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2 Shows Feature Women Authors in Performing Roles

<i> Arkatov writes regularly about theater for Calendar</i>

One is a one-woman show; the other is essentially a one-woman show. Both are at the Carpet Company Stage (on alternate nights), and both are very good. Both are performed by their authors. But that’s about all that Susan Caroselli’s “Mission to the Philistines, or the Hazards of Culture” and Elizabeth Iannaci’s “O Beautiful Doll” have in common.

In “Mission,” Caroselli plays a character alternately referred to as the English Lady and the Eccentric Soprano. Sailing onstage from the back of the small theater, her posture and intonation impeccable, Caroselli proceeds to educate a cultural wasteland (the audience) on the finer points of arts appreciation. The lesson is wry, funny and gentle-spirited, and it gives the actress a chance to show off her beautiful, classically trained voice.

The character has her roots in a comedy bit she developed for a church variety show six years ago.

“The first year I sang ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ and it got a great response,” said Caroselli, who works by day as an associate curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “But there isn’t a lot of funny music in classical literature. So the next time, I took serious music and treated it in a comic manner.” Yet it was only after continual prompting by fellow museum employee and friend Tom Jacobson (who introduced her to the local group Playwrights in Exile) that she began developing the English Lady on paper.

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Now Caroselli, 43, is adjusting to the difference between performing as a musician and as an actress.

“When you’re singing opera, you can never really lose control, give in to your feelings, get so choked up that you can’t sing,” she said. “In a play, you can get much deeper into a role, really forget yourself.” As for the response among audiences to the 90-minute show, “musicians find a lot more resonances,” she said. “They know who the composers are; they’ve suffered through these recitals till they’re blue in the face. But it’s turned out that non-musicians are laughing just as hard.”

Raised in a suburb of Boston, Caroselli recalls being inundated with music early on: “Most of my family played instruments or were very serious about music. I was taken to concerts since I was a tiny kid.” Until high school--and the advent of the Beatles--she didn’t know there was anything besides classical music. Pianistic abilities peaked at age 5, followed by voice lessons as a teen-ager (she later studied voice in New York and Milan) and a stint in a rock band.

At the same time, Caroselli was pursuing academics. At Brown University and Johns Hopkins University (where she got her doctorate), she majored in art history; that career led to an editing job at Harvard Magazine, a curator post at New York’s Frick Museum and an editorship at Detroit Institute of Arts. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 1982, she’s been a curator in decorative arts and sculpture, and now primarily edits catalogues--including the current exhibit “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.”

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“A lot of people in the museum know I sing, but not what kind of music,” Caroselli said. “They’ve been extraordinarily supportive; I see at least a half-dozen of them at every performance.” Sharing credit with pianist Paul A. Johnson (who plays her non-speaking, put-upon accompanist), Caroselli is clearly enjoying her moment in the spotlight.

“Performing meets needs that the long-term publication of a book doesn’t,” she noted. “It’s an immediate gratification.”

“Mission to the Philistines, or the Hazards of Culture” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Carpet Company Stage, 5262 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. It closes Saturday. Tickets are $12. (213) 466-1767.

Iannaci’s “O Beautiful Doll” introduces audiences to six beautiful, comic and tragic women--former Miss Kansas Hayride and Hollywood wanna-be Cherry, rape survivor Maddy, businesswoman Roxy, cheated-on Southern matron Nora, stripper Layla and Marilyn Monroe.

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“I’m quite a storyteller,” the actress said of her gallery. “Most of my stories have a grain of truth, a sliver that inspired them.”

Ironically, the character that’s wholly fictitious, Maddy, is the one she believes ties the piece together.

“She’s also the most difficult to do,” Iannaci said of the character, a single mother who, on the witness stand, relives her sexual assault. “I did a lot of research for it and that was hard too. Sometimes I couldn’t read more than three or four pages at a time. For so many years, I tried not to think about rape. But it’s something that has to be dealt with. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve taken a few anti-rape courses and worked on an anti-rape project called ‘Street Safe’ for cable TV.”

Born in New Haven, Conn., Iannaci moved to California at age 10; her stepfather’s constant job turnovers led to a succession of schools. As an adult, she also sampled several careers: singing in a rock band in the Northwest, working in the music business, being a publicist. “Then I got tired of making things great for everyone else and wanted to do that for me. So I started to act.” Her credits include plays at the Cast and the Loft and performance art at the Lhasa Club and Beyond Baroque.

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The genesis of this piece was developed at the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop. “As an actor, you get really tired of asking people if you can act,” said Iannaci, who co-produced Jude Narita’s very successful one-woman show, “Coming Into Passion/Song for a Sansei.” “You need to audition, you need permission. Putting on your own production gives you permission. And I have such a wonderful time onstage. I hope it shows.”

Actually, Iannaci is having a wonderful time on two stages, balancing the 60-minute “Doll” (which originally ran last winter at the Harman Ave. Theatre) with a role in Murray Mednick’s “Shatter ‘n’ Wade” at the Matrix in West Hollywood. She also has an ongoing gig doing singing telegrams and celebrity look-alike appearances (locally, for Live Wires and Marvel Entertainment) as Marilyn Monroe, Elvira and Snow White.

Although Iannaci is naturally dark-haired, a blond flip wig, eye liner, a white jersey dress and breathless Monroe phrasing turn her into an extremely credible Marilyn.

“I’ve met tens of look-alikes, and we all have a different take on her,” said the actress, whose model is the Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch.”

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Iannaci also identifies with Marilyn’s vulnerability growing up without her real father. “Women like her don’t come out of nowhere; where Marilyn Monroe comes from is still me.” As for exposing those very private feelings, “I think acting is exposing--putting yourself in harm’s way. If you’re not going to allow that to be seen, you’re not going to move people.”

“O Beautiful Doll” plays indefinitely at 8 p.m. Wednesdays at the Carpet Company Stage. Tickets are $10. (213) 466-1767.


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