The Rouge: L.C. Bird grad directs Steve Martin comedy

Jeff Cole perches at the bar at Sycamore Rouge, Petersburg’s cabaret-style theatre, trying to enjoy a carry-out calzone before the start of rehearsal.  

Tonight, that won’t be easy.  Besides doing a press interview, Cole has to deal with a steady parade of actors demanding his attention. They are members of the cast of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a play written by comedian, playwright and author, Steve Martin. Cole, directing his first full-scale professional production, must approve each outfit or send back notes to the costumer.

It’s all part of another long day for the L.C. Bird High School graduate who now teaches English and Theatre Arts at Richmond’s John Marshall High School.  For several years now, Cole has devoted his evenings to building a successful acting career, as well as finding time to be a devoted husband and father.

“After he so successfully played John Proctor in ‘The Crucible,’ we began discussing the other roles he wanted to play within a theatre,” said kb saine (all lower case), producing artistic director at Sycamore Rouge. “Jeff told me that he was interested in directing and producing at Sycamore Rouge. We’ve been working together ever since.”

Cole, a Chester native, earned his  Master of Fine Arts degree from VCU’s highly-regarded Department of Drama.  While a graduate instructor at VCU, he met his future wife, Sarah - a willowy beauty who shared his love for playing Shakespeare.  The young couple married, found day jobs and started auditioning. Meanwhile they produced Max and Hudson, two remarkable boys.   

In theatrical terms, Richmond is a small market.  An unusually large number of quality theatres compete for all-too-few audience members, which, for actors, means that it’s hard to make a living doing what they love. Fortunately, small theatres usually rehearse only at night and on weekends, and shows usually run between Thursday and Sunday - making it possible for actors to earn a living doing something else.  

Still, teaching high school, especially a time-intensive subject like English, is a more-than-full-time job, which makes Cole’s last three years all the more surprising. Because, in that time, Cole has become one of Richmond’s go-to leading men.

His career took off in 2009, when he won the role of Randall Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the Henley Street Theatre.  That’s the role played by Jack Nicholson in the film version, which is a famous leading role.   When the show opened in early 2010, Cole would be on his way.

But then, three months before “Cuckoo’s Nest” went into rehearsal, Cole got a call from Grant Mudge, artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare.  The New York actor slated to play “Hamlet”  had canceled, and rehearsals were about to begin.  Could Cole step in?

In ordinary circumstances, an actor will be cast as “Hamlet” as much as a year in advance.  It’s an enormous role, one which the actor will want to explore through reading, research, and conversations with older actors who have played the role.  And both he and his director will insist on discussing the role over several months, reaching a common understanding.

In Cole’s case, there wasn’t time for any of this - or for the agony of nerves which most actors experience as they confront theatre’s most daunting role.  Cole had only a few weeks to prepare.  And it was late August, with school about to open.  So he just dived in.

Suffice to say, things went well. So well, that Richmond Shakespeare restaged the show, with most of the same actors, the following summer at Agecroft Hall.  In less than a year, Cole had played “Hamlet” twice, as well as McMurphy. He was definitely on his way.

In the next two years, Cole tackled some of theatre’s most desirable roles.  For Richmond Shakespeare, he played Romeo, as well as Iago, the villain in “Othello.” At Sycamore Rouge, he played John Proctor, in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and Odysseus in “The Odyssey.”

Between shows, he looked after his boys while Sarah pursued  her own dream roles.  

But this fall, Cole moved to the other side of the footlights.  He did some directing in graduate school, and has helmed two staged readings in Richmond Shakespeare’s “Second Tuesdays” series, but “Picasso” will mark his official debut as a pro.

“I’m thrilled to have Cole on board to direct “Picasso,” saine said in an email. “He’s been working with Sycamore Rouge for a few years now, and was one of the artists who helped to establish the 24 Hour Theatre Experience! - a program he now manages for the theatre.”

Is he worried?

Not much.  “I have the privilege of working with actors I know,” Cole said.  

And Cole  is confident in his choices.  “Everyone is spot on,” he says, citing the old stage saw that a director who casts well has done 90% of his job.  

Besides, Cole likes “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Martin’s 1993 comedy.

“On the surface, this play is a Saturday Night Live sketch from back when that meant funny,” Cole said. “But it’s also a thoughtful play, in which philosophical and scientific ideas are turned on their ears.  It shines the light of absurdity on those conversations in which we try to make sense of our place in the universe. And it deals with all the things - love, lust, jealousy, greed, anger - that make up our lives.”

The play is set in 1904 in a Paris bar, the Lapin Agile, on a night when Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso meet.  Each young genius is on the verge of a breakthrough: Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, Picasso’s revolutionary and controversial painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”    They debate the relative importance of talent and genius with each other and with other customers, including an aspiring entrepreneur and an aging rogue who thinks mainly about sex - and his swollen prostate.

Steve Martin is a clever writer, a wordsmith whose work is perhaps best known through his script for the movie “Roxanne.”  For Cole, the challenge of bringing Martin’s text to life has been largely met by casting veteran Shakespearean actors.

Actors familiar with Shakespeare share a sort of “shorthand,” Cole says, which saves a lot of time.

“Shakespeare isn’t just a great playwright,” Cole said. “Playing Shakespeare is a great  educational tool. He’s the master of training actors how to speak lines.”

“‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’ is the first main stage theatre production Cole has directed for Sycamore Rouge,” saine said. “It’s gone so well, I’m sure you’ll be seeing his name as an actor, producer, and director at Sycamore Rouge for many years to come.”

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” will run from December 3 - 23.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 957-5707. Sycamore Rouge is located at 21 W. Old Street in Petersburg.

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