Late this month, Untitled Productions and Theater RED present a staging of the one-woman biographical play I'll Eat You Last in an intimate space at hotel on the corner of Chicago and Broadway not far from MIAD. Actress Marcee Doherty-Elst and director Eric Welch took some time out to answer a few questions I had about the production.
This one-woman play has been around for a little over 5 years. If I’m not mistaken this is the Wisconsin premiere of the show. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) What specifically attracted you to the idea of doing this show?
Eric: That is correct. I remember this show being first premiered on Broadway with Bette Midler. I was immediately interested. I read was it was about and found it fascinating. Sue Mengers is such an interesting character. I am also a big fan of Barbra Streisand, who was one of Sue’s biggest clients, so naturally I loved the show. After discussing this show with my friend Briana who started up Untitled Productions with me, I thought that this would be the perfect show to start us off. One, because of budget costs but also because it’s such a clever, witty show that will literally make you laugh, cry, and laugh again.
Marcee: Correct! I’LL EAT YOU LAST (IEYL) premiered on April 24th, 2013 at the Booth Theatre in New York and this is the WI premiere! I know Eric will have more to say on this, but he is a huge Barbra Streisand fan, and Sue Mengers is perhaps most famous for being Ms. Streisand’s agent, so naturally there’s a fit there! Also, this is the inaugural production for Untitled Productions, and I think the idea of doing a one-woman-show was appealing to Eric both as a unique splash into the Milwaukee theater scene and for logistical reasons.
I’LL EAT YOU LAST was originally staged at the 783-seat Booth Theatre. You’re performing in an improvised hotel space on Broadway in Milwaukee, WI. It seats...far fewer than 783 people. Have you ever performed a room this intimate in a one-woman show before?
Marcee: That’s true! We will have seating for only 84 guests per night; 10 of those are VIP seats on couches and chairs right up front as a sort of extension of Sue’s living room (and they come with a signature cocktail from the bar!). Both as an actor and as a Producer (with my Theater RED cape on) I really like intimate theater and smaller spaces, so that’s really appealing to me. I have never performed a one-woman-show before, so that’s a first for me, but I do like the idea of performing it in an intimate space. In fact, the original idea was to perform it in one of the suites at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel and only sell 20 tickets a night and have it be very intimate – just however many people we could fit in the suite using the furniture and adding a few chairs! When we presented this idea to the Journeyman, they loved the idea and offered to do one better – they said they could build a replica of one of the suites in one of their ballrooms so we could seat more people and that’s exactly what they are doing! They will be building a suite on their stage and after the row of VIP seating on couches and chairs there will be small and large small tables set up cabaret-style in the room. There will be a few tall boy tables in the back for additional seating and the bar will be in the back of the room, too! I love the idea of a non-traditional theater set up since this show is a very non-traditional 70 minute comedic romp! As an actor I’ve performed in many theaters that seat less than 100 and as a Producer, Theater RED has often rented venues that seat less than 100, so this is very comfortable for me. I think it will really work to set the feel that you could actually be sitting right in Sue’s living room listening to her dish!
You’re playing Sue Mengers--a Hollywood talent agent from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Though she’s far from an instantly-recognizable personality, she was known to many and there IS video footage of her (including a rather prominent feature on her for CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired a few decades ago.) It must be a challenge to play an actual 20th century figure. To what extent are you directly impersonating her for accuracy and to what extent are you playing a character that you feel is distinctly your own?
Marcee: Yes, I’ve watched that interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes many times! She was quite a celebrity in her own right as an Agent, which is pretty unusual and speaks volumes about her ambition, drive, and chutzpah! There’s a good deal of information out there about Sue, from books to interviews to magazine features, and the research has been really fun! This might be the first 20th century figure that I’ve portrayed, but I as an actor I have portrayed several 19th Century women and I always try to honor who they were as a person through my performance. While I definitely want to capture some of the signature Sue Mengers’ style of speaking, Eric has challenged me to take Sue’s idiolect, but make it my own (I did work with Jill Zager as dialect coach for the show to help me learn Sue’s idiolect). We aren’t trying to do an impersonation of her. Instead, we want to find a balance of Sue-isms with my own portrayal of her, so I guess it’s a mix of Sue and Marcee. I think she’d describe it more as a homage to her (and to quote her referring to Hollywood, “we play a $*%@ a lot of homage out here”).
Eric: Being the director, I did not want Marcee to replicate or impersonate her. To me, that isn’t acting. I definitely want there to be a Sue Mengers quality to her character but not to impersonate. It’s a fine line since she is a real person but I feel that for the stage, you can embellish.
Hang out in a hotel with Sue Mengers for a couple of hours and she’s going to tell stories. The play starts and it’s 1981 and the audience is lounging around with a big-named Hollywood talent agent. She’s be dropping names. How heavily grounded in her era of Hollywood is the play? Do you feel it would it be easily accessible by those not terribly familiar with Hollywood of the second half of the 20th century?
Eric: I think this play is very well written that even if you don’t know all the names she’s dropping, you still are laughing or enjoying the stories she’s telling. Most names should be recognizable to audiences. I mean, everyone knows who Barbra Streisand is.
Marcee: It is very present in 1981. It takes place on a very specific, formative day in the life of Sue Mengers and everything she is talking about is very grounded in that present, but she also talks about her past and you learned how that shaped her into the person she is at this point in 1981. The tricky thing is that there’s an awful lot yet of Sue Mengers’ story that I know through my research, and I have to be careful not to let what I know about her and what will happen shape who she is on this particular day in 1981. You’re absolutely right, she does a lot of name dropping and “dishing”, as she likes to say. I think there may be some references to some actors, movies, and even other historical events that people may not be familiar with, but I do think that even if you don’t recognize the name, you still understand the point of her dropping that particular name through the context. I’ve had to look up several things and Christopher has done a lot of great dramaturgical work that has helped richen my understanding. Sue has a wicked smart sense of humor and some of the things she’s saying are so quick witted that my challenge as an actor is to balance her manner of speaking while still making sure the audience gets the more obscure or interesting references because they are so funny! I think it would be super cool to find out that someone went home and looked up a movie or actor or other figure referenced as a result of seeing the play!
“Forgive me for not getting up,” she says. So it’s just you playing Mengers onstage...and not a whole lot of movement because it’s just her telling stories. (And smoking. I understand there’s a lot of smoking.) Does that make you feel restless at all? You’re there to perform and she’s there to relax and tell stories while seated. You’re portraying HER so she’s in charge. But it's you up there. Is there any kind of a conflict there?
Eric: Yes, she is seated the entire time, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t move. She certainly smokes a lot in the show, and not just cigarettes! There’s a few moments of audience participation and the whole play is focused on Sue waiting for a phone call from Barbra Streisand telling her she’s fired.
Marcee: You really are just spending an hour (or so) in Sue Mengers’ living room listening to her “dish” while she awaits an important phone call. There’s that sort of nervous energy when you’re waiting for something you know is going to happen but aren’t sure when and what happens is that she just sort of starts talking and telling stories to fill the time. And she loves gossip and loves to “dish” so she’s really having a good time holding court with the audience while she passes the time. She never leaves the stage – in fact, she never leaves the couch. Which makes for some fun when there are some things she needs that aren’t within arms’ reach. All I can say is, for people who like a unique immersive experience, they should grab those VIP seats in the front row couches – there’s only 10 per night! Oh yes, she was known for being a chain smoker and she also enjoyed smoking illegal substances, too. She’s rarely seen without a cigarette, or something else, in her hand. This has been a really interesting challenge for me as an actor because I have never smoked. Now all of a sudden I have a prop in my hand (or hands) all the time! We’ve been working with the consumable props since Day 1 of rehearsal for that reason and I will be smoking live on stage (herbal cigarettes and legal herbs). I haven’t felt restless yet, but I think that’s because there’s a great deal of movement even without moving off the couch – strange but true! I’m honestly feeling more awkward learning to manage the smoking aspect than I am with the limits of not leaving the couch. While she’s telling stories, she’s definitely not relaxed the entire time – she’s waiting for a phone call that she is dreading and knows will change her life so there really is this nervous energy in places – she certainly has moments where she relaxes (and the smoking helps her do that) and moments where she is having a lot of fun with the audience, but there are also moments where she comes back to her present reality of waiting for the shoe to drop. I think the key, as with any character, is to settle into Sue and tell her story, in her way. The challenge is maintaining that with no other actors on the stage with you to help with that story.
Mengers’ personality is really strong. And she IS the center of the show. Do you feel her personality taking-over elements of production? Are there elements of her personality lingering in your life outside of rehearsals?
Eric: Obviously, it’s hard to do a show about a real life person and NOT having her fully appear in sections. Sue Mengers is a very interesting and boastful character. She will demand your attention.
Marcee: That’s an understatement for sure! And yes! We’ve only had 3 rehearsals (including the read through) as of this interview and I am already seeing aspects of Sue’s personality coming through in life outside of rehearsals. People that know me know that I don’t really curse all that much, I’m not really sure why. It doesn’t offend me when other people do it, I just think I’ve never been cool enough to pull it off – ha! But, Sue Mengers swears like a sailor and uses vulgar language. I’ve noticed that my language has definitely become more adult since rehearsals, that’s for sure! And the thing is, Sue uses curse words affectionately, so I’m finding that in moments of excitement I’m calling my friends things other than “little stinkers”, if you know what I mean! And it just comes out and I’m a little shocked hearing it, but it makes me giggle. On the production side, I think I’ve always been a little opinionated and vocal (just ask Christopher) so I think Sue’s influence on me there is again, the choice of words.
Untitled Productions and Theater RED's staging of the I'll Eat You Last runs June 29th-July 1st at the Journeyman Hotel on 310 East Chicago St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.