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one-on-one theater interviews
Mark Montgomery: Playing the Extremes

This article shared 2866 times since Wed May 7, 2003
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Jim Grimsley has been working, alongside Eric Rosen and Kyle Hall of About Face Theatre, for three years on his new play, Fascination, which tells the story of our obsession with serial killers. It's the story of Randall Bartleman, a serial killer, as seen through the gothic imagination of the same creative team that brought Chicago audiences Dream Boy and put About Face Theatre on the map in this town. The team created local workshops and readings, received a grant from the Theatre Communications Group for the development of the play, and were invited to attend the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut, all in an effort to locate the precise tenor and voice for this horrifying subject which captivates many Americans.

Mark Montgomery is no stranger to Chicago audiences. He often appears at Chicago Shakespeare (last season in As You Like It), Apple Tree Theatre (Cat On a Hot Tin Roof) and most recently at Steppenwolf (Time of Your Life) and with Remy Bumppo (Money). Mark portrays Randall Bartleman, the tormented and closeted serial killer. I play his prison bride, Holly Marie Nations, a fundamentalist Christian who is enraptured with Randall's innocence.

While on break during preview rehearsals, Mark and I talked about playing these controversial roles that point to the engrossing extremes in our society. They are the horrific individuals who seem so monstrous but somehow seduce and fascinate us to know everything we can about them and what drives them to their crimes. John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Richard Speck, Larry Eyler, and Jeffrey Dahmer are a few. Whey are we fascinated by them? And now, Randall Bartleman, a new killer for our time.

Amy Matheny: Aren't you tired?

Mark Montgomery: Yeah. I am pretty worn out.

AM: It's hard to put on any show. But what makes this show, Fascination, just so exhausting and emotionally wrenching?

MM: I think whenever you are working in emotional extremes you tend to not even notice it when you are in the midst of it. But it does take a toll on you over time. We have had a very productive rehearsal, tech and preview process, but you can tell that everyone in the cast gets worn down just by the weight (of the material) of the show.

AM: You have worked at so many theatres … and now you are playing probably one of the more unlikable characters in your vast career. You have played some villains ... but Randall Bartleman—he is a closeted gay serial killer. As an actor, aren't you supposed to like the characters you inhabit to do them justice? Do you like this guy?

MM: I don't think it is a question as to whether or not you have to like the person. You have to sympathize with them.

AM: Is that hard to do with Randall?

MM: Oddly, no. It hasn't been difficult. I feel he is dealing with so much pain and sadness, which obviously does not excuse any of the homicidal activity. (Laughing) But I think hopefully what comes across is that this is a severely damaged individual and maybe things could have gone differently for him.

AM: Did you have reservations about playing this part? Either the sexuality of it or the terrifying personality you inhabit night after night?

MM: I had very few reservations. It all happened so quickly in terms of me getting the role. It came out of nowhere. It was just really perfect timing where I wasn't sure what was next for me. I wanted something meaty and I got this call from About Face Theatre saying we have this crazy serial killer play. I was immediately excited! There has been a lot of discussion about the meaning of 'Fascination' and people's fascination with serial killers. I have not been overly fascinated or obsessed with them but people willingly admit to being fascinated with the subject.

AM: Did you do a lot of research on the famous serial killers?

MM: I did a certain amount. I needed to figure out what was behind this kind of behavior.

AM: Is Randall like any one particular killer?

MM: I would say more like aspects of many. There are elements of Jeffrey Dahmer but it would be limiting to say he is a Dahmer character or a Ted Bundy character or a John Wayne Gacy character. I think Jim (Grimsley) did an amazing job of pulling together aspects of a lot of these guys and creating one really unique individual.

AM: Do you think it is dangerous for a gay company to expose something that many extreme anti-gay individuals would (misconstrue). Such as, that all gay people are pedophiles or killers or even have proclivities to be so?

MM: I don't know. Because there have been things that we (as a cast) have discussed and debated trying to anticipate what some people's reactions to the play will be. We have had a limited response so far since we have to date only had a few preview performances. I have heard nothing negative from any audiences along those lines. I think there may be people who for their own reasons would take that sort of interpretation from the play.

AM: Well, we have all had that debate. How audiences will interpret the show. Even members of the company have said, 'why would we choose to do this play with this type of subject matter?' People in the company and cast have even come to me, since I am a Christian, and voiced concern with me playing your fundamentalist Christian prison bride. She is a crazy Christian! She is a girl who is fascinated by your character in an insane way. But, people have asked if it bothers me to play this role, as a Christian, that audiences may think I am saying something about Christians. And I never did. I was actually glad that I was cast in the role, instead of someone else who might not be able to distinguish the difference. I hope that perhaps in my hands I can show the madness and the break in reality of this girl that has nothing to do with being a Christian. But I can't control really what audiences take from the performance or character.

MM: And that is something that you and I had talked about before. It's not as simple as saying this woman is a Christian and that's why she behaves this way, or this guy is gay and that is why he behaves this way. These people are individuals and the fact (is) they are chronically screwed up. There are things that they latch onto in an unhealthy way, religious beliefs or deviant behavior or celebrity worship or whatever just to find something to fill up what's missing inside themselves.

AM: The show is really funny. When I tell people that they are like, 'What do you mean by it's funny? It's about a gay serial killer.' But it is funny! And when we look at how people are fascinated by the grotesque and enraptured by it and how they talk about it, there is a lot of nervous laughter in looking at the horrific. It's just hard to talk about these topics. Jim Grimsley has painted these extreme characters like Randall's mother (played by Patricia Kane) who is the 500-pound woman whose character is built within the couch to suggest her weight and entire body. It is extreme. But there is a lot of humor without poking fun. I think it is the humor that lies under the surface of these people and us as audience members hearing their story. The cast has laughed so much during rehearsals. Did you expect that? Not frivolous laughter but there has been a lot of levity. Why do you think that is?

MM: I don't know if that is how I expected rehearsals to be, but I certainly think it is necessary in working on something like this when you are dealing with such dark places. It's a very natural response to immediately turn around and try to make light of the situation. Well, wait. That is the wrong thing to say. But to alleviate the tension or the emotional intensity, it helps to crack a joke or have a laugh. It is a release. It keeps everyone a little saner.

AM: We have both seen and been in a lot of dramatic theatre. But I feel that this play is such a unique experience for audiences who come and see Fascination. And please (if you are reading this) come and see it! But I can't really even think of any plays that are comparable. It is not gory but it is shocking! I mean there is definitely theater in this gritty town that is shock theatre or has a lot of shock value or even gore, but Fascination is not that. It's very chilling and engrossing. That is how it is seductive. Which I believe audiences will respond to and make them more psychologically rattled than any other play that they have seen. What kind of experience do you think it is for an audience? Is there anything you can equate it with from your own experience?

MM: I agree that it is chilling and psychological. I think that is true. You asked me earlier whether I had any reservations in doing this part and this show, and like I said, I had almost none. More than anything I was incredibly excited as soon as I read this script. Because I think it is a unique piece of theatre and I think it goes in all these different directions that theatre normally doesn't take us. It's horrifying at times, which I think is amazing and incredibly difficult and sick and sad. So a lot of the (audience) laughter is nervous laughter because they are recognizing behavior.

AM: Well, we do feel exposed when we recognize ourselves and our own lives (in these characters).

MM: And recognizing that it is perhaps an extreme representation of either bad family dynamics or repression or things people do when they feel lost or scared. I think people see themselves then (in the story) and that makes them uncomfortable. That was actually my favorite reaction. Someone said after seeing a preview performance, they said 'I was laughing and was engrossed by the show but I was uncomfortable and questioning myself at the same time as to why I was responding to the show as I was.' And I think that is terrific! I can't think of a better response to hear from somebody!

AM: So when do we get some rest? Do you feel once opening night happens, you are just on this ride, this crazy, wacky, funny, terrifying ride until the end of the run June 1?

MM: I do. Once we open there is some more rest. And it's very soon. It is what it is. Fascination ... it's scary and exciting at the same time.


About Face Theatre's world premiere production of Fascination written by Jim Grimsley and directed by Eric Rosen is playing now through June 1 at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont on Thursdays- Sundays at 8 p.m.. Special 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows on Saturday, May 24 and May 31. Tickets are available at the Theatre Building Chicago box office by calling (773) 327-5252 or visit . For information, visit . Group discounts available. Valet Parking.


This article shared 2866 times since Wed May 7, 2003
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