The Peggy & Wendy (& Brad & Tom & Gordon & Loren) Show
August 17, 2005
Peggy Mundinger and Wendy Perkins have gotten in the habit, at less than a moment’s notice, of slipping into character, affecting accents and hand gestures, and uttering bits of non-sequitur dialogue: “Shells and sauce.” “Yew look ver’ ver’ purty t’night.” “Just thiiink about it.”Actors are known, of course, for taking their roles offstage with them. But the case of locals Mundinger and Perkins is an extreme one. Since May, the two have been preparing to star in “Parallel Lives,” a two-woman play whose 11 comedic sketches involve 27 characters. So when a thought or a conversation sparks one of them to leap into character, it is not just one persona that is taken on. It can be the 60ish Jewish New York widow Madeleine – Mad, for short. Or a New Jersey teen crying as she sees how “West Side Story” relates to her own life. Or it could be Hank, who has a rendezvous with Karen Sue at the same cowboy bar night after night after night.”A day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t spark one of these characters in my head,” said Perkins.”Parallel Lives” was spun out of “The Kathy and Mo Show,” Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney’s off-Broadway hit that ran for six years beginning in the mid-’80s. The original stage play also became the televised HBO production “Kathy and Mo: Parallel Lives,” which aired in 1991.Mundinger, an Aspen product, was unaware of this history. So when her mother suggested they go to an Arizona production of “Parallel Lives” in 1997, there was a bit of dragging involved.
“She said, ‘Let’s go see a play,'” recalled Mundinger. “We went upstairs, above this bookstore, into not even a theater, just this room with a couple of stools. I said, ‘Oh God, here we go.'”In fact, it went quite a different way than she feared. Mundinger was so taken by the array of characters and scenarios, and by the way that Najimy and Gaffney blended comedy and poignancy, that she ordered the script as soon as she got home. So enthralled that she vowed someday she would play the Jewish women and Italian teenagers and spiritually searching little girls that Najimy and Gaffney had invented. So moved that the script sat on her shelf, untouched, for eight years.”I thought, OK, if anyone ever does it, I’ll be in it,” said Mundinger, whose credits include 14 years at the Crystal Palace dinner theater, four seasons of Aspen Theatre in the Park, and numerous roles, including the title role in “Peter Pan,” with Aspen Community Theatre. Over the years, though, she was nagged by the notion: “But what if they don’t cast me? The truth is someone could do it here and I might not get cast.”The idea of a local production of “Parallel Lives” without her finally prompted Mundinger to take action. Some months ago, she ran into stage director Brad Moore, with whom she had worked in an ACT production of “Annie,” and asked him to direct her. With a director enlisted, Mundinger asked Perkins, who she had acted with in the farce “Lend Me a Tenor” and the musical “A Little Night Music,” to be her co-star. Perkins eagerly accepted the invitation.”Parallel Lives,” presented by Aspen Stage, opens at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theater Wednesday, Aug. 24.Characters vs. caricaturesSince they began rehearsing in the spring, Mundinger and Perkins have become locked together in the process of creating the 27 characters of “Parallel Lives.” Several days a week, hikers on Smuggler Mountain were treated to the sight of two women hiking with scripts in their hands, trading lines in exaggerated accents. Two weeks ago, Perkins got a call from Mundinger, who was driving home from Denver and speaking in her guise as Mad’s counterpart, Sylvie: “I’m laawst. I can’t find my way hoowme.”
But the two realized a few weeks earlier just how much they were on the same page and how dedicated each was to the project. Mundinger was listening to a jazz performance on the mall when she heard a semi-familiar voice. To Mundinger’s ear, it was the voice of Sylvie. Mundinger told the woman about her resemblance to the character – just as Perkins had remarked to the same woman.”Owwhh, someone said that to me last week,” said Mundinger, recalling the response. The woman soon consented to their not only coming over to raid her closet for costumes, but also videotaping her to capture the character. “We listened to her taawk and taawk,” said Mundinger.Mad and Sylvie are only two avenues “Parallel Lives” uses to offer a comedic take on life’s big themes: male/female relations, religion, ethnicity, death and all kinds of sexuality. The characters unexpectedly find themselves as single women in a strangely liberated world, puzzle over such oddities as courses in women’s studies, vegetarian restaurants and lesbian-themed performance art. Jeff and Chris are college kids on a date struggling to find some common ground – like the homosexual vibe of the “Queer Denny’s” where they find themselves – on which to communicate. “But they miss,” said Moore. “He’s talking about what he’s talking about, and she’s talking about what she’s talking about.”Terry and Tina are sisters who are practicing Catholics as preadolescents, quipping about heaven and hell, the afterlife and God; teenagers in a camp for born-again Christians; and adults driving to a Hindu ashram. Hank and Karen Sue are married – not to each other – and try to escape their real lives by flirting aimlessly with each other every night in the same cowboy bar.What has sustained the interest in “Parallel Lives” is that Mundinger and Perkins play these characters as people, not caricatures.”It’s easy as an actor,” said Moore, “to find these 27 caricatures. But as a team, we’ve been getting to the heart of each character, getting to the truth and honesty, getting them real. It’s not stand-up comedy. So the humor comes through the relationships – to each other, and the situations they’re in.”You look up parallel in the dictionary, and it’s two lines that never converge, that move from one point to another in relation to one another. Our characters are like that. Sometimes it’s very true that they never connect. In some cases, it’s true that they go from one place to another, very close to each other.””It’s laughing at the human condition and feeling for the human condition, and doing the best they can with the tools they have,” said Perkins of her stance toward the characters.
More than role playing”Parallel Lives” opens with Mundinger and Perkins as two angels, deciding how they are going to go about creating life on the planet. The angels choose to create diversity by separating humanity into two genders, and giving people varying skin tones. (In an example of the humor, the angels fret that white people will feel disadvantaged with their boring color.) The angels also give their creations free will.”The theme, as we’ve decided, is you can do anything you want to do,” said Mundinger. “As long as you’re willing to get up and do it.”And that’s what we did.”For Mundinger and Perkins, the joy has come as much in collaborating as in stretching their acting limits. Like Mundinger, Perkins has done plenty of acting: Crystal Palace, Aspen Community Theatre. But lately they have found themselves making and putting up posters, arranging rehearsal schedules, and enlisting local talent like set designer Tom Ward, sound designer Gordon Wilder and lighting designer Loren Wilder to help them with the production.”I always appreciated the people who did sets and lights,” said Mundinger. “But now I really know – without all that stuff, it’s just acting class.”Moore, who founded Aspen Stage in 1984 with Al Lyons, says that “Parallel Lives” fulfills the organization’s guiding principals.”All of us are being given the opportunity to explore our craft and skill in a very local sense,” said Moore, who also manages the District Theatre and Black Box Theater, and teaches theater at Aspen Middle and High schools. “This show has reminded me what I love about theater, that working as a team to build a project.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com