ARCHIVE: Love Letters from a Conn Artist

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By TOM CHESEK

Hard to believe it’s just been a couple of years since Marjorie Conn arrived in Asbury Park, “not knowing a soul” and convinced that “my theater career was over.”

In that brief span of time, the woman who had long served as founder and artistic driving force of the Provincetown Fringe Festival has been among the most energetic new arrivals to the salty old grande dame of Shore seaside cities.

It’s been a little over twenty years since the self-described “Conn Artist” made her stage debut in a genderbending gerrymander of classical Greek drama, alongside the legendary Ethyl Eichelberger — in a show that also featured her partner, “the late, great Katy Dierlam.” It was in Provincetown that Conn made her professional reputation — and when she was finally evicted from her home in the name of upscale progress, the Provincetown Fringe Festival relocated lock, stock and creative energy to the increasingly fascinating city of AP.

Her forte — honed to an edge through years of presenting quasi-underground guerrilla stage work in and around P’town — has been to research some often misunderstood figures in American history, and, through their own journals or correspondence, bring them to multidimensional life for audiences who’ve come to realize they’re in the presence of something special and almost secret.

Working in oddball spaces that have ranged from the Stephen Crane House to Crybaby Gallery and Mattison Park Lounge, Conn has introduced Monmouth County to her acclaimed piece on the long-term relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, as well as an eye-opening portrait of the infamous Miss Lizzie A. Borden that took an axe to everything you’ve ever assumed about the infamously accused (but indisputably acquitted) figure of Yankee legend — illuminating a person who lived a life far beyond the morbid quatrain of the familiar rhyme.

Beginning on the evening of the Super Bowl — and continuing for the following four Sundays at  Restaurant Plan B, the Cookman Avenue bistro profiled here earlier this week — Conn and a dizzyingly diverse crew of her friends will perform The Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the American couple whose conviction and execution as Soviet spies in the 1950s continues to make headlines and stir up some very polarizing debate.

For the February 1 opener, the playwright herself will perform the part of Ethel, with Asbury’s own  Lou Liberatore — a Tony-nominated (for his role in the original run of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This) stage/screen veteran who’s made himself similarly indispensable on the Shore’s arts front in recent months.

February 8 sees the pairing of comic actor/opera singer (and ArtsCAP founder) Brett Colby with Conn cohort Christine Emmert. On February 15, we get a married couple — Thom Radice as Julius and Ku’ipo Latonio-Radice as Ethel. Lorraine Stone, profiled yesterday in oRBit, takes over on February 22, with city Board of Ed vice president Gregory Brewington as Julius. The engagement wraps on March 1 with a real engaged couple, Larry Mihlon and Susan Marco, taking on the roles in what we’re at least hoping will be a worthy antidote to the inevitable productions ofLove Letters that appear every February.

Marjorie Conn and her beloved greyhounds can be found most every day catching the sunrise on the beach. Red Bank oRBit, having never seen the sunrise, opted to meet up with the artist under comforting cover of night.

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The Lou read: Tony nominated actor Lou Liberatore joins Marjorie Conn for the first of five performances of the Rosenberg letters on February 1st.

RED BANK ORBIT: So, five weeks, five different casts. It sounds interesting, but anyone who sees it and loves it will word-of-mouth it to their friends, and then their friends will wind up seeing something totally different.

MARJORIE CONN: I know — it’s going to be so different each week! But as the director of the piece, I always want to see what each of the actors bring to it — I always think back to the directors who let me ‘fly.’ I don’t like ‘constrictors.’ And I love different interpretations of the parts. In Provincetown, we did it with two women. Nobody cared.

I was just reading something new about the Rosenberg case in the paper the other day. It’s a raw wound and a polarizing story that can’t be killed. When you did this in the past, did it engender any controversy?

When we did it in 2000, our poster was defaced. Someone wrote ‘typical Communist Jews’ over the poster, and I was very upset. To me, this was almost a hate crime.

What I really appreciate about your scripts is how historically detail-intensive they are — and I’m guessing you did all that research in libraries. Were you always into historical research like that?

I’m not a history buff! I get interested in certain topics and become obsessed with them. With Lizzie, I just couldn’t stop reading up on her, researching her town, her family.

How did you get the notion of taking on the Rosenberg story?

I’m very interested in injustices, and the story of the Rosenbergs is something that’s haunted me since childhood. I’m around the age of their two sons, and I remember having this horrible fear that my parents could be taken away from me and executed.

Years later, I was thinking about a piece having to do with a time capsule — if a time capsule were to be opened in the year 3001, what would I want in there. It was all going to have to do with women, with women’s voices. That got me thinking about witches, and the concept of witch hunts, which led me to Ethel’s last letter to her sons.

Reading it brought me back to how scared I was as a kid, and I got it together right away; we did the show in the middle of our season. We did it three times in Provincetown, and whenever I do this play, I donate some of the money to theRosenberg Fund for Children, run by one of the Rosenberg sons.

Was there a specific book of letters that you based the script on, or did you have to take a bit of dramatic license and fill in a couple of gaps?

There’s a book of over 500 letters that I referred to. There was another volume in the 50s, which was highly edited. But it’s strictly from the letters — all I did was select and arrange things. I wanted a variety of emotions in there.

I’m wondering also how you settled upon Plan B as your venue, rather than the Crane House?

When I first moved here, and I didn’t know anyone, I picked up all the local papers to get a sense of what was going on — and the minute I walked into the Crane House I knew immediately that it was where I wanted to do my thing. But I love what Jeffrey’s doing here; I love that he has all these Jewish celebrations. And I thought this would be a good place for the Rosenberg piece.

Given that you don’t have anything of a stage to work with, where in the room are you going to set everybody up?

Well, Julius was incarcerated first, so at the opening he’s going to be over there (she indicates area of floor near the fireplace), in prison, and she’s on the outside. A little while later she joins him there in the prison.

Having immersed yourself in the Julius and Ethel story, surely you’ve cultivated your own opinions on the subject.

I love all my characters, I truly do — I don’t think I could perform them if I judged them. The truth about the Rosenbergs will never come out. In my heart I believe they were innocent. Now I do also kind of feel that Lizzie was innocent, but — how could it have been anyone else?

You know, I had something horrible happen to me years ago. I’m certainly against the death penalty, but I’ve often thought about revenge, about killing that person. I wrote my short play about Aileen Wuornos because I was interested in the death penalty. Then I looked up a Death Row inmate on the internet, and wrote a play with him, all about gangs. He was a really good artist, but he got really mad at me, when I found out that he’d been doing a lot of lying to me.

Later on I found out that another woman was also conducting a pen-pal relationship with this guy, and he was lying to her too. I wrote a play about that — two women having the same Death Row pen pal.

It’s quite a ride, the artist’s life is — what do you think you’d be up to if you hadn’t pursued acting and writing?

I have a Ph.D in speech pathology. I taught at Marymount for seven years, and atCW Post on Long Island. I left because they wouldn’t give me tenure. I can’t say I regret it, though if I had gotten tenure, I’d still be teaching instead of having had all these great experiences.

Anything new in the works?

I’d like to do something on Anna Hauptmann — the widow of Bruno Hauptmann, from the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case. She spent the rest of her life trying to exonerate him, to no avail. But to see the sunrise in Asbury Park — that’s my thing. All I want to do is be on the beach and watch the sunrise.

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