More lives than a fantastical feline — that’s Chris Weikel’s Penny Penniworth, the Dickens spoof that began its theatrical production life under the auspices of Emerging Artists Theatre back in 2002, going on to several sweet lives since then. Directed by Mark Finley, the play was mounted by the acclaimed TOSOS II in the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival, and then materialized again, this time Off-Broadway, in October 2009, billed as a reworked, recast version of the play. And now it’s back, yet again, just in time for fall.
So, in other words, if you’ve missed it, and if you miss it again, it’s your damn fault, Scrooge. You’ll be in Uriah Heep of trouble if you don’t read on.
The frame of Penny Penniworth, in case the above references eluded you, is of a “lost” Dickens epic being staged by a resource-challenged theater troupe with — got to love the phrasing — “Royal Shakespeare Company aspirations.” A better word might be “perspirations,” but you’d have to see the show to appreciate the joke. (Pardon my subtle plug. One prays for advertisers.)
With a cast of four — the current revival includes Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlein, Jason O’Connell and Ellen Reilly — the play’s titular character is young lass whose heart-fluttering lad is booted into exile after almost ending the life of one of those incalculably rich types that Dickens himself so memorably skewered. Penniworth, now penniless, must carry on solo, sallying forth, head high, through various scrapes as a blizzard of seriously bullox characters enter and exit. And remember, it’s four actors.
Heinlein, an Off- and Off-Off-Broadway veteran, essays Penniworth in particular with no poverty of power — and, just maybe, a genuine affection for plosives. She has a genuine passion for the work: she popped up in a 2010 New York International Fringe Festival revival of The Secretaries, the play by the Five Lesbian Brothers, right before the Penny slot. We thought it would be cool to have a “5 Questions” chat with her, one that would even touch on her daytime gig: selling real estate for one of New York’s major firms. (Ah, isn’t that an actor’s life? Google “Jamie Heinlein” and see the search results. What’s up with that, Google? Yikes.)
And now, 5 questions Jamie Heinlein has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I wish I had some fabulous out there questions to relay in answer to number 1, 2 and 3, but the truth is, I don’t. I do get asked the same basic question over and over again: “How do you learn all those lines?” Oddly enough, that question actually works as an answer to all three. On the surface it seems idiotic because all actors will tell you that learning lines is the most rudimentary aspect of rehearsing a play. But it is, in fact, also perceptive because I find that with every play and rehearsal period, I learn the lines somewhat differently, depending on the director, the character and the process. Learning the lines is one of foundation blocks of creating a character, so, for instance, when I recently rehearsed The Secretaries, I had some trouble learning certain chunks of Susan Curtis’ dialogue. I realized part way through the process that the character is, in fact, making up her life as she goes along, so the lines are not coming from a straightforward place as they are for a character like Penny Penniworth. As for weird, well — it did seem a little weird when I would come out after a performance I did at the Public Theater a number of years ago where my character had just killed twin babies on stage and the first question out of someone’s mouth was, “How did you learn all those lines!?!”
4) If Penny Penniworth’s life had unfolded more favorably, what would her trajectory have been? Would she have been more or less sympathetic, interesting or definable?
I think you mean favourably — we are in England, after all. I’d say Penny’s life eventually unfolds very favourably! But I suppose, had her childhood sweetheart not disappeared at sea, had her financially challenged father not been duped by a wealthy neighbor, and had her mother been just a little more pleasant, well, then Penny would probably have married young and spent the next 20 years of her life wondering why she never got pregnant. I wouldn’t say she would be less sympathetic because Penny is a lovely spirit, but her story would probably have unfolded in a more Desperate Housewives sort of way, which with Mr. Weikel at the helm would probably be every bit as interesting and definable — just in a vastly different way!
5) When audiences go home and Penny faces Miss Havasnort alone, what does she say? What is the one thing she’d like to do to, or with, Miss Havasnort that we don’t know?
I imagine Penny and Miss Havasnort developing a fabulous secret life of singleton depravity. They drink port, gossip and play canasta into the wee hours whilst reading obituaries and rewriting them to better suit the true nature of the dearly departed. And they complain about men. And the seaworthiness of many local vessels. After the curtain falls, however, I think the real story of Miss Havasnort begins. No more mourning! Mr. Weikel? Are you out there? Curious minds need to know…
6) By day, you’re an agent with a major New York real estate firm. Given the crisis in affordable housing for artists in New York City, what should be done? Doesn’t it make you sick that the rich pay $1 million for architecturally undistinguished boxes while actors squeeze four to a room?
This is a subject close to my heart and deserves an article all its own! While I do believe that squeezing four into a room is a rite of passage for young actors — and doing it myself early on prepared me for one of the toughest professions there is — I also know how hard it is for grown artists to stay in the city and thrive because of the high price of real estate. There are opportunities out there for lower income individuals to purchase a home, even in Manhattan — you just have to know where to look. Of course, artists stay here for love, not for money or accommodations. There are many frustrating things about living in New York and the cost of real estate is one of them — but I wouldn’t trade any of the frustrations for an easier life somewhere else. Just as Penny Penniworth discovers about London — the excitement of the big city, the lure of the adventure and the unknown, the fabulously colorful cast of characters and the endless possibilities are what make a city home.