Oh what a circus! Oh what a show! It’s quite a sunset, but don’t cry for the Argentinians just yet, Charm City! Not until you’ve read this riveting TheatreBloom exclusive interview with the actors in the lead roles at the upcoming production of Evita The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. With a wealth of knowledge on their characters, and great opinions on how this “old school” musical is surging with relevance today’s audiences, we sit down to talk over the characters of Eva Duarte de Perón, Juan Perón, and Ché with actors Bart Debicki, Becca Vourvoulas, and Rob Wall.
If we could start with a round of quick introductions so the readers can familiarize themselves with who you are and what of your work they might recognize, that would be splendid.
Becca Vourvoulas: I’m Becca Vourvoulas and I’m playing Eva Perón in this production of Evita. In the past year I’ve done primarily choreography, however, I did reprise my role as Kaye in The Taffetas Christmas at DCT (Dundalk Community Theatre.) I had been out on the west coast for the last three years. I’m now generally back on the eastern seaboard. The most recent two choreography projects I was involved with were both with my friend Mark Briner, The Wizard of Oz at St. Demetrio’s and Catch Me if You Can at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. And I will be choreographing Wedding Singer, also at ASGT with Mark this summer. I’ll actually be going to rehearsals on Saturday afternoons before coming here for the evening shows, and then again going to rehearsals after performing the Sunday matinee here.
Rob Wall: I am Rob Wall and I am playing the role of Ché. Incidentally this is my first show in 11 years and my debut at Spots as well so it’s a very exciting thing. I’ve been off the scene for the last decade…well it’s really been a combination of my military career and getting my defense contracting business up and running. But I couldn’t be happier to be back at it.
Bart Debicki: I’m Bart Debicki and I’m playing Juan Perón alongside these two wonderful people. Let’s see in the past year I’ve done The Complete Works of William Shakespeare over at Fells Point Corner Theatre. I think that was the only thing that I did on stage last year. I did a couple of things with Chesapeake Shakespeare Company but they were not acting things. Previous to that I did The Last 5 Years, Hello, Dolly, and The Fantasticks, all of which were here, actually.
What was the draw to want to come and be a part of Evita?
Becca: Evita was my second show ever as an eight-year-old. It was at Cockpit in Court in 1987. I fell in love with that role then. I’ve done the show two more times since then. I was just waiting to finally be old enough to play her, and for someone to do it, and here it was!
Rob: I think that the opportunity to be in Evita— and I rambled on Facebook all about this today, and yes I did get it out of my system—
Bart: I need to join Facebook so I can read all this.
Rob: …but I felt like this is a very interesting time for America socio-politically, and that there are some very significant parallels with the period of time that this show covers. When I auditioned, I didn’t really have any designs on a particularly role especially with me just getting back into things. But as things have gone on and I’m playing the role of Ché, I think it’s given me a renewed sense of excitement about the story that we can tell and what it’s going to give the audience by sense of takeaways that will hopefully help them to deal with some of the issues of inequality and social injustice that we’re currently facing.
Bart: Wow. My motivation is not nearly as deep and profound as yours. My motivation is that I love to sing and I haven’t done a musical in a while. So I’m always up for anything really. But the process for me was a little reversed, I suppose. I got more and more motivated, and I won’t say fascinated but rather interested in Perón himself because he rose to power— and who knows what the truth is there— but perhaps in not an entirely legit matter. What was happening in Argentina at that time very much resembles what was happening in Poland when I was growing up. You know, communist regime, and that of course— these parallels hit home for me. I had to do a lot of thinking about my take on the character and how I can do it. Especially because when I was growing up myself, my friends, and my family were all in opposition in the underground rather than on the ruling party side. Me being in a role as a character that is the complete opposite to what I grew up with— and who is something that I most sincerely hated and still do, the communist-like political dictatorship— that has been an experience. My take on the role had to be very artistic rather than focus on trying to identify with the character. That’s kind of a new thing for me.
That’s a perfect segue into what your Director, Fuzz Roark, had wanted me to talk to you guys about. What has it been like taking these characters who are modeled on real people— and not necessarily nice people— and bringing yourselves to them or bringing them to you so that you can bring them to the stage?
Bart: Like I was saying, to me, I just had to approach it from an artist’s standpoint. There’s no other way for me to do it because I can’t really identify with the guy. The more I read about him, the more I watch videos and footage of him, the more it resembles what was going on in communist countries when I was growing up and that’s certainly something that I don’t want to ever happen to me or anybody else again. It was an interesting process. I don’t think I’ve ever played anybody who was real, at least not on stage. Creatively it was a challenge. I’m trying to imitate as much of him as I can in terms of movement, the way he moves his hands in his speeches and stuff like that. Otherwise I don’t think I don’t look anything like the guy.
You have somewhat of a Polish accent, Bart. How’s that working with Perón’s Argentinian sound?
Bart: We don’t do accents here.
Rob: We would rather people actually understand what we say.
Bart: If you’re doing an accent it has to be genuine. And what’s been happening on Broadway these last few times ended up sounding more like a German-Turkish accent hybrid. And that didn’t sound Argentinian, it just sounded weird.
Fuzz Roark: That’s why I liked the most recent revival with Elena Roger, Ricky Martin, I forget the guy who played your role, Bart.
Bart: Michael Cerveris.
I didn’t know you were joining us for this, Fuzz.
Fuzz: Everyone knows me. And I’m directing this one. Hi. But getting back to what I was saying, I liked that most recent revival on Broadway because Elena is Argentinian and Ricky is Puerto Rican so the accents sounded authentic.
What about you, Rob, what’s it been like bringing yourself to Ché and Ché to you?
Rob: I guess playing the role of Ché, the everyman of the show I didn’t really have ties to a specific historical figure. So it was liberating from the standpoint of developing the character. My goal was trying to figure out who everybody else was from a human perspective so that I would have the ability to respond to them in an authentic way. Looking at the ways in which Eva’s character develops over the course of the story’s arc and recognizing that if I were the person who follows her through the story I would have different opinions than maybe some of the other people who were observing her about what and how she’s behaving actually represents. I see she’s an ambitious person from the get-go. I see that she has the drive to do something bigger and better than what she has at the outset. But I don’t know this right away because I’m not fully omniscient and so I don’t know what that fully means.
As I see her go through the process of integrating into Buenos Aires society and becoming more of a part of the political scene, I start to have a reason to question and to want to understand her ambitions politically. At the same time, being the everyman, I have great hope for what that means for the Argentinian working class. As she starts rising into the glorious role that she ends up holding, I think there are moments where I want to be her cheerleader but there are also moments where I want to bring her down to earth. She has a great capacity for capturing the imagination of people and doing so with style. That’s an incredibly powerful thing, if she doesn’t get ahead of herself and that’s the main thing. For me, it’s just trying to make sure that I’m translating the facts as clearly as humanly possible but also responding through the process to the people on stage.
Becca: Well, the show at times can— and I don’t want to use the term “demonize her”— but it doesn’t really show a softer side, or the good necessarily. Even in the second act with the song “Rolling On In,” the good that they show she was doing is tainted because now there are rumblings that money is being stolen, money is being hidden. But she is such a likeable figure that it’s not difficult to want to play her and want to tell her story. As I was doing my research I was finding all of these websites, and one in particular struck me— the one that’s still run by her family. It has all these wonderful stories, all of these beautiful anecdotes about her as a real person, and how even to this day she still means so much to these people. I want to be able to show that side of her to the audience, I want people to be able to see why they loved her and still to this day love her.
She’s perfectly imperfect. She wanted to do so many things. She wanted to help elevate people that were like her. She helped elevate herself, and yes she did things that weren’t always on the up-and-up, she did things that weren’t always the most ladylike, but she did what she thought she had to do to get where she was. She wanted to help the people that were like her. She didn’t want anyone to feel minimized the way she was, so she set out to do these things. If she took a few wrong turns— and she did but who doesn’t— unfortunately because of the age at which she died, she never had the chance to grow up enough and realize her mistakes and correct them. Who knows, it could have gone either way. She could have— like Rob said in his Facebook post— she could have had that moment of realization and turned it around. Or like many politicians she could have just kept on that slippery slope and gone too far.
Rob, you had mentioned that your draw to this production was because of its current political relevance to America. What did you mean by?
Rob: It’s an interesting question because I think there’s this bubbling undercurrent of being disenfranchised in the country that you call home. It’s something that people may attribute to economics, it’s something that people may attribute to gender identity, it’s something that people may attribute to a whole host of issues that are part of the fabric of our society and not always necessarily in a positive way. I think that they were dealing with that very much in Argentina. Economic inequality is the bedrock of this whole political movement that we’re discussing here.
I think when people are in the middle of observing something as a participant it’s sometimes harder to take away the truths that you should be extracting from the situation than if you’re presented with something that’s entertaining, something of which you’re not actually a part. The whole point of being in the audience is that we on the stage get to do that storytelling and get to give the audience something that they can then think about in an entertaining way. I think right now we have a lot of people who are gravitating towards extremes that may represent something that is not part of the establishment. That anti-establishment mentality and that desire to have something different is very much played out in this production. To the extent that we have an opportunity to see how that plays out in the audience, I think that will be very interesting. And to the extent that we have the opportunity to play that out and be a part of that is a really exciting thing.
Bart: I try not to get involved in politics too much, but what’s happening across the world especially in the wake of the financial crisis is that a lot of folks are turning to more radical political movements, be it left or right. It doesn’t really matter, ultimately they’re both as dangerous in my opinion.
Becca: Radical everything is dangerous.
Bart: I hate to keep referring back to my home country again but the truth is I grew up in a very specific regime, then there was a period of a few decades where everything was really good, and now there is this radical right wing that has just gained power. It should be the exact opposite of what was happening before, because they were the opposition from before. They were the folks that were in prison for opposing the ruling party, which is very similar to what was happening in Argentina, you couldn’t be in opposition. But of course, this new right wing party that has just gained power is doing the exact same thing that the other radical party was doing back then. They are constraining the freedom of public media; they are appointing their own people to be in charge of the media. They fire people that don’t want to air and publicize things that are critical of the opposition. To me, I don’t know if I’m explaining this correctly, but I see so many similarities with these radical movements that these people are drawn to. You’re probably right, Rob, when you say the economic situation, that was certainly the case in Argentina then but I think that might very much be the case here and now and all over the world— in Europe as much as it is here too. That’s a little scary. I hope that this show will make people come to their senses a little bit and decide “no, we really don’t want that.”
Becca: I’m not sure what I can add to that. I feel similarly to these gentlemen. As I said, radical anything is scary. No matter what side you’re on, when you’ve gone too far you become blind to the actual issues because you’re just touting the flag for your own cause. Hopefully the audience will see themselves in what’s happening and will either have that moment of “oh, these are thoughts that I might be thinking.” Or they can see that they are in fact being moderates and that staying that way keeps them on the side of sanity.
What has being a part of this show, which is very politically charged, taught you about yourselves?
Bart: If I may, I don’t know what this is going to mean political, to me the character of Perón— how he’s written in the play and then what we’re doing with it— has made me realize that there are always two sides to things. You will see him pretty much in two different situations. Actually you’ll see him in three. There’s one when he is with his fellow military men, whom he is in charge of most of the time. Then there is the politician, who is among people trying to get votes so he’s shaking people’s hands, kissing the foreheads of children, that kind of thing, making speeches. And then there is this third completely different man that you see when he is alone with Eva.
Becca and I have a couple of scenes where it’s just the two of us, and I’m talking about the scenes where it’s just Eva and Perón alone and not in public. Not out on a date or whatever it is, just the two of them privately. That’s what exposes a lot of his— I don’t want to say weaknesses— sensitivity?
Bart: Exactly. His humanity. There is a humanity in him, and probably in her too considering that the show does not show her in the most flattering light either, that you see in those moments. These moments made me realize some things about people who are in power or who are seeking power or who simply have the job of being politicians for lack of a better term. There is probably something humane in them, probably some sensitivity in them, especially geared toward the people that they really, truly love. I feel that the relationship between Perón and Eva was something extraordinary just in terms of that feeling. They were so sensitive and sincere to each other. You can see that, I hope, on stage when we react to some of the things that are happening between us and that are very uncharacteristic of some of the things that you may know about Perón as a public figure.
Becca: I’m a military spouse. It’s very interesting having grown up being a theatre a person my entire life, the way that I view the world, my thoughts and opinions and things like that all through college and a bit there after were very different than they are after marrying someone in the military. Everything suddenly shifts. To be that person who is a military spouse and to know that there are certain people who are going to be looking out for your good as a member of the military community, and then to know that there are other people— politically speaking— that I may agree with more or who may be looking at things from the perspective I used to hold— it’s just very interesting to think about my personal dealings with all of that, take that in and use it to look at everything that’s going on in the story. Everybody can be torn in different directions.
Yes, people wanted to do good, but you can’t always do good and get done what needs to get done. We see that in our political system all the time. We may love whatever’s coming out of Joe Politician’s mouth, but is he actually going to be able to get anything done when he has to have two houses of congress who have to agree with him in order to do so? If it’s anything too radical nothing will get done because everyone will just keep butting heads over it. It’s very interesting to realize that you just can’t stay completely out of politics. Everything is going to be wrapped around it somehow. Or wrapped in with it. I don’t think I’m making any sense here, but I think my point is that being able to see these characters and to relate to them in the whole “I want this but I need this” is a profound experience. Being pulled in opposing directions is definitely an interesting thing.
Rob: Especially given the fact that Eva’s emergence on the political scene really started because of her role as a radio entertainer and previous to that as an actress, it gave me a renewed reason to really start taking a good hard look at the way in which the media controls our information environment. I’ve had a general sense of it being a polarizing force as opposed to a unifying force in society. Since control of the information environment, what people are thinking about and why people are thinking about it is one of the themes that is played out here, I’ve found myself looking at the media differently. I’m now noticing, “Wow, that was an incredibly subjective and emotionally charged statement. That was designed to get a reaction.” MSNBC, Fox News, whoever. I started thinking that maybe the reason that they’re doing that is because they get the reactions that they do. Maybe it’s a validating thing for them because it spikes their ratings. I don’t feel like there is enough social pressure on the media to give the facts and just the facts. I feel like we have an obligation to generate some awareness here and I think with this story we do it well.
What would you say has been the most difficult thing for you investing yourselves in these characters who are not necessarily portrayed in the most flattering light?
Becca: I love her. Even though, and I said it before, she’s perfectly imperfect. I don’t think that this show gives all of the facts about her. I know, obviously, her family can temper what they put in her website, anybody can control what gets put in their websites. But the more I’ve read and the more I’ve found out, the more I realize she’s a polarizing figure. They either loved her or they hated her. But I’m on the love side because even with the mistakes she made, deep down she meant to do good. I just think that’s the heart of it and that’s what I love.
Fuzz: In in your song, the waltz you do with Ché, what’s her line? “I would rather—
Becca: Better to win by admitting my sin than to lose with a halo.
Fuzz: She knew what she wanted to do.
Becca: And if she had to get dirty doing it, she didn’t mind. She would rather get done what she wanted to get done.
Rob: I think in talking about the most difficult challenge of developing this character it’s really trying to live in the moment. Not think too far ahead. It would be very easy for me, especially given the fact that we kinda start at the end of the story, it would be very easy for me to play the whole show knowing what I know at that moment. But it wouldn’t be real. I think it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to live the arc of the story. If I’m the one person who’s following her through that then I have to respond as somebody who doesn’t know all the rest of that stuff and who is just discovering it as she discovers it. Trying to keep that in mind and to play things that way has been challenging but an interesting experiment too.
Bart: The most challenging thing for me was hitting that jazz flat and finding my pitch. But we fixed that. So then the next most difficult thing…we’ve both said that these characters, Eva and Juan, they’re controversial people. Juan is especially a controversial figure in Argentina’s history. Lots of people pretty much flat out say that he was not a good man, and that he was not a good leader. As an actor, I found that in order to play the character well you cannot hate the character. You have to find a way to love your character. To be honest with you, I could not do in real life what this guy did. As much as I like to think that I can portray him accurately on stage, I couldn’t do what he did. All the stress of a political career, the fact that you’re in charge of millions and millions of people and the economy. That’s pretty much what dictatorship is, you’re pretty much in charge of everything. Especially given my heritage and background, I cannot identify with this person at all but I had to find a way to connect with him. I made that connection in those intimate scenes with Eva in that psychologically revealing sense. In this show we have this very strict military guy who rose to power as the ruler of Argentina but he has a soft side and his soft spot is his wife.
What is it you are hoping the audiences are going to take away with them when they leave the theatre after seeing Evita?
Becca: The honest to God truth? That old school— and this isn’t even that old school— so that older school musical theatre is very relevant and very wonderful and that Hamilton is not the be all end all. There you go. Now let me iterate that I do not hate Hamilton. I don’t even dislike it. I just need younger people to stop thinking that things that were written before 2000 are irrelevant. I feel like that is what is happening a lot. People are finding no value in doing Oklahoma and South Pacific. They’re beautiful scores with wonderful stories and they are relevant. And I don’t necessarily mean relevant politically, I mean being worthwhile to do. Even if you don’t get anything out of the story you’re getting something from theatre history. As much as we move forward we still have to look back, same as actual history.
Rob: I guess I’ll kind of piggyback on that. When you pick up a novel that you haven’t read in a while and you dust it off, you say “I’m going to read it again with fresh eyes.” And you think maybe you’ll take something different away from it this time. I think every time a show is brought back onto the stage reimagined by a director, reimagined musically, presented in a new way artistically, it takes on a different life. I think beyond the fact that it entertains and it delivers a different perspective on what was originally intended by the writers it also fits into the time in which it’s presented. Given that context, it gives the audience something else to chew on. What I hope is that people will accept the complexity of people and not just say that things are black or white, this or that, that things are not just binary in nature. I hope they start asking some questions.
Bart: I know you said beyond all of these obvious things, but I sincerely hope people are going to leave out of here saying “Wow, this show looked great! The costumes were amazing, it was beautifully sung, and it was well acted.” I think Fuzz and Michael (Musical Director Michael Tan) and the whole crew are unreal in terms of making this space into looking like Argentina. I mean look at the balcony. Of course the costumes are amazing and wait until you hear the ensemble, they sound amazing. Relevance is one thing and I do think it’s important but I also think this show— like the shows you were talking about, Becca— it’s not just about relevance it’s about artistic value. It’s like not wanting to look at Rembrandt because it’s old. We all find different things in every piece of art for ourselves, but the artistic impression and the beauty you get from witnessing art is extremely important. Art matters in and of itself even if it doesn’t have a specific message.
Why should people come and see Evita at Spotlighters Theatre?
Becca: Everything Bart just said. We have the total package. We have all the elements coming together and it’s going to be dynamic.
Rob: I think this place crackles with energy. I think that you not only have a cast here that gets it and that comes on stage as a character that is more vibrant than even Andrew Lloyd Webber could have imagined, but we have been given such exceptional direction that this performance is going to be among the better of the performances that audiences are ever going to see.
Bart: I think I’m just going to reiterate what they just said and what I said before. Artistically it’s a really well done production. It’s an art to put on a show with 15 or 16 of us in this space and including a full band with a balcony.
Becca: That balcony. It matters. Especially in this space.
Bart: Just the amount of talent that Fuzz and Michael have brought in, it’s an amazing group of people. I’ve been telling everybody how amazing these two right here are. Rob, I don’t know how you pull off those high notes being a baritone, and Becca, this is off the record, but you sound way better than Elena Roger.
Becca: What? You can print that!
Bart: Everybody in this cast— the kids are adorable! And when the ensemble pulls together and sings full force? It’s just unbelievably beautiful.
Michael Tan: Can I add just one more thing that they didn’t mention?
When did you get here?
Michael: I’ve been here. Michael Tan, Musical Director. But what I wanted to add is— I can’t remember the last time Evita was done in this area. It was probably 20 years or more when Cockpit (Cockpit in Court) did it.
Becca: No, no, no. Let’s see…the last time I know of it being done in this area was…well that was probably the last time I did it, which was at Towson Dinner Theatre? But that was mid 90’s and I thought Mark had done it somewhere.
Dave Guy: That was 2002— 0r 2001— at Timonium Dinner Theatre.
Becca: Timonium Dinner Theatre! That’s right!
Fuzz: That’s Dave, he’s in the ensemble, and he’s done Evita three or is this your fourth time now?
Dave: Once every decade since Cockpit back in the 80’s.
Becca: Thank you, Dave Guy!
Michael: Thank you, Dave Guy. My point is it’s been at least 15 years since it’s been done in the area. It’s an incredibly difficult show to do. It’s very big, the music is very complex, and it’s very operatic. Everything is sung there are only three spoken lines in the entire show and that ups the musical ante tremendously. It twists together some of the most difficult musical lines from Sondheim and LaChiusa and just about all of the really good musical writers. Some of the melodic lines are well crafted but it takes real skill to perform them and because of that this show is rarely done. So when you get the opportunity you need to come see it.
Bart: Musically this is the most difficult show I’ve ever done, even more so than The Last 5 Years, and people don’t believe me when I say that. Even though my musical parts in this show are insignificant compared to the vocal work these two are doing, it’s really difficult.
Rob: I want to reiterate that I think the ensemble is fantastic. I think their blend and the way that they’ve come together, especially now that we’ve thrown the costumes into the mix, they’re really a thing to see.
Evita plays through May 15, 2016 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.