constant. (A company dance finale -Broadway meets disco – is sheer copycat.)
The company is hit or miss with language that should be crisp and intelligible whatever its proffered context. While I have no problem when two (black) servants speak with ghetto street inflection, general enunciation lacks the precision necessary to make a conversational approach accessible and entertaining. Most of these actresses seem untrained in Shakespeare. The further afield a production is taken, the more important its dialogue.
As always, the outdoor theater itself is a unique experience. Besides helicopters who frustratingly never seem rerouted on performance nights, we’re visited by an enormous raccoon and four perfectly arrayed geese. The weather is glorious.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Janet McTeer
The Public Theater presents Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
The Delacorte Theater
Through June 26, 2016
Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida – July 19-August 14, 2016