“Has there ever been such a wondrous and spectacular public execution?” asks Joshua Crouch, the perverse emcee in anatomy theater, the new opera by David Lang and Marc Dion which traces a woman’s afterlife, from her execution to her dissection. As played by Marc Kudisch, Crouch is the kind of charlatan who puts you under his spell with his rhetoric brimming with false equivalence, and his ability to seem like the most knowing person in the room. Such is his seductive power that you see nothing particularly amoral about the gruesome spectacle he has prepared for us. Throughout his career Kudisch has become a master at tackling characters who refuse to dabble in blacks and whites, whether playing Trevor in Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Proprietor in Assassins, or Pastor Greg in the hilarious Hand to God, his approach to characters other actors would reduce to villainous overflows with complexity. I spoke to him about playing Crouch, working in various forms of theatre, and why anatomy theater is more relevant than ever.
What are some of the challenges in accessing the character when you have such little time to rehearse?
I’ve done that work already, from doing the workshop, and the show in Los Angeles. It’s an interesting thing, the opera and Broadway worlds are slightly different in the way they execute. When we do a Broadway show and go out of town to try it out, more often than not we want to come back to the city. With opera we have a set production, we did it in LA and that was our show, there are no changes in New York, other than the space differences. We had to reinvent certain aspects of the play to fit the environment. The aspects themselves haven’t changed. The piece is not a traditional, proscenium, fourth wall piece, it’s more environmental so we’re discovering things along the way. They can be frustrating, but more often than not they’re happy accidents.
Is the non-traditional aspect part of why you wanted to do this work?
Yes, it’s modern, I think opera is working very hard to find a new voice, there is an explosion of writing everywhere in the world, but it’s great to see it in this country. There’s more spoken pieces, and I hope it’s a new movement in storytelling in the opera world. It bothers me that people look at opera and Broadway as two different things, to me that’s like saying “I’m a Catholic and you’re a Protestant”, when we believe in the same deity. Opera and Broadway are related, they’re cousins, opera was the Broadway of its time, then Broadway was the pop music of its time. All these forms are deeply interconnected. This piece is really interesting, it has a lot of deep ideas that are hard to swallow, but are very relevant right now. As a performer I’m not interested in adulation, applause or you liking me, I’m in it for the conversation. I say yes to projects where I want to be there to see how the audience receives it. This is not an easy piece, I told my friends in LA “I can’t say you’re going to love it, but I guarantee you will be engaged”.
As an ambassador of sorts who moves from opera, to plays, to Broadway, do you feel any responsibility in taking your fans to explore some forms they’ve never visited in the past?
I don’t think I’m a spokesperson for anything, but I believe that if I’m going to do my job I need to be committed to the piece. I’ve said no to things with great money because I couldn’t commit to them, things where you need someone who loves performing just for the sake of performing, and who likes pleasing an audience. I like my audience to be uncomfortable, the works I’ve done reflect that. When it’s weird and offputting people come to me. Nothing excites me more than the sound of silence, I equate silence to dark matter, there is much more dark matter in the universe than anything else. My last play on Broadway Hand to God was similar, my character was not necessarily funny, he was sort of the straight man, which was more about general discomfort which I loved more than anything.
anatomy theater made me wonder what Pastor Greg would’ve done to Tyrone the evil puppet, because they both explore the nature of evil.
Well see, just that word, I have issues with that word. It’s the same way I have issues with the word “truth”, they’re very subjective words, and more often than not, they come from an extremely judgmental place. Whereas if you’re doing your job right as an actor the last thing you’re doing is judging your character. I always get angry when people say someone is “evil”, I think it’s just a person doing the best they can. Pastor Greg was a really good guy, who was just sad and lonely. I thought he believed in what he was doing, until he was called out on it. At the bottom I think he is a good man. In anatomy theater, I play a very amoral character so the idea of evil doesn’t even come into play for him, he doesn’t deal in that, he likes to call people out on their bullshit. We can all stand high in our morals, but we’re maybe doing something that hurts somebody else.
Art and theatre will have to be our mirrors for empathy more than ever before.
I do think we need that, but just to start I think we need to start somewhere. I’m a Democrat, I think we lost because we were so sure of our need for empathy that we weren’t empathizing. We need to listen, we need to start in a place of observation. I like this character in the show because he is a clear observer, he’s deeply cynical because he sees it all, he doesn’t apologize for his own actions, because he knows people stand in moral judgment constantly, but they’re also the main part of the problem. You have to start with a conversation which is why theatre is so important right now. You don’t like me? I don’t like you! Great! At least we’re open and from there comes the conversation, I welcome you not liking me. That’s honesty, before we get into any waxing poetic about empathy we have to start the conversation. A lot of people in this country need help, they voted the way they did because they felt they weren’t being listened to. I’m scared for Obamacare disappearing, I’ll be fine, but there are people that need help and they voted differently. That doesn’t make them fools or idiots, their truth is different than ours but it doesn’t make it less viable.
anatomy theater made me think of Sweeney Todd, so I want to end by asking you about your dream Sondheim roles.
I like playing roles that haven’t been done. I like his stuff, he’s working on a new piece that I’ve been helping out with a little bit. I love his music, I have an affinity for A Little Night Music because I’ve done it in several places, I love Sweeney, I would say anatomy theater is more Kurt eil though. I’m always looking for what hasn’t been done, that’s the path I like to walk.
anatomy theater is playing as part of the Prototype Festival. For more information click here.