“I kind of do forget that almost every line I have is about … poop,” says Nicole Wiesner. By the time she got up onstage as Marie in Trap Door’s “First Ladies,” she says, the dialogue about turds and toilet habits “had become natural” to her and fellow actors Beata Pilch and Dado.
It’s not likely to feel natural to audiences. But Austrian playwright Werner Schwab goes far beyond the potty-mouthed to show the dynamics of power when armored individual realities butt up against each other (so to speak). These actors nail those realities. And though Schwab’s 1990 play is somewhat autobiographical—he’s the unseen alcoholic son raised by hyper-religious single mom Erna—it doesn’t come across as angry. “I think he finds love, sympathy, for these women,” Wiesner says.
Oh, and the production’s very funny.
Wiesner describes her character, Marie, as definitely slow: Think German female Lennie. “One thing I was really scared of,” Wiesner says, “was making her a caricature rather than a real person. In the late rehearsals I kept asking the director [TUTA's Zelijko Djukic], ‘She doesn’t seem too retarded, does she?’ In the script she’s described as rocking rhythmically back and forth, which I don’t do but I took that as a cue when developing her.”
“I had to grow my hair everywhere,” says Wiesner, who wears a shift, heavy boots, and little else. It’s not a role designed to make the actor feel glamorous, yet Marie has her own charisma, especially in Wiesner’s hands. “She speaks truth. She’s like the fool character or the village idiot who seems so slow, but she really has a better understanding than anyone else of what’s going on. She tells the truth no matter what the cost.”
This is a very Catholic play (an effect enhanced by Ewelina Dobiesz’s meticulously detailed set). Cincinnati native Wiesner, 32, grew up in a nonreligious household, so she had to do some research. “I started by looking at a lot of religious ceremonies on YouTube, kind of seeing the connections between the Catholic rituals and the fact that Marie is a cleaning woman with the specialty of unblocking toilets. People explained to me how a rosary would be held and how you go from bead to bead. For me, that became an obsession with the hands.”
“The director, who’s amazing, said to me that there’s so much going on inside Marie that she can’t show. So I started concentrating on that energy being in my body but not being allowed to let it out. The gestures and movements became stilted and cut short. And then what are the moments like when she loses control?” Djukic also advised her that, though “Nicole the actor wants to make sense of the language for the audience, Marie wouldn’t make that much sense—it just comes out of her.”
“I went Equity four years ago,” says Wiesner. “And it was a wonderful time in my life, a lot of great projects, working at the Goodman and Steppenwolf.” But she missed Trap Door, where she’d started just out of Columbia College, in 1999. “I was such a tomboy in those days that [artistic director] Beata never remembered me—she always thought I was a boy, I wore baggy pants and always a hat pulled down and short hair.”
Wiesner recently quit Equity to go back to Trap Door. “This is my home,” she says. “Here I have the opportunity to be an artist, to direct, to help pick the plays, and I have a voice. I’d never be able to play this part at Steppenwolf.”