For promotional purposes, most actors in the theater are asked to speak about their work before they’ve had a chance to play the roles onstage. With Brooklyn-born Marisa Tomei, who plays George in How To Transcend a Happy Marriage, I deliberately waited until the end of the engagement – the final performance is Sunday – to speak with her about the experience of portraying George, who on the Dramatis Personae page of Sarah Ruhl’s script is described, briefly, as “in her late forties or so. Searching.”
Brendan Lemon: Has your conception of George changed throughout the run?
Marisa Tomei: I don’t have much thought of who a character is until something comes to me as we’re going through the process. George has a line where she says, “I’m not a Pilgrim or a Puritan. So I think I want to give up and work with abandoned dogs.” I think she IS a pilgrim. She’s on a path, and it’s not something she recognizes as an accepted path, like being a Catholic or a Buddhist. She is a mother, and she is also a deeply spiritually hungry person. Where the dharma of that and the yearning of that intersect is where her journey unfolds.
BL: What is the spark for this particular moment in her journey?
MT: You can look at it through many angles. Her question to the universe brought forth this happenstance – a huntress comes to be known to George’s best friend and is invited over for a party. Likewise, there was a collective call outward from a group of four people, who are best friends. Or you could say that the spark is when George meets Pip – the huntress -- at the dinner party.
BL: George is a Latin teacher. That’s not a very common profession in our day and age. Someone who’s doing that job is probably interested in old stories and in mythological stories.
MT: Her perspective on the world is informed by her profession, and where she’s chosen to put her time. Knowing the roots of words – knowing the essence of how a word came to be formed – is something that she’s interested in. She also has a certain romanticism about another time, as well as the ability to think in metaphor. And she also has an interest in changeability – from beast to human form, or in the way that women in our culture are supposed to be changeable by the moment. That’s the arena she travels in.
BL: The play raises the issue of how women, after engaging in the primal, animal-like act of giving birth, are expected to tamp down their animal natures once they become mothers.
MT: That expectation is heightened in our culture. It’s a very old story, explored in the play. The woman as Madonna or whore, not both. This split is a loss not just to George personally. She can see that it’s also a loss to the culture. Without that contribution of women’s perspective, of women’s knowing – letting all parts of ourselves be part of a conversation – then the whole culture suffers. When George talks about passing things down through the ages, I sometimes have had these images of Russian dolls inside each other, and I see wombs inside wombs inside wombs, passing down knowledge. Another thing about the animal aspect of the play: it’s about deep desire, about erotic desire. And the power in that, and the fear of that. It’s easy to call it simply an animal side. But there’s this fierce deep sexual and erotic power that’s been cut off in the culture, particularly from women.
BL: I have a four-year-old niece who recently asked me if she could mate with her male cat. She’s already thinking of herself as an animal and wondering why she can’t have a mythic experience with her feline.
MT: She’s learning about the love and honoring of animals and animal spirits. How much they give us. In the play, the human-animal bond also involves vegetarianism and what it means to eat meat. Those are things that Sarah talks about in her plays.
BL: Sarah always has something in her plays that opens my eyes in an unexpected direction. She’s very aware of metaphor without wanting to drain its magic with over-analysis.
MT: She has the idea of thinking and acting in a deep bodily sense rather than in a deep subtext in which you’re saying one thing but you mean something else. While still having a character with history and relationships. The metaphors that Sarah presents are everyday metaphors – you can live your life seeing them, if you want to have the eyes to see them. And you can see them in our mundane life, not just in a theatrical, sacred space.
BL: How has performing the play affected you in general?
MT: For me, performing this play is very healing. There’s an esoteric nature that comes to life. There’s been a real energetic exchange between the audience and the players. Sarah puts “transcend” in the title. I always joke with her that she has the cojones to do such a thing. But I feel like she delivers on it, and that comes from knowing her craft so well. It’s shamanistic. All theater is, but there’s something particularly shamanistic with Sarah’s work. It has to do with the way she crafts it.
BL: Have their been any performances of this play in which you’ve felt viscerally this sense of shamanism or magic?
MT: I had a couple of shows, a few weeks ago, in which I was convinced she wrote the play in some kind of ascending order of chakras. I could sense my character not in linear fashion but just as sensations flooding in. At the end of these performances, I had the sense that we’re all living in the mystery all the time and that there’s a presence behind the veil. That may sound vague but that’s how I experienced it. The experience happened to me a few shows in a row. I asked Sarah about it and she did not say she did it purposely.
BL: Have you had similar experiences when performing any other plays?
MT: I always forget these things as soon as they happen. That I had the experiences has to do with where Sarah is right now – what she’s evoking and conjuring. And where I am.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.