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Fall’s Four Challenging Roles

We surveyed the fall theatre calendar, picked out four of the most challenging roles, and talked to the actors and directors responsible for bringing them to life

Eddie Torres and Usman Ally
Torres (left) and Ally

Eddie Torres (Director)
Usman Ally (Actor)
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Victory Gardens

With dialogue defined by rapid-fire hip-hop and a story set in the world of professional wrestling, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity requires a leading man who can lob a couplet and take a folding chair to the kidneys with equal finesse.

Enter Albany Park’s Usman Ally. At 27, he’s been in town for less than two years but has already racked up credits at Lookingglass, American Theater Company, and A Red Orchid. Ally, who is Pakistani, developed his lyrical sensibilities after nearly being shot in a racial attack in college. “I couldn’t talk about it for a long time,” he says, “but I could rap about it. So I started writing and going to poetry slams.”

In Chad Deity, Ally plays an ultrasuave Indian American ladies’ man who moonlights in the ring as the Fundamentalist. The play is directed by Eddie Torres, 45, who earned his stripes as an actor at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Victory Gardens, and as the artistic director and cofounder of Teatro Vista. Like his company, Torres is committed to bridging barriers between races—a challenge that Chad Deity approaches head-on. “[The playwright Kristoffer] Diaz deals with ugly stereotypes in a bold way,” says Torres. “You need an actor who isn’t afraid to get into it. That’s Usman too.”

SEE: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity runs through Nov. 1st at VICTORY GARDENS, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-871-3000, victorygardens.org.


Jen Engstrom and Nick Bowling
Engstrom (left) and Bowling

Jen Engstrom (Actor)
Nick Bowling (Director)
When She Danced at TimeLine Theatre

About a third of the way through When She Danced, Jen Engstrom, the actress playing Isadora Duncan, poses motionless for two minutes and 35 seconds—an eternity in stage time. Eyes closed, body still, Engstrom has to hold the audience in her thrall, portraying the iconoclastic mother of modern dance performing not with movement but through sheer force of will.

“I go through an entire performance in my—in Isadora’s—imagination. I’ve got to convey it without moving,” Engstrom says. “Am I worried?” she continues. “I’m terrified.”

She needn’t be, according to her director, Nick Bowling, who has a history of sold-out shows and whose last directorial effort, The History Boys, was extended twice.   

The search for an actor capable of capturing Duncan’s mercurial passion and galvanizing artistry was exhaustive, and it ended abruptly when Engstrom took the stage to audition for Bowling and TimeLine Theatre’s artistic director, PJ Powers. “When Jen’s in the room, you can’t stop looking at her. PJ and I turned to each other and said pretty much the same thing: ‘That’s our Isadora,’” Bowling recalls.

When She Danced portrays Duncan in her 40s, reeling from the drowning accident that killed her two children and living at the center of a wildly bohemian household. “Isadora was this rare combination of great power and great insecurity,” Bowling says. “Jen gets that. She has both that grit and that vulnerability.”

SEE: When She Danced runs Nov. 4th through Dec. 20th at TIMELINE, 615 W. Wellington Ave.; 773-281-1134, timelinetheatre.com.


Eric Simonson and Kate Arrington
Simonson (left) and Arrington

Eric Simonson (Director)
Kate Arrington (Actor)
Fake at Steppenwolf

The backstory to the director and playwright Eric Simonson’s tantalizing drama Fake is a thriller in itself: In 1912, British scientists thought they found the missing link between humans and apes. Half a century later, Piltdown Man (named for the village where the skull was found) was declared a fraud: Somebody had buried a human skull with an orangutan jaw. To this day, nobody knows who did it. Fake posits a theory.

In the play, which spans 49 years, Kate Arrington stars as both a crusading reporter called in to investigate the newly discovered skull and a World War II refugee engaged to the renowned British professor who reopened the case in 1953.

“I love how Eric’s story dances between this very public mystery of Piltdown and the very private personal mysteries of the people involved,” Arrington says. “You see how the search for public truth bumps up against the search for private truth.”

An Oscar-winning documentarian (2005’s A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin), Simonson weaves historical facts throughout Fake, creating a narrative intriguingly rooted in this-could-be-true plausibility. He knew he wanted Arrington from her first reading. “She had an instinct for it,” he says. “You hope and you pray you’ll find someone who does the part the way you’ve heard it in your head. Kate did that from the start.”

SEE: Fake runs through Nov. 8th at STEPPENWOLF, 1650 N. Halsted St.; 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org.


Kate Hendrickson and Mildred Marie Langford
Hendrickson (left) and Langford

Kate Hendrickson (Director)
Mildred Marie Langford (Actor)
12 Ophelias at Trap Door Theatre

Mildred Marie Langford is 29, African American, and has never been in love— absolutely not what the director Kate Hendrickson had in mind for the lead in Trap Door Theatre’s 12 Ophelias.

“You see images of Ophelia and they’re always this pale, blond, very young teenage-type creature,” Hendrickson says of Shakespeare’s tragic ingénue. “Plus, how could you play someone who’s had her heart ripped out if you’ve never been in love yourself?”

Langford showed how when she auditioned for Caridad Svich’s verbally kaleidoscopic, bluegrass-infused reimagining of Hamlet’s spurned lover.

“Mildred started singing, and it was a complete ‘Oh, my God’ moment,” Hendrickson says. “I realized that I can have an Ophelia that completely defied my assumptions.” Hendrickson made her directorial mark in 2005 with Trap Door’s AmeriKafka. Then, after having a daughter, she returned in the fall of 2007 to direct the characteristically explosive Emma, about Emma Goldman. Like 12 Ophelias, the piece depicted a sexually and politically charged woman at the height of her power.

In Svich’s dreamscape adaptation, Ophelia doesn’t conveniently vanish under a pond after Hamlet dumps her: She tells the moody Dane to go F himself. Then she seduces him, cheered on by a chorus of singing sister Ophelias.

“She defines herself rather than letting Hamlet do it,” says Langford. “Kate asked me if I’d ever been in love, which I haven’t,” she adds, “but I can bring myself to that place.”

SEE: 12 Ophelias runs through Oct. 31st at TRAP DOOR, 1655 W. Cortland St.; 773-384-0494, trapdoortheatre.com.


Photography: Jeff Sciortino

Stylist: Donna Marie Hough/artists by Timothy Priano;  Assistant Stylist: Jenna Burkett/artists by Timothy Priano; Hair and Makeup: Joyce Taft and Danielle Dettore; Wardrobe: courtesy of Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Primitive, Silver Room; Chair: Design Within Reach

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