5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Chris Harcum

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ChrisHarcum1Given the acrimoniousness of our national politics, we can at least take solace in the fact that our theater artists know how to make tasty salads out of parsnips and herbs.

For example, a team of four such thespians — Matthew A.J. Gregory, Shira Gregory, Chris Harcum and Greg Tito — recently collaborated on a nervy adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid, by Moli√®re. It’s running for three weeks at the Cell Theatre, which has perhaps perhaps the hottest venue for the space-deprived Off-Off-Broadway scene.

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There’s something whimsically cheeky in the way the adaptation, The Hypchondriac, merrily sticks its finger in the sociopolitical eye of the moment:

“Abounding with hilarious characters and Moli√®re’s incomparable wit, the Cell presents a contemporary reimagining of Moli√®re’s last play, The Imaginary Invalid. This production satirizes today’s pill-popping culture and drug-driven health care system. The Hypchondriac takes place in a swank Manhattan apartment awash with art, which is now overgrown with pill bottles, bedpans and medical paraphernalia. Moli√®re’s original musical interludes in the play are now replaced by faux drug commercials that promote questionable drug treatments and their unpleasant side-effects.

The story revolves around Mr. Argan, a wealthy and eccentric hypochondriac, who is plagued by a gold-digging wife, an insolent maid, a rebellious young daughter and an infestation of drug-peddling, incompetent doctors. Argan is actually in fine health but is so doped up that the side-effects alone have him convinced that he is dying. Through a series of hilarious tricks and outrageous disguises, Argans fast-talking maid and exasperated brother work furiously to cure Argan of his true malady. His doctors are the real disease.”

Great description and nifty story line. It could almost be a tenet of the Republican health plan!

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Meanwhile, who is playing messed-up Mr. Argan but Mr. Harcum himself. Indie dramacrats have witnessed him many times before, especially plunked into the revved up solo shows he has conjured from time to time as a showcase for his talent. It takes a commitment to craft beyond the usual and banal to immediately shave one’s head for a role, but when Harcum learned that he and Mr. Argan would be spending some time together this month, he immediately set about baring his pate.

Harcum is also an excellent conversationalist — a trait one would in expect a somebody who not only thirsts for a fine performing challenge but has no qualm with devising his own. Taking a break from final rehearsals to participate in the CFR’s 5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked (he’s chronicling The Hypochrondriac on his terrific blog, Virgodog’s World), it was fun to read his responses and picture him struggling, valiently, to explain what makes his internal motor run.

The Hypochrondriac runs through Nov. 22 at the Cell Theatre (338 W. 23rd St.). For tickets or more information, call 646-861-2253 or click here.

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And now, 5 questions Chris Harcum has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“What do you have to do to get out of your own way?” I think a lot of solid acting isn’t about what people create as much as what they leave out. I also think actors who are in their own way really wind up making rehearsals and performances a drag. It is a lifelong process getting to the heart of this. I still work on it.

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2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“So being a good actor means you’re a good liar, right?” I’m a terrible liar. My face flushes and I have 18 other blatant tells.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Before I moved here, people would ask why I wasn’t in New York or L.A. People think real actors only live in these two places. New York City people who aren’t actors ask, “So, do you have a SAG card/have ever been on Broadway/have ever been on Law and Order/do you have an agent/did you ever work with anyone famous?” Usually in one breath. I think you have to answer yes to all of those or New Yorkers get suspicious if you say you are an actor.

DSC_0323-14) Four of you adapted The Imaginary Invalid and now you’re playing the title character. How did it work having so many fingers in the stew, given that you’re a playwright yourself? What would you ask Moli√®re if he materialized before you?
Initially, I wasn’t going to be playing Argan. The producers at the Cell Theatre reached out to a couple of names who were busy so I wound up with the role a week before first read-through and shaved my head. I write plays and solo performances with myself involved so it was funny to write this for someone who actually wound up being me. Writing by committee is difficult but we never had big fights. You pick and choose your battles. Matt kept going for the spirit of the original, Shira peppered in a lot of color, Greg pushed for accessibility and I wanted the piece to have punch, rhythm, and clear relationships. We have four different senses of humor and you can feel that in the show, which I think is an advantage.

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Moli√®re is underappreciated here. For my money, he sits exactly between Shakespeare and Chekhov. He is one of my heroes. I’d ask him two questions: Is this version close to what you would have written yourself in the present day?, and Will you be my mentor for the next decade?

5) On your blog, Virgodog’s World, you’ve written extensively and honestly about preparing to play Mr. Argan. What is your single biggest asset and single biggest remaining challenge as an actor? When you want to pat yourself on the back — or throttle yourself — do you? Why? What are your quirks?
I don’t know if I can honestly answer these questions in under a hundred pages. With this, I think I have a good sense of the material and am making some unique choices out of necessity because I’m not the perfect actor for the role. I think what I do works for the world we’ve created. One of the producers pulled me aside after an invited dress rehearsal and said I needed to stop being so generous as an actor and be more egotistical and self-involved. In other words, to have the confidence to take the time I need to make things happen. I guess it’s made me take a more bluesy approach to the music of this role.

6) You’ve also done a lot of solo work — notably, American Badass (or 12 Characters in Search of a National Identity), which is as intensely political as it is personal. What’s the motivating factor when you create a solo play? How do you know if it’s worth putting in front of an audience? How much risk is there in it for you sometimes professionally?
I’ve retired from solo work for now. I aim to put something in front of people I would want to see but I need to let that field lie fallow for a couple of seasons so the soil can become more rich. Usually, I catch the wind of something I want to say for a solo show and carry it around until the idea has baked. I always question whether I’m insane a month or two before the piece goes up. It’s natural to do that unless you’re completely narcissistic and think everything you say is brilliant. I’ve done more than 10 solo shows and am still finding new approaches and styles. I don’t know that I’ve made the Ultimate Chris Harcum Show, where you know what the style is before you see it. It’s also tricky because there’s so much solo work out now. I look at my solos as my children. Each is unique and has its own strengths. I can’t love one more than the others. Some do keep me up late at night, worrying about when they’ll come home and if they’re getting into trouble. In the end, I make my children so they will grow up healthy and not because they will become rich or successful. Maybe I’m a fool but I don’t do industry mailings or other things like that for my solos. The other risk is if you solo too much-people then think that’s all you can do. I have a lot of training in classical theater, improv and realism. I feel like playing Argan lets me fuse all of that with my indie-theater solo work.