The first stage on which actor JJ Phillips stood and spoke Shakespeare’s timeless prose was the Cabot Theater. Born and raised in Milwaukee, the young thespian's love of acting was born from early First Stage classes, where he eventually ended up performing a monologue from "King Lear" to a crowd of eager parents.
About two decades later, Phillips is returning to his hometown and to the exact stage where that memory took place – except more barely clothed bro than Bard this time around, playing a studly wannabe actor who at one point performs something Phillips calls "a reverse striptease."
"That in and of itself is really thrilling to me, to be able to come back and do this show and certainly show a very different side of myself – both literally and figuratively," the actor joked.
The bare-fleshed boy-toy in question is the Spike in the title of Christopher Durang’s "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," a Chekhov-soaked comedy about two middle-aged siblings living together in happy solitude – a happy solitude that gets suddenly upended by the arrival of their movie-star sister (a role somewhat inspired and originally performed by Sigourney Weaver), with her dim-witted beefcake Spike in tow.
The 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play has become a popular piece around the country since its successful run on Broadway, finally making its way to Milwaukee with a two-week run at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre beginning Thursday night.
Obviously any show that comes away with a Tony Award would spark some interest for an actor, but for Phillips – who now works out of Chicago – it was more than just the award-winning pedigree that drew him to "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."
"It was one of those shows that immediately hit me on the page," Phillips recalled. "Specifically what drew me to it is (Durang’s) innate ability to tell a very honest, very human story and then completely undercutting that with this really brilliant, almost absurdist off-the-wall humor. The title alone: It’s three very Russian, Chekhovian names … and then he chose to name my character Spike, as sort of a kind of fun undercutting of these three more classical, dramatic figures."
Spike’s not an unusual brand of character for Phillips to take on, as the actor’s resume thus far is riddled with "stereotypical charming young men who, at their core, might not be the brightest or the kindest or the most sincere." But while it’d be easy to look down on the characters and perform down to the well-worn clichés of these parts, Phillips has found himself drawn to these individuals and finding what makes them tick and what makes them unique.
"I’m not that person, but I definitely knew that guy growing up, so typically I like to approach it from the side so that I almost undercut the archetype as much as possible and bring out a little more of the humility and the humanity of those roles," Phillips said.
In fact, while watching the recent breakout Netflix hit "Stranger Things," he found himself gravitating toward Steve, the boyfriend character who, on the page, seems like the show’s biggest cliché.
"What I loved about watching his performance was so much of that show is based or steeped in stereotypes and archetypes and honoring the ’80s, and yet I think he did this really incredible thing where, whether you were aware of it or not, he was making a concerted effort into making this guy more than just the pretty boy, high-school assh*le," Phillips explained.
"That was really exciting to me, because I could see it watching the show and tracking that through-line, and it made me excited as an actor who’s often cast in those roles – Spike included – feeling the same way, that just because you are cast in a role that, on the outside, is judged as being one thing doesn’t mean that, as you embody that, it can’t be something else."
In the case of Spike, Phillips has worked in rehearsals on bringing out that humanity – that a lot of his actions are "coming from a place of kindness rather than a place of manipulation," he notes – in a dim, spontaneous character who spends large portions of stage time bouncing around in just his skivvies. Thankfully, according to Phillips, at the time of our interview, they hadn’t reached the point in rehearsals where he had to get down to his bare acting talents, but he hopes, thanks to all the character work that’s gone into prior, the laughs and emotional release will hit even harder as a result.
"It’s so easy to fall into the trap of this writing, to play it strictly for the laugh and to play into the stereotypes and the archetypes," Phillips explained. "There’s truth in comedy more so than anything else, and you shouldn’t be playing it for the laughs; you should play the honesty of the moment, and the laughs are hopefully a great byproduct of that."
For Phillips, not only is there some real honesty buried underneath the barely clothed antics and laughs, but there’s also some thoughtful material on growing old and, most pressing for a young stage actor like Phillips, the shrinking role of the American theater.
Near the end of the show, Vanya talks about how theater is no longer a part of the national consciousness, and while "Hamilton" helped kickstart some energy and excitement into Broadway, Phillips admitted that, even as a theater junkie who watches the Tonys and goes to New York regularly, he struggles to name the past three Best Musical Tony winners.
"There’s this loss of theater and live performance as a vital part of storytelling and collective consciousness, a group of people sitting down together in a dark theater who are strangers that are taking in the same shared experience," he said. "It’s very different from even seeing a movie in theaters. I think Netflix is wonderful in how it’s changed television … however, it’s also not a very unifying experience in that it’s typically just you sitting and binge-watching something.
"As silly as it’s become, Pokemon Go ... Everyone’s talking about how it’s wonderful that people are having this shared experience of catching these Pokemon together, but I just can’t see it or get behind it because all I see are people with their faces glued to their phones."
He continued, "I think (theater) is the most vital and the most important, so I think there will hopefully always be an audience for it. But it’s becoming a little more and more difficult to find an audience for it just because our generation didn’t grow up with it nearly as much, and I think the younger generation – the teenagers now – are really not growing up with it. So how do you find that audience and what do you do and how do you write to it?"
Phillips believes "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" does have something that speaks to audiences old and young – a statement the show’s awards-show triumphs and popular production successes nationwide would seem to back up. It would seem the script’s combination of kooky costume party and half-clothed craziness, along with thoughtful reflection, has made a connection.
It’s not surprising for Phillips, as he sees Durang’s script as the "most accessible" he’s made – not difficult considering the writer’s history of anarchic, bizarre-on-stage absurdity.
"It is universal, but there’s also an element to it that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in this kind of domestic comedy before," Phillips said. "It’s (Durang) taking all the things he learned over the decades of his more subversive comedy and saying, ‘What if I made a mainstream play but still brought that fun, little bit of a wink to the audience?’ There’s going to be some classical elements – and also there’s going to be a guy running around in his underwear for half the play."
And as that guy sprinting in his skivvies, Phillips has come a long way since simply performing a bit of "King Lear" for his parents.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.