BWW Interviews: Dustin Tucker - Shades of Laughter
Here in Portland, Maine, in the last two months a young actor has been creating a sensation in two tour de force performances of two vastly different comedies. Thirty-four year-old Dustin Tucker, who now makes his home in Maine's largest city, is having what many would consider a breakout year - starring first in Morris Panych's dark theatre of the absurd, Vigil, and then reprising his hilarious turn as David Sedaris' Elf Crumpet in the Santaland Diaries, both at Portland Stage.
"It has been a remarkable season with these two back-to-back shows," he laughingly agrees. But the Texas-born actor, who is an Artistic Affiliate with the Portland Stage Company, says he does not see the two roles as similar challenges. "They are really two different kinds of humor with very different feelings. Vigil is so dark; this man has such a sad and lonely life, whereas the Elf is cynical, but it is a cynicism with which we can all identify."
The distinction is crucial not only for Tucker, but for audiences. In Panych's drama he creates the role of Kemp, a solitary, misanthropic misfit who comes to the bedside of a woman he believes to be his aunt and in the course of her long, lonely process of dying, he takes a painful journey from isolation and despair to a modicum of awakened humanity.
"Vigil was the first time Portland Stage asked me to do something on the darker side,' he says. "I do enjoy doing serious pieces, but that's not usually what I get hired for," adding modestly, "I think people associate me with comedy, and I don't mind that at all."
Nonetheless, Tucker received high critical acclaim for his risky performance as Panych's anti-hero. Asked about the challenges of playing a character as alienated and alienating as Kemp, Tucker replies," He has very few redeeming qualities, at least at first, so all I could do was to try to portray his loneliness, which is not really an excuse for his behavior. I tried to bring out those awful instances in his past which have made him the way he is. Horrible things always have a reason, so by finding the motivation for his behavior, the audience can discover some good in him." But, Tucker concedes, "You do have to wait a very longtime - almost to the end of the play - to get a glimmer of kindness and love. It's pretty exhausting all around!"
Not only are the emotional demands of the role enervating, but the technical ones are strenuous as well. In the more than two hours on stage, Tucker carries virtually all the dialogue - the old woman is essentially mute -in what can only be described as a brilliant virtuoso performance. Asked how he sustained the tension night after night, Tucker admits that "Vigil was pretty tiring, unlike Santaland Diaries which is pure fun!" He says he has learned how to conserve his voice. "I generally don't talk a whole lot or hang out with friends. I go home after the show and stay there until the next one."
Once back on stage, as he currently is with Santland Diaries, he explodes with an irresistible energy. Tucker has been doing Sedaris' (and Joe Mantello's) dramatic monologue for six seasons now, and this, he confides, is to be his last. "It's time to move on," he says quietly. Keeping a show fresh for that long is a tricky task. The actor credits director Dan Burston and stage manager Shane Van Vliet for holding him accountable. "Dan calls me on it if it sounds as if I'm starting to get bored or slip into routine."
Tucker also shares some other hints for engaging his audience in such an immediate way. " For every performance I try to know at least one person out there for whom I want to do a really good job. Of course, I want to do a really good job for everyone, but knowing someone helps me. When you have faces that close to you, you can see them, and if they are checked out, then I realize I may be checked out," he continues.
The audience is an integral part of his performance and in the variety he is able to bring to the stage each night. "I can never say I had a bad show because of the audience. I don't believe in that. It is up to me to engage them. If people start from beginning having a good time and laughing a lot, usually everyone will follow suit and let down their hair a bit." Tucker does concede, however, that some audiences are more restrained than others. "Sometimes I have a little more conservative audience who is not sure what they are getting into. They may be put off at being so close to me or a little nervous because they don't know what I am going to do." So, Tucker describes how he goes about winning them gradually.