Two for the show

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The family that works on plays together, stays together.

OK, so that's not exactly the old adage. But it might become a new one if the husband-and-wife acting team of Jason Odell Williams and Charlotte Cohn continue on the same artistic road they've been traveling the past few years.

These days, the pair has been spending evenings at Howard Community College, working with the resident Actors Equity troupe, the Rep Stage Company, in a relatively new play titled "Or," getting its regional premiere starting Aug. 31

Written by Liz Duffy Adams, the off-Broadway sleeper hit revisits the long-gone era of the 1600s as it tells of real-life playwright Aphra Behn and her attempts to break into the all-male world of playwriting in Restoration England.

When it made its debut in New York in 2009, the play received a favorable review from the New York Times, which called it a "frisky historical romp." A year later, the San Francisco Gate touted it as an "hilarious history lesson."

For the Rep production, director Michael Stebbins cast Cohn in the role of Behn opposite Williams, who is a native Columbian, playing no less than three separate roles, including King Charles II.

Working together, they have found, they are having about as good a time as reviewers did watching the play.

"It's really so much fun," says Cohn, who was born in Copenhagen and raised in Jerusalem. "I think we knew that it was going to be good. But I didn't expect it to be this much fun."

Williams agrees: "The main thing is that we don't hesitate to try anything. There are no filters. When you act with someone you don't know, you always feel, 'Well, I don't want to look like a fool, or do something silly.'

"But here that doesn't apply. We can do anything. You never feel self-conscious or embarrassed. It's exactly the way it's supposed to be."

"Maybe it's also because it's a comedy and it's sort of raucous," adds Cohn. "But it is so comfortable. I'm having more fun doing this than pretty much anything I've done before in the acting world."

It's a good thing the couple has such a synergy, because "Or" isn't the easiest play to tackle, Cohn notes. Besides the action taking place in the distant past, there are words, words, and more words to memorize.

"It's very dense, language-wise," notes Cohn. "And I thought to myself 'Oh, dear, this is a lot of language.' It's been a while since I've been in something like this. But I'm excited about it and I'm up for the challenge."

The main reason the couple has found working together so comfortable is that they've done it many times before. The pair met at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York City. After pairing up personally, they began to work as a professional team.

Last spring Cohn produced and directed a play written by Williams based on some of his experiences growing up in Columbia, "Baltimore in Black and White." After it ran in New York City, the duo traveled upstate where they co-starred in another of Williams' plays, "At a Loss," which tells of the travails of a non-English speaking Israeli woman lost in the United States.

After "Or" closes, the couple will head down to Naples, Florida where they will appear in a restaging of "At a Loss," which has been reworked and retitled "Handle With Care" for its unveiling at the Gulfshore Playhouse, a new professional theater.

Although "Or" marks the couple's debut as a team at Rep Stage, it's not Williams' first appearance with the company. Last year, he starred in an evening of two one-act plays by "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie.

The couple has also amassed a plethora of credits individually. Beyond his playwriting, Williams has appeared on television soap operas and at such theaters as Centerstage and Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre, where he starred in the regional premiere of Neil LaBute's controversial comedy-drama "Fat Pig."

Cohn made her Broadway debut in the first-ever Broadway production of Puccini's "La Boheme," which was directed by Australian director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge"). She has also appeared on stage in a number of New York productions and acted in several Centerstage shows – the last being a one-woman cabaret titled "Simply Complicated: The Elegant Escapades of a Danish, Israeli, Opera Singing Tank Commander," which was written by Williams.

Cohn says she finds working on a play's regional premiere especially exhilarating.

"I'm excited about working on something new," she says. "Because few people have done it before, there's no one way of doing something."

Adds Williams: "This play has been done one or two times regionally, but it's not like Tennessee Williams. It's not something everyone has seen and is familiar with."

A post-show reception will follow the Sept. 3 performance. Post-show "talk backs" will follow the Sept. 9 and 16 performances. On Saturday, Sept. 17, 12:30 p.m., a pre-show lecture will be held. Admission is free.

The Rep Stage Company opens its season with "Or," running Aug. 31-Sept. 18, in Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, located in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center. Show times are Wednesdays-Thursdays 7 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 8 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays 2 p.m. and Sundays 6:30 p.m. Tickets run $22-$30 depending on the performance day. Pay-what-you-can performances will be offered Wednesdays. Admission is $12 for all students with ID. Call 410-772-4900 or go to http://www.repstage.org.

Beyond its opening gambit, "Or," the Rep Stage Company has an expanded season on tap, featuring not only its usual four mainstage productions, but a "Salon Series" featuring smaller-scale works.

On the mainstage, after "Or" closes Sept. 18, the company will stage the drama "Barrymore" by William Luce, Oct. 26-Nov. 13. Steven Carpenter will direct Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Nigel Reed in this work about the haunted actor John Barrymore's final days.

The racially charged drama "Yellowman" finds Helen Hayes Award-winner Kasi Campbell back in the director's chair. Running Feb. 8-26, this Dael Orlandersmith drama looks at intra-racial prejudice.

"Las Meninas" by Lynn Nottage will follow April 18-May 6. Directed by Eve Muson, it's an irreverent look at the court of France's Louis XIV and a historical scandal involving Queen Marie-Therese.

The Salon Series, says Rep producing artistic director Michael Stebbins, is a way for the company to offer more variety to theater-goers without having to get caught up in the budgetary and production constraints of a full show.

"We did a couple of things like this last year, such as a one-person piece about Edgar Allen Poe," Stebbins notes. "It went over rather well, so this season we're interspersing smaller plays throughout the mainstage season."

The Salon Series opens with Anne Nelson's Sept. 11-oriented drama "The Guys," running Sept. 9-11.

Tony Tsendeas, a nationally recognized interpreter of Edgar Allan Poe's writings, will return to Rep Stage to act in an anthology of the writer's works called "The Poe Show," Oct. 21-24.

Stebbins himself will star in the troupe's now-traditional mounting of a holiday-related David Sedaris play, which this time will be "Holidays on Ice," Dec. 16-19.

Finally, Rep will invite members of the community to strut their stuff on stage for the Salon Series closer, "Rep Stage Revue: Spotlighting YOU!" March 30-April 1. For this production, aspiring entertainers can sign up for an audition and will have three minutes to showcase their talents before a panel of judges and theater professionals. Selected acts will appear in the final production.

For more details, go to http://www.repstage.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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