“The Portrait of an Angel, a Lion, a Monster” is a new play by California-based playwright Katrin Arefy that tells the story of a love affair between a creative woman (Rachael Richman) and a brilliant Jewish man (Isaac J. Conner) that spans two decades and three continents. Actress Rachael Richman recently discussed her experiences working on his show and her career via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for acting and how did you break into the theater?
Rachael Richman (RR): I was a very shy kid, but I loved to sing and found my way into the school plays in first grade. And suddenly, onstage, I had this powerful voice. One of my first roles was as a singing sunflower in a drought (I grew up in California), and my solo line was “Get me some water!” I was loud. My sunflower made demands and said what she wanted. Onstage a whole other aspect of myself came alive. I found freedom and strength and a lot of joy. And I’ve just kept going from there.
In performance I found a holistic discipline integrating so many elements – body, mind, voice, imagination, spirit – all toward this constant effort to be present. I loved the focus on ensemble and the opportunity to create in such an embodied and collaborative way. The theater felt like 3D poetry to me, this magical frame in which anything could happen – risk and connection and honesty and wildness.
MM: How did you get involved with this show and what drew you to the character?
RR: I came across a listing in Backstage and auditioned and…here I am! I was immediately drawn to the project and the character. Simply to do a (mostly) one-woman show is in itself a wonderful (and terrifying!) challenge. I was drawn to the nonlinear exploration of a woman’s private landscape, to the range of thoughts and emotions she navigates, to her deep questioning. The themes she deals with, and this maze of co-existing with the past, resonate with me. Time as blurry and multi-layered. Memories that feel more alive than the present. This effort to unravel a past that’s woven into her skin.
MM: How did you prepare for the role? How different is it from other characters you portrayed in off-Broadway shows?
RR: Well, I read the play a bunch of times. I came up with a list of questions about SHE (as the main character is called) and her world, and some of those I’m still circling around. In our first few rehearsals, my acting partner Isaac Conner and I delved into our characters together, filling out details of their relationship. I’ve learned things in finding the transitions between thoughts, and by mulling on the many repetitions, what haunts and drives her. And then, I especially discover so much by playing in the space, working with director Ali Kamran, associate director Jennie Hughes and Isaac and all the other great collaborators on this project, and just trying things out and seeing what feels right and alive. In general, I’ve been lucky to play a range of characters. On a basic level, many other roles have been younger women. SHE is an opportunity to inhabit a mature woman, and really get to know her as a complex multi-dimensional person. One of the last roles I played, Alyosha, in “The Karamazovs”, was in many ways quite different from SHE. But there are also shared threads – the grip of the past, deep and questioning faith in God, this searching nature.
MM: This is a play for two actors but you’ll be the only one present on stage when the piece premiers. What challenges emerge from this directorial vision, and how do you work through them?
RR: It’s an exciting challenge. At one point (spoiler alert!) HE and SHE have an extended period of overlapping speech. I’m grateful Isaac and I could really explore the scene first together in the same space and discover some of the emotional dynamics and the specific rhythms of speech. We then found some pretty creative ways to film just his half. Now the challenge for me is to play with the projection. There’s the technical aspect of timing and co-existing onstage with the film image, but I’m especially curious about engaging with a character on film in a way that is alive and present for me in every performance.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
RR: I hope they feel they’ve gone on a journey, traveled the labyrinth of a woman deeply investigating life, and left the theater with some of her questions still stirring. I hope they recognize some of her private world as their own, and that for a time we are less alone together. I hope they feel welcomed.
MM: What’s your favorite thing about this production and why?
RR: I guess the process! I’m just happy to be in rehearsal and have the opportunity to create and perform. And I enjoy the intimacy of the production. And I think the co-mingling of film and live experience is a compelling design and will be beautiful.
MM: Did the pandemic affect your approach to making theatre? If yes, how?
RR: Absolutely yes. And also, not really. There’s certainly a heightened feeling of precarity, in an already pretty precarious field. There’s a feeling of – well, we will make this plan and move towards it and hope it works out. Omicron has loomed over our process; I actually got Covid during our early rehearsals and we were back on Zoom for a time. But here we are. We adapted. And for me there’s a lot of gratitude, just to be able to perform and make theater in whatever ways we can, in this moment. When the pandemic first hit, I was performing in “The Karamazovs” at the New Ohio Theatre, a show we had been developing for a few years. When the play suddenly closed in the shutdown, it was a big blow in the middle of a much bigger grief. But I was also so heartened and inspired by how our group, and so many other people, found ways to continue to create. We had this crazy idea of making “The Karamazovs” into a film. And ultimately, we did that. And it was an incredible experience for me of what people can manifest together. And how much it matters that we do, how much we have needed it in this time, as artists and as audience.
MM: What other projects are coming up for you?
RR: I’ve got some ongoing writing and music projects in the works. I’ve been thinking a lot about Hilma af Klint, and the myth of Persephone. And I’m always seeking the next wonderful opportunities. We’ll see what unfolds!
The show will have its New York premiere at Theaterlab’s Gallery space (357 W 36th St, 3rd floor, NYC, 10018) and run on Saturdays and Sundays, Jan 29-Feb 13, 2022. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at https://www.theaterlabnyc.com/the-portrait-of-an-angel-a-lion-a-monster/