ELIZABETH RUSCIO'S ACTING CAREER MOVES EVER AHEAD

Linda Rotunda is having a bad day. She's 32 and still living in her parents' home in the Bronx. Her boyfriend has just dumped her--with an extremely weird explanation. Nor is her reputation in the best shape: She's commonly referred to around the neighborhood as "sloppy and fertile."

"Here's a woman whose major currency in life has been her body," explained actress Elizabeth Ruscio, who plays the role in John Patrick Shanley's "Savage in Limbo" (at the Cast through Aug. 29). "Being so fertile and voluptuous has defined her--and it's really confining. All this time she's allowed her boyfriend to see her in a way that she thought was appealing. And it's all been for nought; she's the equivalent of disgusting to him. Anyway, I feel for her."

And for all the characters.

The play, set in a dark, non-realistic bar, introduces us to a quintet of equally disturbed souls, attempting to shake off their sheltered existences. Said Ruscio: "The lesson I've taken away from it this week is 'There is no rehearsal. This is your life, and it's already started. You can choose to be a part of it or you can decide to wait until you lose those 30 pounds, or get those nice clothes or meet the right man or learn to cook the perfect meal--and then you can start living.'

"These are baby boomers, people who were told when they were growing up that everything was going to be there for them. They'd have a house and kids and cars and a swimming pool; their life would be set by the time they were 32. Because when their parents were 32, they already had five kids, a house and a lot of food. These people have nothing. They're still in the same neighborhood. They keep waiting to have all these things bestowed on them, but don't quite have the courage to go out and get them. It doesn't make them necessarily weak, but scared. They're scared people."

What Linda is, Elizabeth Ruscio--except for matching age--definitely isn't.

"I love moving around," she said cheerfully. "I'm as comfortable on a set as I am in someone's trailer or my parents' house or somebody else's house. And I just love hotels: room service, maids coming in, color TV with cable. I guess I'm a Gypsy at heart. I really love new things, new beginnings. I love the first day of rehearsal, the first day I move into a house or living in a hotel and people not knowing what my phone number is. It's a neat opportunity for me to start over in my life."

Free-spiritedness aside, Ruscio does have personal constants, including her husband, actor/writer Leon Martell. "And I have a circle of friends which is ever widening, ever steadfast; they're my extended family."

A veteran of more than 70 stage productions, New York-born Ruscio began her career at 16, playing Polly in "The Gingerbread Lady" in Windsor, Canada, where her father was directing her mother in the title role. In spite of those family connections, she stressed, "I had to audition for the role like everyone else. And it ended up being one of the hardest experiences I ever had. It was impossible to get away from rehearsals. At home, my father would say things like, 'Is that how Polly would eat her breakfast? You have to think about those things now that you're an actress.' "

Actually, that choice hadn't quite been made. Ruscio originally entered the University of Iowa as an art major. "Then one day I was working on this sculpture of a cocoon and the butterfly emerging, and it was just so stupid and ridiculous and uninspiring that--with my hands covered with plaster of Paris--I threw it away, walked out of sculpture class and made the decision: The three-dimensional sculpture I had to use was not plaster of Paris but me . It had taken me a long time to get to that realization, because I come from six generations of actors, and I couldn't take it lightly."

She splintered from the more traditional path and began working with the Iowa Theatre Lab and the Omaha Magic Theatre--"real physical and experimental and primal. You don't make a name for yourself doing that kind of work." As a self-professed workshop junkie, she also kept studying: at New York's Circle in the Square and later in Los Angeles with Jeff Corey. ("Class," she says dreamily, "is a wonderful place to fail.") Next came three years at the Bay Area Playwrights' Festival, more experimental work (Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre) and stand-up comedy.

As for establishing a set persona: "I'm a character leading lady," Ruscio said proudly, "which was tough when I was younger. I played some wacky ingenues, some less than moral women." Yet the role description, she insists, is a lot less important than what she can discover beneath the surface. "For me, the whole point of acting is that it becomes a lesson for your own life--as a person, not just an actor.

"So it becomes not just an exercise in vanity but also--I don't mean to sound too mystical--a way of understanding more about the human condition: seeking a universal truth not only for the character, but also for a world of characters."

Such an assignment was her role in John Steppling's "The Dream Coast" (at Taper, Too, 1986).

"When I first read it, I said, 'John, how is this character standing? She's taken so many drugs she can't put two words together.' But then I realized that for her, and a lot of people, it hurt too much to be awake; there weren't enough drugs to take the pain away. Once I understood that, I had to expose it. I didn't want to give the part to anyone else. She was ugly, the experience of doing it was ugly. But it was a challenge I just couldn't turn down."

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