Guest artists share relationships on stage and off in ‘Fifty Ways’

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Though the married couple in Fifty Ways faces a deteriorating union and a seemingly endless feud, the actors behind the pair, Vivienne Benesch and Michael Gaston, are much bigger fans of each other.

Benesch, Chautauqua Theater Company’s artistic director, and Gaston, a guest artist actor, have been close friends for 25 years.

“We are doing this play about these intimate relationships — and Viv and I have never dated — but we’ve lived through each other’s relationships. We’ve lived through each other’s careers’ ups and downs,” Gaston said. “There are a lot of things about this play, which is brand new, which reflects our 25-year friendship.”

Gaston and Benesch are but two of the three guest artist actors in Fifty Ways, which shows at 8 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater and runs through July 29. The third, David Aaron Baker, has also known Benesch and Gaston for many years.

The intertwined lives and friendships off-stage make for a stronger play for the five-person cast. As does the fact that Benesch and Gaston play parts written specifically with them in mind by Fifty Ways playwright Kate Fodor. The play is the first CTC world premiere and the first play commissioned by CTC and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center.

Gaston

Michael Gaston —
Adam Margolin

Though Adam may not always be the most lovable of characters — he struggles with fidelity throughout the play — he is smart and hardworking.

“What is most moving to me about the guy is he’s an amazing father. He loves his boy so much,” Gaston said.

Adam is incredibly complex and thoroughly human as he wrestles with himself during the play. He is not wholly selfish, like he first appears, as the way he selflessly interacts with his son proves, Gaston said.

Playing Adam in a world premiere means Gaston doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s portrayal of the character.

“Whoever this guy is going to be is whoever I step out there and do,” Gaston said. “And I feel like I’m in (Kate Fodor’s) really smart and capable hands while I’m doing it.”

This is Gaston’s third time to Chautauqua and his first time in a full production. He performed in Fodor’s New Play Workshop Rx and last year in his “Chau-Talk-One,” a one-man show called Swimming Through Abu Dhabi.

Gaston, too, swam through several majors before diving into theater. A jock in his early years, Gaston thought he wanted to study to be a teacher or a lawyer for his undergraduate degree. When he took a “goof-off” theater class his senior year of college, he found his passion.

He discovered the common thread between the careers he cared for was performance, so he followed it to New York University’s Graduate Acting Program. The program serves as the through-line for his entire life, he said.

And there, he met Benesch and CTC Associate Artistic Director Andrew Borba.

Benesch

Vivienne Benesch —
Nina Strauss

It is both a blessing and a curse that Fodor wrote Nina with Benesch in mind. It is a blessing, because it is natural, but it is a challenge, because Benesch finds it most difficult to play the characters closest to her.

Benesch said director Ethan McSweeny spends a lot of time saying: “Do less. Act less.”

“So those acting muscles that make you feel like an actor (aren’t needed),” she said. “Just say it, just be there.”

And it is important to be there, because Nina is such a tricky character. The intelligent, compassionate woman has incredibly high standards for herself and everyone around her. Benesch fights to play Nina in a positive light.

But what makes the play magnificent to Benesch is that no character is entirely good or bad.

“Kate Fodor paints in the most beautiful grays,” she said.

And Benesch has watched Fodor paint the entire creation. After the play was commissioned last year, the two have had several readings, starting last fall. Benesch has seen the play at every stage of its life.

“I hope and think it will be a profoundly moving and human story,” Benesch said. “I think Kate has written something exceptionally special, and I can’t believe we are getting to do this here.”

Benesch sees the play as transformational, and she also has been transformed by theater. Both her grandmother and mother were dancers.

“I desperately wanted to be a dancer, but I had flat feet,” Benesch said.

But theater had always been a passion. She directed a group of friends in a play in her apartment complex at age 10 or 11, and she has directed and acted ever since.

Now, Benesch infuses the visceral movement and dance from her youth into how she connects with characters. She comes to theater with a focus on the language of the body.

Baker

David Aaron Baker —
Kevin, the carpenter

Though Kevin appears in only one scene in the play, the scene serves a specific purpose to the larger piece: it shows another, more vulnerable side of Nina.

“The scene allows the audience to see Nina in a completely different context than they’ve seen her before,” Baker said. “Kevin has a very simple task, but it’s important. I don’t mean to belittle it.”

Baker enjoys being in one scene, because it gives him time to fully experience Chautauqua.

“I want to come back and do another one-scene part,” he joked.

“The fact that we have David Aaron Baker for one scene — we are the luckiest people on earth,” Benesch said. “He’s so perfect for the role.”

Kevin comes into Fifty Ways just as the marriage between Nina and Adam seems to be hanging by a single thread. He stirs the pot, helping Nina to show the audience her true self through her interaction with a stranger, Baker said.

“It’s great to do new work. I just love having the creator in the room during rehearsal. There is something that is still fluid about it,” Baker said about working with Fodor.

And the play is optimal for the Chautauqua audience, which appreciates being challenged.

“It’s beautifully written and brutally honest, and I think it shows warts, it shows pain,” Baker said. “This is a play that challenges its audiences.”

Baker has always been drawn to the interaction between performer and audience. He joined a boys choir at a young age, and he enjoyed the attention, he conceded.

But he found through theater the opportunity to portray characters outside of himself in the safe context of a play.

“(I can) show off completely different sides of who I am inside that I don’t really allow myself to be in my real life,” Baker said. “When you are in a show … you get to just express yourself in crazy and wild ways. There is something really exhilarating about that.”

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