BWW Interviews: Ezra Barnes, Master of Challenges
There are two types of people in this world. Those who run from challenges, and those who run with them. Meet Ezra Barnes, who never met a challenge he didn't like.
Ezra will play psychiatrist Andrew Peric in Fraser Grace's Breakfast with Mugabe and Gustav Mahler in Otho Eskin's Final Analysis, showing alternately from August 7th through October 6th at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center.
BWW: How did you manage to get yourself cast in two shows during the same time at the same theatre?
EB: What happened was that I first came to Breakfast With Mugabe, when I performed in its first U.S. staging at The Quantum in Pittsburgh. I said to the author Fraser Grace, who was on his first visit to the U.S., "We should do this play in New York. It's sensational." Eventually I put together another production - a different one from the one in Pittsburgh. It was at the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Again Frasier went to see it. He loved it. I said, "Now that we've done this production, I want this to be the basis for a production Off-Broadway."
I was cast in this play, Final Analysis, playing Mahler at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. The director, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, was looking for a place to do that play in New York. Producing theatre in New York is almost impossible to do, in a way that is [satisfying] for everyone. Ludovica and I were in the same boat, looking for a way to get our plays seen. Rather than doing Breakfast with Mugabe for 20 performances in a little theatre and Final Analysis doing an Off-Broadway run on its own, I proposed that we share the rent on a larger space, 50/50, running the plays on alternate days. That way we could extend the run to nine weeks. It takes time to build an audience. This gives you a chance to get the critics in and get people to talk about it. Actors' Equity helped us out. It sounded like a good idea, and all of a sudden, I'm going to be acting in two OB premieres at the same time.
BWW: Both plays take place during historically important times and with real life people who have made changes in history. Both were times of great promise. Turn of the century Vienna offered an amazing convergence of music, art, science and politics, but it was also a petri dish of anti-Semitism. While living in Vienna, Theodore Herzl was starting to establish a Jewish state to avoid the growing hatred towards the Jews. Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, was thriving, but the promise of what it could have become was destroyed as the oppressed became an oppressor. How do you manage to keep the parts straight?
EB: I had acted in Breakfast with Mugabe in two other productions and in Final Analysis in another production. I wasn't going into something totally new. I'm very familiar with these plays. [That said], each production marinated to yield different insights.
I come from a musical family. I play classical piano. My mother plays classical violin. But I didn't know anything about Mahler. I was surprised I look something like him. I started to listen to his music, how he had taken Schumann and other composers, making [the music] more expressive, more emotional. Mahler's music is very, very rich in emotion. That's how I approached the first production of Final Analysis. Then during the break, preparing for the second production, I read a biography of Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer. I learned why this driven man was the way he was. He had a lot of weight, had a lot of pressure to support his siblings, to be a success. Yet he carved out time to be a conductor (his profession) and composer (his love). He entered into a very troubled marriage with Alma, 20 years his junior. They did not understand each other on many levels. She didn't understand his music...he didn't understand why she didn't want to be his caretaker.
I really knew nothing about Zimbabwe. I started reading books about the country. I read a fascinating memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. Peter Godwin describes how that country has been ravaged.... In his desire to hold onto power, Mugabe felt he could not accept co-ownership of the country between blacks and whites. He used them [whites] as a scapegoat. I was fascinated by the dynamics in that play - a white psychiatrist who is a native Zimbabwean and is called in to treat the president of the country whom he knows to be a dangerous man.
Tickets for Breakfast With Mugabe and Final Analysis are available through Ticket Central (www.ticketcentral.com), by calling 212-279-4200, or at the box office of The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 416 West 42nd Street. For more about Ezra Barnes, visit his website, www.ezrabarnes.com.