30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS
Day 11: Leslie O’Carroll and Steve Wilson
Our two Madames in Arvada Center’s Tartuffe
Leslie O’Carroll already was having one of the best years of her life as an actor when it happened: The actor’s dream – and nightmare – all at once. She was wanted in two overlapping shows this fall: The Arvada Center’s Tartuffe and, for the 18th time, the DCPA Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol. Rehearsals for one would start before the other was scheduled to end. Usually in such bountiful circumstances, the actor is forced to choose one job over the other.
But Tartuffe director Lynne Collins came up with a titillating solution: What if O’Carroll’s husband, Steve Wilson, took over her role as the battle-axe Madame Pernelle for the final two weeks of Tartuffe when it came time for O’Carroll to return to her wildly popular annual romp as the Denver Center’s jovial Mrs. Fezziwig?
Moliere is known for grand comic twists, and they don’t come any grander than this: A husband subbing for his own wife. Tartuffe is subtitled The Imposter, after all.
Madame Pernelle is the imposing matriarch of the household that comes fully under the spell of a sanctimonious and piously fraudulent houseguest named Tartuffe. She eats up every word the smarmy hypocrite says until he is inevitably exposed as a con – and she as a dowager dupe.
But the result was casting – and comic – genius. Especially when Wilson took to the stage and uttered Madame’s immortal words: “Appearances can deceive, my son. Dear me, we cannot always judge by what we see.”
(Photos above right, from top: Leslie O’Carroll in 2016 productions of ‘Mrs. Mannerly’ with Graham Ward (photo by P. Switzer); ‘Waiting for Obama’ with Luke Sorge (photo by John Moore); and ‘A Christmas Carol’ (photo by Adams VisCom).
Wilson and O’Carroll met as masters-degree students at the Denver Center’s former National Theatre Conservatory. She has performed steadily with the DCPA Theatre Company for 25 years, along with other local companies. Wilson was the longtime award-winning artistic director for the Phamaly Theatre Company, which creates performance opportunities for actors with disabilities. He is now the big-shot Executive Artistic Director of the Mizel Arts and Cultural Center.
Wilson was fully on board to play Madame Pernelle in drag – that is, until he came home from his costume fitting. “He told me, “What have you gotten me into?” O’Carroll said with a laugh.
Wilson approached what might have been a mere gimmick with utter seriousness. He memorized his lines four months in advance. “My goal was for people to not even realize that she was being played by a guy,” Wilson said.
For castmate Sam Gregory, who played the hilarious fool Orgon, the transition from one Wilson to the other was seamless.
“I thought they were both really funny,” Gregory said. “I thought Leslie was lighter in her comic take on the character, and Steve was more strident in his – both of which worked in different and surprising ways.
“The most remarkable thing was how they both learned from each other,” Gregory said. “Steve would watch Leslie do her thing for a while, and then Leslie watched Steve do his thing – and they would critique each other in the most brutally honest terms. And consequently, they would both return even funnier performances.”
Also remarkable, he added, was how long it took Wilson to get into makeup. “That may have been a record,” Gregory joked. “Of course, he was transforming himself into my mother – which is quite an event.”
2016 was very good to O’Carroll. She starred as an imperious teacher of children’s etiquette in the Arvada Center’s nostalgic comedy Mrs. Mannerly, then joined an all-Colorado cast in New York for Waiting for Obama, which explored gun issue through the lens of a Colorado Springs family. Claire Martin of The Denver Post called O’Carroll “an immensely gifted comic actress who played Mrs. Mannerly to perfection,” while New York critic Dylan Arredondo said O’Carroll “turned out a show-stealing performance” in Waiting for Obama. Then came Tartuffe and A Christmas Carol, which runs on the DCPA’s Stage Theatre through Dec. 24.
Wilson said playing “dual-ing” Madames did not get weird back at home when he started to wear the heels in the family. They never actually even dressed up as Madame Pernelle at the same time because they essentially shared the same costume. And by all reports, no one watching was traumatized by Wilson’s turn as the overbearing grand-matriarch. Except for perhaps the couple’s teenage daughter, Wilson said with a laugh.
Wilson did take away one important lesson from the experience. “I have respect for all women,” he said. “Especially their wardrobe difficulties.”
ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
The True West Awards, now in their 16th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2016 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org
THE 2016 TRUE WEST AWARDS
Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
Day 3: After Orlando
Day 4: Michael Morgan
Day 5: Beth Beyer
Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski
Day 7: donnie l. betts
Day 8: Night of the Living Dead
Day 9: The Killer Kids of Miscast
Day 10: Jason Sherwood
Day 11: Leslie O’Carroll and Steve Wilson
Day 12: Jonathan Scott-McKean
Day 13: Jake Mendes
Day 14: Charles R. MacLeod
Day 15: Patty Yaconis
Day 16: Daniel Langhoff
Day 17: Colorado Shakespeare Festival costumers
Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
Day 19: Yolanda Ortega
Day 20: Diana Ben-Kiki
Day 21: Jeff Neuman
Day 22: Gabriella Cavallero
Day 23: Matthew Campbell
Day 24: Sharon Kay White
Day 25: John Hauser
Day 26: Lon Winston
Day 27: Jason Ducat
Day 28: Sam Gregory
Day 29: Warren Sherrill
Day 30: The Women Who Run Theatre in Boulder
Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride
Video bonus: Leslie O’Carroll performs A Christmas Carol’ … in 5 minutes
From 2013: Veteran Denver Center Theatre Company actor Leslie O’Carroll, who has appeared in 18 productions of “A Christmas Carol,” performs Charles Dickens’ classic as a solo piece … in just five minutes.