July 27, 2008

Valley Native Has Small but Huge Role in Shepard Play

By Geoff Gehman, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

Jul. 27--The biggest role of Elissa Piszel's theater career is one of the smallest. The Bethlehem native stands silent for four to five minutes in nothing but a slip and a cowboy hat. Her only act is to hand the hat to the man who tossed it into a self-dug grave, a former dealer of expensive Western paintings stranded in the Badlands with a dead horse that symbolizes his -- and America's -- dead dreams.

The Young Woman is huge for Piszel because she is one of two characters in "Kicking a Dead Horse," a new play written and directed by Sam Shepard, the renowned author of "True West,""Buried Child" and other excavations of national myths. Her fellow actor is Stephen Rea, celebrated for his penetrating performances in films ("The Crying Game") and in Samuel Beckett's works ("Endgame"). Piszel is playing a comforting ghost until Aug. 10 in the sold-out production at the Public Theater in Manhattan, the birthplace of "That Championship Season,""A Chorus Line" and other Tony-winning legends.

Piszel, 37, believes that "Kicking a Dead Horse" is her reward for 19 years of kicking horses dead and alive. It's her reward for all those minor parts in soaps and sitcoms, independent films and way-off Broadway shows, all those odd jobs that paid the bills, all those fears and frustrations that led her to start a theater company for the steadily unemployed.

"This play is a gift from God," says Piszel from her Manhattan apartment. "I get to work with Sam and Stephen, who are unbelievably experienced, unbelievably smart and unbelievably kind. There is some other kind of force at work here. It proves that there are no small parts, only small actors."

Piszel felt she knew Shepard long before she met him. She acted scenes from his plays at New York University and the New Actors Workshop, co-founded by Mike Nichols. Long before she auditioned for "Kicking a Dead Horse" she appreciated his powerful women, barbed-wire poetry and primal passions. She trusts him so much, in fact, she would have played the Young Woman naked, Shepard's original idea.

Like many New York actors, Piszel has had a roller-coaster life. After graduating from NYU, she returned to Bethlehem to live with her parents and teach at Civic Theatre of Allentown. She appeared in everything from a rare production of Tennessee Williams' play "Something Cloudy, Something Clear" to the film "Hanging in Hedo," where she improvised a fight scene with "Jeffersons" alumnus Sherman Hemsley. She once sold carnations from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. at a Greek restaurant to men who threw the flowers at their dancing women.

A decade ago Piszel started a company to water her parched soul. YOLO (You Only Live Once) creates themes (example: How far would you go to get what you want?) with one-act works (i.e., the tale of a ghost lover who kills women with yearning) and props found in Dumpsters.

"I love having my hands in everything," says Piszel, the child of a teacher and an architect turned contractor. "I love having something else on the other side that I love. I love making my own way."

Piszel says Shepard cast her over 40-odd auditionees because of her ethereality. His only tangible tip to her was that the Young Woman died prematurely. The character, she concluded, "is a spirit stuck between two worlds." She rises from nowhere at the play's midpoint to inject Hobart Struther (Rea) with sexual adrenaline, love and hope. She gives him back his hat so he won't give up the ghost.

Piszel enjoys playing the Young Woman because she gets to use her extensive dance training, to tell a story through pure movement. She also understands the turmoil that causes Struther to throw Frederic Remington works from his Park Avenue apartment and declare the West a spiritual wasteland.

"He's lost that feeling of being inside his skin," says Piszel. "I really connected to that pain -- the pain of trying to find yourself in the city, feeling lost all the time, trying to keep pushing."

Struther and Piszel are also linked by a strong alter ego. His inner voice says, "You're one sick puppy." Hers is nicer; it says, "Stay hungry."

"Kicking a Dead Horse" has increased Piszel's appetite for larger roles. She's been seen by celebrities like Gabriel Byrne, who studied with Rea at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and Jessica Lange, Shepard's longtime companion. She's hoping to be seen by many of the 150 casting directors she's messaged. She wouldn't mind if they agree she resembles a young Shirley MacLaine.

Piszel plans to write and perform a solo play about her acting peaks and valleys. She may even visit the Badlands for the first time. "If I do, I'd bring somebody with me," she says with a laugh. "I don't think I'd go out there with a horse by myself."

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