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The Kansas City Star, Mo., Robert Trussell Column: Kansas City Fringe Festival Opens

July 20, 2008

By Robert Trussell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Jul. 20–Vanessa Severo never thinks about it. But she does.

Her friends never think about it. Except they do.

Audiences rarely notice it. When they do, they don’t care.

When theatergoers turn out for “The Coppelia Project” at this year’s KC Fringe Festival they will see a side of Severo they’ve probably never seen.

The 30-year-old actress was born with only a thumb on her left hand. In childhood she became skilled at hiding it. As an adult she became equally skilled at hiding it on stage. The first time this critic saw her perform, he didn’t notice her hand. All he saw was a good performance.

And Severo has been seen a lot this year — in Steven Eubank’s production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” understudying all the female characters in “Rumors” at the New Theatre, delivering a riveting turn in the Actors Theatre KC production of “Desdemona” and now beginning rehearsals for the next Actors Theatre show, “Taking Sides.”

But as Severo and her close friend, actress/director Heidi Stubblefield, developed “The Coppelia Project” for the Fringe Festival, they came to a decision: Don’t hide the hand. Make the audience look.

“It’s nonverbal, it’s physical theater and it confronts disabilities, physical disabilities as well as hidden ones,” Stubblefield said.

Severo won’t use the word “disability” to describe her left hand because she doesn’t think of it that way. For her, it is what it is.

“I’ve decided to kind of go full-out and make it in your face,” Severo said. “It’s the perfect venue because in the confines of a clown show you can be as absurd as you want to be … There’s humor in it, and I didn’t want this piece to be, ‘Oh, poor Vanessa.’ “

And, yes, a clown show is what it is. Stubblefield was trained in physical theater and is an accomplished clown in the European tradition. And she’s trying to infuse her show with everything she knows about performing without speaking. She has subtitled the 45-minute production “A Clown Ballet in Three Acts.”

Stubblefield conceived the show last winter when she was appearing in “Out of Order,” a farce at the dinner theater.

“I was thinking about it over Christmastime while I was doing the New Theatre production, and I didn’t have any jobs coming up, and I decided it was time for me to come up with a new show for myself,” she said. “So I told my story to the girls in the dressing room, and they said it kind of sounds like ‘Coppelia.’ “

That led her to “The Sandman” by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, on which Leo Delibes based his comic ballet, “Coppelia.” In the 1816 story a young man goes to the city and meets a mechanical doll. The relationship doesn’t end well.

“It’s not a funny story,” she said. “It’s really kind of creepy.”

In Stubblefield’s version, Dr. Coppelius (played by Ric Averill) is a dollmaker who creates a perfect human likeness. In “The Coppelia Project,” he creates three dolls, but each one is imperfect.

The first doll, played by Marisa Mackay, is beautiful on the outside but not very nice because, Stubblefield said, “she is repulsed by the inventor.” The second doll (Kalen Compernolle) has a wiring defect that prevents her from judging spatial distances and as a result is always running into things.

The third doll (Severo) wears gloves and looks perfect until a young workshop intruder (Doogin Brown) breaks her hand. At that point, the glove comes off and the audience will see Severo’s left hand as it actually is.

Stubblefield said she wanted Severo in the piece from the very beginning.

“Ultimately, it’s about her,” Stubblefield said. “You know, it’s about beauty in the eye of the beholder. I always thought about her in it because she’s funny and she’s talented and she’s beautiful, and she has one thing not a lot of people know about unless they look very closely. But she can stand on her hands. She can walk on her hands. We did ‘BFG’ (at the Coterie) and she manipulated a puppet. She can do anything. That’s the point.”

As Severo describes it, she approaches most challenges with an iron will.

When she was 7 she began doing gymnastics on the uneven bars. She got blisters on her left hand, but she did it. In “True Confessions of a Go-Go Girl” at last year’s festival she learned to be a convincing pole dancer.

Once, when she lived in San Francisco, she was cast as the maid in “A Secret Garden.” The director didn’t notice her hand until two weeks into rehearsal. He ordered that deep pockets be added to her costume and considered rewriting dialogue so that someone on stage might say, “What’s wrong with your hand?”

Severo walked.

“It’s quite a triumph to do a show and have no one recognize it because they’re taken away by the performance,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve ever just held it out in front and let the audience get an eyeful. In a way this is a turning point.”

Stubblefield said the piece was created by everyone in the cast. At first the individual dolls rehearsed separately with Brown and Averill, who will provide some of the music with live performances on banjo, mandolin and fiddle.

“It’s been very much an ensemble piece, although under her strong guidance,” said Averill, the veteran actor/director/composer and founder of the Seem-to-Be-Players in Lawrence.

But Severo said it was Stubblefield’s idea to make Severo’s hand an integral part of the show.

“She came up with the glove and took that first step forward and said, ‘He’s going to break you, and we’re going to show it. It has to be 110 percent out there, no apologies,’ ” Severo said.

Severo said that in a way she feels liberated, but she rejects the notion that the performance is a special act of bravery.

“I think anybody who is different and is willing to put up with rejection every day and still try to do what they want to is brave,” she said. “I’m just being who I am.”

THE SHOW “The Coppelia Project” will be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Tickets cost $10. To buy tickets to individual shows festival-goers must buy a festival button for $5. Buttons and tickets can be charged in advance at www.kcfringe.org.

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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