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Bruce Roach Finds Time in His Busy Acting Schedule to Make His Kansas City Directorial Debut

March 9, 2008

By Robert Trussell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Mar. 9–Bruce Roach is a busy man, busier than most local theater artists.

“It’s kind of embarrassing when I think about it,” the veteran actor said recently. “But I’m not gonna fight it.”

In the last couple of years Kansas City audiences have seen Roach as the verbose Welsh officer Fluellen in “Henry V,” Friar Lawrence in “Romeo and Juliet,” Kenneth Tynan in “Orson’s Shadow,” a hapless killer in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and the sheriff in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Later this year Roach will be seen as Teddy, a Cockney theatrical manager, in Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” and as the villainous Iago, opposite Damon Gupton, in “Othello” for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

At the moment, however, he’s making his Kansas City directing debut with a comedy about gay identity in Hollywood, Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed,” at the Unicorn Theatre.

Roach said Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s artistic director, called him Dec. 10 (his birthday) and offered the role of Teddy and the directing assignment. Roach reread “Little Dog,” which received a 2007 Tony nomination for best play, and came to a conclusion.

“I think it is a wildly underrated play,” he said.

The show depicts the relationship between an acerbic agent and her movie-star client who, she says, suffers from a “slight recurring case of homosexuality.”

The Unicorn production features Donna Thomason as the agent, Nathan Darrow as the star, Michelangelo Milano as a young hustler and Rachel May Roberts as the hustler’s girlfriend.

“Douglas Carter Beane is criticized for being lightweight — his works are frothy, kind of substance-free, and I think that’s not quite fair,” Roach said. “I think he has a lot of important things to say about the world in which we live, and he just chooses a kind of shallow world in which to tell his stories. … He’s got some pretty substantial things to say if you take a look at what this play is really about.”

Beane’s other plays include “As Bees in Honey Drown,” which the Unicorn staged 10 years ago, about a high-society con artist. And he wrote the screenplay for “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” a 1995 cross-dressing comedy with Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo.

“He says that all of his plays deal with man’s toil being ultimately folly,” Roach said. “That’s in all his work. And Diane, the barracuda agent in the play, actually says that at one point. But it’s also a play very much about identity and how we see ourselves in the world and how the world sees us. And how we base our decisions on how we live our lives — do we base our decisions about what we know our inner truths to be, or what the world tells us our truths should be? All four characters in this play are having that struggle in one way or another.”

Roach grew up in Columbia and earned his undergraduate theater degree, eventually, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City “a hundred years ago” under Missouri Rep founder Patricia McIlrath.

“I dropped out of school, moved to New York, came back and finished school,” he said. “So I have kind of a long history here.”

After graduating he returned to New York and met George Keathley, who would become Missouri Rep’s second artistic director, and studied under him. When Keathley took over the Rep he brought Roach back for several productions. Roach also spent time in Chicago and Los Angeles, entered graduate school at the Oslo Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., and later spent a year there as a guest professor.

“And at the end of that I found myself freelancing again and that’s really what brought me back here,” he said.

Roach has been based in Kansas City now for almost two years.

“I came back on a temporary basis, and now the work keeps coming, so it looks like I’ve got a lot of good reasons to stay,” he said.

Next up, Roach will play Teddy in Friel’s riveting “Faith Healer,” a three-character drama told entirely in long monologues. He co-stars with Mark Robbins and Merle Moores under Sidonie Garrett’s direction.

“I read it when it first came out, and I’ve always admired the play,” he said. “Now, as I’m rereading it, each time I’m sitting there in amazement at what a gorgeous piece of writing it is. And Teddy is like an actor’s dream — just a freaking dream. Or at the same time an actor’s nightmare because I’m horrified at being alone on stage for 40 minutes. But I’m very excited about it.”

Roach said he began directing more than 12 years ago. And he said working as a director makes him a better actor and working as an actor makes him a better director. He loves acting, but directing has a unique set of challenges.

“I found out it’s a lot harder than acting, that’s for sure,” he said. “I found out I have to use my brain in a lot of different ways that I don’t have to as an actor.”

The director, he said, has to keep his eye on the big picture and make sure everyone else — the actors, designers, technicians — stays focused on the individual parts of the picture.

“Our work is about collaboration,” Roach said. “It’s what makes it imperfect. It’s what makes it so difficult to ever be good. When you look at what we’re asking ourselves to do, it’s amazing that anything ever gets on stage, because you’ve got 10 different people with 10 different points of view, and trying to corral all of that into something that makes sense up there together is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. Sometimes you want to tear your hair out. But you have to keep a sense of humor about it.”

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THE SHOWS –”The Little Dog Laughed” runs through March 30 at the Unicorn Theatre. “Faith Healer” runs April 23-May 18. Tickets: $25-$30; 816-531-7529; unicorntheatre.org.

–The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of “Othello” runs June 17-July 6 in Southmoreland Park. The festival is free.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send e-mail to rtrussell @kcstar.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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