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One woman, many roles

ANNA BLOOM, Of the Record staff

"What does it mean that there are fewer and fewer actors and finally one? What does it say about the way we understand other people – the way we understand ourselves?" muses Park City actress Dee Macaluso as Polly Parchment in "Billion Dollar Baby."

In the play, Polly, a theater critic, is attempting to write about the trend toward more one-person plays, but is continually bombarded by life, and especially her son, Arden. He calls to speak to her about his all-consuming worries about his four-year-old daughter, Bernie. Arden’s life seems to revolve around decisions such as putting a helmet on Bernie at bedtime to protect the shape of her head or the details of her fourth birthday party, inspired by New York City’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He never calls Polly about anything else.

Polly classifies herself as a Rolling Stones-loving atheist and libertine. Her feelings on parenting, therefore, contrast greatly with those of her son and her daughter-in-law, whom she dubs "Queen Doreen." As a birthday present, for instance, Polly takes Bernie to "Fabulosity," a play written by gay teens. The gift, of course, does not go over well with the parents. "I do not fit in the family," Polly reflects.

The one-hour, 30-minute play is thus driven by Polly’s reenactments of the smothering attention and antics that revolve around her granddaughter for which Macaluso must instantaneously morph from one moment to the next, to keep up with the tempo of a conversation. In one instant, she plays her sober son; then she’s become Doreen; next she is the whiny, adorable four-year-old Bernie; then she’s become Polly’s boyfriend, Mark. Macaluso also plays a young, ambitious police officer and Doreen’s high-minded, Southern mother.

Macaluso must don these hats herself because she is the only actor to inhabit Salt Lake Acting Co.’s stage in "Billion Dollar Baby." It is a one-woman play.

In an interview with The Park Record, Macaluso explains that Polly’s recognition of the growing number of one-person shows taps into the current zeitgeist.

"I think the one-person play is very much a trend that may have started with ‘I Am My Own Wife,’ which won a Pulitzer," Macaluso says. "I also think it’s because theaters are in a crunch and they can’t have a cast of 12."

Macaluso, founder of Park City’s Off the Top Comedy Troupe, attributes her ability to maintain focus and energy on stage in "Billion Dollar Baby" to her experience in improv and stand-up comedy.

From 1984 to 1994 Macaluso toured as a stand-up comedienne. She got her start at the Comedy Workshop and the Comedy Annex in Houston Texas, which produced the comedians Bill Hicks, Brett Butler and Janeane Garofalo. To this day, Macaluso says stand-up was one of the biggest challenges she’s faced as a performer. "It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done I would get sick before I went on stage," she remembers. "It’s just you and your material and it’s not like a singer who gets up and sings a song. You’re asking for a visceral, spontaneous response from people when you do comedy and you either get it or not. It’s just so risky to go and put yourself out there."

Macaluso has since become an actress, winning stage roles as Dolly Levi in "Hello Dolly," Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls," and parts in television and film and radio commercials. At the Salt Lake Acting Co., Macaluso has been a part of the annual "Saturday’s Voyeur," "Ice Glen" and "The Memory of Water."

She has also performed the one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life" by Lily Tomlin, which demands an actress become more than 25 characters – an experience informed her performance in "Billion Dollar Baby," she says, and one that helped her develop her own method.

"In my head, inside of me, I think that’s what I look like on the outside when I’m performing all these parts – I visualize Arden, I know what he looks like. I visualize my boyfriend, Mark," she explains. "I’m not me trying to be them, but I become these people when I can see a picture of them in my head It’s weird. I’m probably psychotic."

For Julie Jensen, the writer behind "Billion Dollar Baby," the concept of the solo-show is something new. Since 1991, Jensen, a resident Salt Lake playwright for the company, has written and premiered five other plays at the Salt Lake Acting Company, but never for one actor only.

She says Macaluso, a writer in her own right, helped her tweak the words and maintained what Jensen admires as a fierce focus, with very little self-pitying.

"The thing that’s really hard about ‘Billion Dollar Baby,’ is that if you flub something or your mind veers there’s no one else that’s going to help you or keep you honest," Jensen says. "If Dee flubs something, she has to save herself. That kind of focus for that long in front of people — it’s just uncalculated how hard it is."

The architecture of the play does give Macaluso three breaks – times when Polly needs to leave her apartment for appointments and visits with her granddaughter. Once Polly exits the stage, the lights dim for an absurd product placement ad about a new kid product. Behind a scrim that serves as the backdrop to Polly’s apartment sits a monstrous heap of car seats and cribs. During the commercial breaks, a spotlight highlights products like "The Surround-a-Round," a fence that serves as "a barricade between you and your child."

"Virtually all of my friends have kids like this — hyper-parent kids," reflects Jensen on her play’s theme. "It’s all over the place once you open your eyes to it There was a big article in the New York Times about kids sleeping with their parents in bed. The parents can’t get rid of them, so they end up sleeping in their kids’ room."

Jensen finds the root of the over-protective parent movement to be pervasive and one that is related to the shock of 9/11.

"We’re trying to buy security in some ways, but I also think it’s related to a pendulum effect — each generation does it a little bit differently," she says. "My generation’s kids were raised with Dr. Spock, which was a sort of a ‘Let ’em be’ way of parenting This generation thinks, oh my God, no, I don’t want that.’ Maybe they felt they didn’t get enough attention as kids or something and so they want to make sure their kids get enough. I think we haven’t looked at, we haven’t thought about it seriously, and I think we need to. I think it’s time we’ve decided we shouldn’t indulge as much as we might want to."

‘Billion Dollar Baby’

Who: playwright Julie Jensen, director Jere Hodgin, starring Dee Macaluso

When: On Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and on Sundays at 2 p.m. and at 7 p.m. Performances will run through Dec. 2.

Where: 168 W 500 N, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Price: $28 for adults.

Contact: (801) 363-7522.

Web site: saltlakeactingcompany.org.


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