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Julie Waggoner, Jeannine Haas back in look at marriage

  • <br/>Actor  Julie Waggoner rehearsing for Red State Of Marriage by Peter Shelburne.
  • <br/>Actors left Jeannine Haas and Julie Waggoner rehearsing for Red State Of Marriage by Peter Shelburne. In the background is Toby Bercovici, the director.
  • <br/>Actor left Jeannine Haas rehearsing for Red State Of Marriage by Peter Shelburne.
  • Actor left Julie Waggoner, Toby Bercovici, director and actor Jeannine Haas who are producing a play called  Red State Of Marriage by Peter Shelburne.

Several years ago, actor and theater producer Jeannine Haas and comedian Julie Waggoner had such a good time on the set of New Century Theater’s “House of Blue Leaves,” in which they played a pair of beer-drinking nuns, that they resolved to work together again. They teamed up a year later in the popular “Parallel Lives: The Kathy & Mo Show,” a series of comedic sketches in which they played multiple roles.

Now Haas and Waggoner are back with a new play that mixes comedy and drama in examining the lives of two women and their ups and downs in a 20-year relationship. And to do that, the actors will take on not just multiple roles: They’ll each take turns playing several of those same roles.

“Red State of Marriage,” which opens today at the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds in Northampton, is the story of Kim and Katherine, a longtime Northampton couple who have to grapple with a talented but rebellious son, Katherine’s cranky and homophobic father, Kim’s dead-beat ex-husband, and an odd handyman who’s become something of an adopted family member.

Kim and Katherine are also struggling with the vagaries of marriage — at one point they move to North Carolina to try and freshen things up a bit — as well as the larger issue of being a lesbian couple. In that sense, says Haas, “Red State of Marriage,” serves as a metaphor both for the experience Kim and Katherine have in the more conservative North Carolina, and the societal and familial hurdles same-sex couples can face anywhere.

“That’s part of the reason we want to do this now, in a downtown venue in Northampton,” said Haas, who runs Pauline Productions, a Goshen theater company dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in theater. She notes that “Red State” is debuting just a few days before the city’s annual Pride Parade.

Though same-sex marriage may be becoming more accepted in parts of the country, Haas said, “Some couples still have to deal with opposition and complications from their own families, people closer to home. ... It’s an issue that touches a lot of our friends’ lives.”

Starting tonight, there will be nine performances of the two-act “Red State of Marriage” at Signature Sounds through May 12, after which the play will run for four days at The Arts Block in Greenfield, May 16-19.

The play was written by Peter Shelburne of Northampton, who teaches math at the MacDuffie School in Springfield. Shelburne’s plays have had readings and workshops in Chicago and New York, and he’s also been a popular contributor to Northampton’s 24-hour Theatre Project, staged annually at the Northampton Center for the Arts.

Waggoner, who’s carved out a long career in regional comedy, both as a stand-up comedian as well as with improv groups like The Villa Jidiots, said she and Haas had taken part separately in plays that Shelburne had written for the 24-hour project, and both loved his writing.

“Jeannine and I really wanted to work together again, and we both wanted to work with Peter,” Waggoner said. “I asked him if he could write us something with multiple characters, and he said, ‘Well, maybe I could, but I’m not really funny.’ And I said, ‘Oh yes you are.’ ”

Shelburne says he met with Haas and Waggoner to discuss basic ideas of what they were looking for, and the two actors improvised a few scenes based on their own lives. Using that, he began to fashion the story of a couple in a long-term relationship. “Once I had the basic idea for structure, it started to come together,” he said.

Though Waggoner and Haas have trimmed the original story somewhat — they say they worked with Shelburne on the cuts — both actors say the end result has plenty of humor, as well as heart and soul. “We think it’s a brilliant script,” said Haas.

Actors in sync

In “Red State,” Haas and Waggoner take turns playing five different roles. Their one constant? Their female characters: Haas is Kim, and Waggoner plays Katherine, who have been together 20 years. But they each take turns in four other (male) roles: Theo, Kim’s 20-something son; Pop, Katherine’s ornery father; Buck, Kim’s ex-husband and Theo’s father; and Ricky, a “randy handyman” friend of Kim and Katherine.

In Act One, Haas plays just Kim, while Waggoner plays all the other roles; in Act Two, Waggoner portrays just Katherine, and Haas takes on the multiple parts.

“It’s been a challenge, but a fun one, for Jeannine and I to try and match what we’re doing with the same characters,” Waggoner said. “I’ll watch her and say, ‘Oh, you’re playing him like that — I’ve been doing it a little differently.’ We want to be in sync so the audience knows what’s going on.”

She says the play also uses a few “cinematic devices,” like shifts in time, that make it important to be consistent with the characters’ mannerisms.

The set is a simple one: a table, a few chairs, a hat rack. Haas and Waggoner also use a limited number of props and costumes, like eyeglasses and wigs, or a cane for Pop, to play the characters.

Last week, the two rehearsed a couple of scenes at a large common space at the Pine Hill Co-Housing Community in Florence as their director, Toby Bercovici, watched, a script in her hand. First the actors portrayed Pop and Theo playing chess; then both took a turn playing a scene in which Theo, arrested for spray painting graffiti around town, calls home from the police station.

“You’re really swinging your feet out with him — really enunciating his movements,” Haas said as she gave Waggoner some feedback on her portrait of Theo.

“Yeah, I’m not really conscious of that,” Waggoner said with a laugh. “I’m kind of like Gumby.”

Having Bercovici, a freelance producer and director who has worked on numerous regional plays, oversee their work has been a huge help, Haas said. She also credits stage manager Tina Padgett with handling several other tasks, including lighting: “She’s been my vital right hand.”

For her part, Waggoner says the play has taken her full circle in a sense. She recalls first meeting Bercovici about 12 years ago, when the latter was a student at Northampton High School and invited Waggoner to give a talk to the student Gay Alliance group. “And now she’s made a career in the arts and is directing me — that’s wonderful,” she said.

Waggoner said that though she’s played dramatic roles over the years in plays, much of her work has been in comedy. “I wondered at first about doing these different roles, some of the more serious parts ... in a play of this length. But it hasn’t been a stretch — it’s felt really good all along.”

“I really like working like this,” Haas added. “We’re not just mugging and making faces.”

And, she notes, much of “Red State” has some personal resonance for her, like Pop’s slow evolution in accepting Katherine’s life and identity. Haas said her own family’s reaction when she came out years ago was not exactly supportive — but that when she officially tied the knot with her partner several years ago, “they all brought flowers to the wedding. People can change.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Red State of Marriage” opens tonight at the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds and runs through Sunday, then from May 8-12; performances continue at The Arts Block in Greenfield May 16-20. Tickets cost $20 ($15 on May 8). For show times, additional information, and to order tickets online (advance purchase is recommended), visit www.paulinelive.com.

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