photos by Barry Wisdom
“I can’t image anyone working harder,” says Phil Cowan of director Elisabeth Nunziato, during a break in rehearsals for “Shining City,” the Conor McPherson dramedy opening on the B Street Theatre’s B3 stage Jan. 9.
“She’s very passionate about her work,” echoes Kevin Karrick, who plays Ian, a Dublin-based priest-turned-therapist whose first patients include Cowan’s character, John, a widower haunted (perhaps literally) by memories of his recently deceased wife. But Ian’s troubles extend beyond his patients’ problems, as he deals with his own commitment issues with girlfriend Neasa (Holly Dale).
Nunziato, a B Street company member whose own B Street history spans numerous star turns on the midtown company’s main stage and B3 boards, as well as appearances in its Fantasy Theatre youth outreach troupe, has also proven herself a go-to gal behind-the-scenes, directing several shows as well.
Nunziato’s very hectic tech week for “Shining City,” B Street’s follow-up to its 2008 staging of the McPherson-penned “The Seafarer” (also featuring Cowan and Karrick), includes a variety of sound-design issues, dress rehearsals and an on-screen appearance for screenwriter-producer friend Jim Meyers (“Her Minor Thing”) shooting in Cameron Park.
“Multitasker” isn’t the prettiest of middle names, but seems to fit her well.
The B3 house, still firmly in work mode, is littered with reminders that Nunziato’s attention is in demand by many, including her cast and crew, as well as her stomach (an uneaten hardboiled egg sits untouched on a back-row seat) and her visiting labradoodle, whose well-gnawed rawhide bone lays underneath her chair.
She finds time to talk “Shining City” only through the miracle of cell phones, the slow, foggy drive to Cameron Park, and the “glamorous” process of applying makeup for the camera (in a Starbucks restroom).
But for someone so used to being center-stage, whether at B Street or for such competitors as Sacramento Theatre Company or a major motion picture set (“Phenomenon”), Nunziato admits that one-on-one-attention – whether it’s for a publicity shoot or press interview – is nerve-wracking, and she deftly shifts attention to her actors.
“He’s a trippy guy,” Nunziato says affectionately of Cowan, best known as the comically cynical half of the longtime morning-show radio team of (Paul) Robins and Cowan. “He’s been this personality his whole career, and now he’s turning into an actor’s actor now which is interesting to watch.
“Phil’s role is just beautifully written – there’s this key moment, when he just has me crying every time.”
Cowan, whose comparative lack of experience as a stage actor belies his intuitive ability to cut to the heart of highly charged scenes and deliver the emotional goods, is a natural, says Nunziato, who credits him with being “one of the most emotionally available actors I’ve worked with.”
“Here’s something Phil says in the middle of rehearsal during the first week,” says Nunziato. “So, he makes you cry and we do some notes and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He says, ‘Don’t talk to me about the process – I don’t have a process!’ I’m thinking, ‘You’re kidding me! You just ripped my soul out and you’re telling me you don’t have a process?’ He’s some sort of a savant in that department.”
“He and I share something about acting, and that’s this,” Nunziato continues, “I’m uncomfortable being ‘precious’ about the process, and the work and what I do for a living as a whole. I don’t like to be precious about it – the red-scarf thing.
“We’re all just a little more like, ‘Let’s just get down to it.’ Anything that smack of that, Phil will back up from.”
Cowan, who also acted in the B Street productions of “A Couple of Blaguards,” “The Melville Boys,” “Mending Fences” and “The Good Guy,” says that while he enjoys his current incarnation as an independent video producer of corporate web spots, he would toss it all to act full time, but is aware he might be spoiled by the cooperative work atmosphere created by B Street Producing Director Buck Busfield.
“One thing I’ve always enjoyed working here is that there are no gigantic egos,” says Cowan. “I’ve never run into a diva.”
“And maybe I like it here so much is because they’re the only ones that ever call me to do this shit,” he says with a huge laugh.
But Cowan’s take on the B Street’s supportive environment is quickly supported by the Fremont-based Karrick, who recalls a story from his New York stage debut, which was punctuated by a fellow actor who “saluted” him with a double middle-finger flip as he exited into the wings after garnering what he supposes was too many laughs. (This coming soon after she had “opened” the show with an offstage, profanity-laced rant heard deep in the house about needing more time to dress.)
Cowan and Karrick’s camaraderie, which gelled on the set of “The Seafarers,” was a welcome component in beginning rehearsals for “Shining City,” says Nunziato, who was called by Busfield to direct when rights for the planned January staging of Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” became unavailable.
Nunziato quickly became a fan of Karrick, a familiar face on Bay Area stages, whose “day job” is running a family-owned road-construction company, and who also appeared on the B Street main stage in the 2007 production of Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Conemara.”
“Kevin has been doing a beautiful job, and I’ve definitely benefited from how smart Kevin is, and how easy it is to communicate with him,” says Nunziato, noting how well he’s picked up on her sometimes very short director’s shorthand.
The B Street world of unwavering mutual support, which has been hand-tailored by Busfield, is tightly embraced by Nunziato as well, with its focus on talent instead of résumés.
“I support everyone doing whatever they want to do,” Nunziato says. “The distinction between professional and nonprofessional theater, of whether something’s moving or not moving, funny or not funny, is up to the people in the seats.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: “Shining City” by Conor McPherson
WHEN: previews 4 and 8 p.m. Jan. 8, runs Jan. 9 through Feb. 5 (7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays); matinees on select Thursdays and Sundays only
WHERE: B Street Theatre B3 stage, 2727 B St., Sacramento
WHO: Featuring Phil Cowan, Kevin Karrick, Holly Dale and Chris Page; directed by Elisabeth Nunziato
HOW MUCH: $5-$30
FOR MORE INFO: (916) 443-5300; www.bstreettheatre.org