By Colin Dabkowski / NEWS ARTS CRITIC
The moment does not come often. But when it does, it is transcendent ?and indelible, like a dream that sticks with you long after you have risen from ?bed. ¶ In perhaps one out of 10 theater productions, after the chatter of the audience dies ?down and the stage lights go up, there comes a point when an actor so fully inhabits his or her character that those watching cease to sense their surroundings. ¶ By virtue of years of training, months of rehearsal and that inexplicable phenomenon of stage presence, these actors hold our imaginations hostage. Once their hooks are in, they can transport us anywhere they please - to the ends of the earth, or to a seat at a fictional kitchen table. ¶ This "Being John Malkovich" moment - when the physical theater seems to disintegrate and all that remains is the circumscribed universe of the play - is what theater is all about. It is the product of an exceedingly ?rare set of circumstances, one of which is an actor at the very zenith of his or her craft.
It is why those who have experienced this feeling ?return to the theater again and again.
Buffalo, which boasts some 20 active theater companies and a deep roster of acting talent, is fortunate to have several actors able to achieve that moment.
These men and women could appear on stages anywhere in the world, but have eschewed the bright lights of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago to ply their trade in this city's vibrant and diverse theater scene.
Here we spotlight seven of Western New York's most gifted actors, merely skimming the surface of the local talent pool. We selected actors who would appear in at least one production this season, from boisterous musical comedies to penetrating family psychodramas. Their work is consistently of the kind that takes us to places far beyond our imaginations.
Verneice Turner, 55
Appearing in "From the Mississippi Delta," through Oct. 7 at Road Less Traveled Theater
When Verneice Turner was starting out in theater in the early 1970s, she learned an important lesson from her mentors at the African American Cultural Center on Masten Avenue.?"They knew that they had to have excellence when they performed in order to be taken seriously. They didn't want to come off as half-baked," she said. "When you grow up, you gotta be twice as good to get half the acknowledgement."
Turner's polite demeanor, nurtured in a youth split between the church and the theater, prevented her from being more blunt. What she meant was: when you grow up black.
In 1967, 10-year-old Verneice saw a performance of African dance at Kleinhans Music Hall. Sitting in the audience with her grandmother, she was entranced by the energy of the performers and the way they carried themselves. Before long, she was learning dance herself, under the center's Glennys Green. And she studied theater with June L. Suanders Duell, with whom she is now appearing in Road Less Traveled Theatre's production of Endesha Ida Mae Holland's 1987 play "From the Mississippi Delta."
She had her first speaking ?role in the play "Night Class at Harlem Youth," about New York ?City street life.
"I was prepared, but I still was scared crapless," Turner recalled. "I still am, OK? Whenever I do anything, I'm nervous as heck."
That applied to her sensitive portrayal of Calpurnia in "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 2008, the final Studio Arena Theatre production. It applied to her turn in Michael Fanelli's absurdist play "Greenspan and the Trilobytes" last year at Subversive Theatre.
And it applies especially to her latest role, as one of three women portraying the late Holland, a poor black woman from the deep South who wound her way through the civil rights movement, into the halls of academia and beyond.
Turner traveled with the original Ujima production of the show to New York City, where she performed it off-Broadway with Duell and Latanya Richardson Jackson. That experience, she said, helped her to realize that her situation in Western New York is ideal. She lives in Sanborn, has held a longtime job as a mechanical draftsman at Praxair and appears onstage when the right opportunity arises. In 2009, she started Buffalo East, a performance space on Main Street that hosts acting workshops, poetry readings and theater productions.
"It's been one heck of a journey for a kid who grew up on Glenwood and Michigan and used to walk up to the armory to get surplus cheese," Turner said. "Theater has given me the gift, the means, the tools to go out into the world."
Brian Mysliwy, 39
Appearing in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," through ?Oct. 7 at Kavinoky Theatre and "American Buffalo," April 25 to May 19, 2013, at Irish Classical Theatre Company
Out of all the memorable performances to emerge from the past theater season, one seems destined to reverberate in the minds of local theatergoers for years to come.
Brian Mysliwy's portrayal of the insufferable Valere ?(a kind of 17th century French version of Chris Farley) in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of "La Bete" last fall was a bravura exhibition of buffoonery the likes of which the Andrews Theatre stage is not likely to see again for some time.
For Mysliwy, a 1996 Niagara University graduate who returned to Western New York in 2004 after a four-year stint in New York City and another few years in his native Massachusetts, the performance ranks as one of the most successful turns in a career that has had no shortage of them.
"Out of the entire run, we never had a bad show. There were absolutely moments where it kind of grew wings and lifted itself off and flew away," he said. "It was unbelievably joyous to do."
You might say Mysliwy is in the joy business. He works as a toy designer at Fisher Price in East Aurora, a career that intersects directly with his theater work, he said.
"I love that collaborative process, of working with people of all different skills and talents and seeing how they blend together to tell a story," he said. "It feels great to be part of that team ... to be able to push this thing into existence."
Among his many influences, Mysliwy places Jerry Lewis and John Cleese at the top. He first appeared onstage in fifth grade at his Catholic school, performing Bill Cosby's famous "Noah" routine. It went over big, and he's been on a tear ever since.
Locally, he's earned big praise for his performances in "The Servant of Two Masters" at the Irish in 2008, for a staged reading of "Speed the Plow" with Alec Baldwin in 2009, and many others. Right now, he's playing the role of master of ceremonies in the Kavinoky Theatre's production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Later in the season, he'll bring his dramatic chops to the character of Teach in David Mamet's profanity-laden play "American Buffalo," also at the Kavinoky.
For Mysliwy, although performing a role like Valere night after night has its own joys, the best part of the process comes with the very first read of the script.
"Everybody's there, everybody's excited. There are no expectations, and everything is unknown," he said. "Everyone is diving in at the same place. The excitement ?of it - 'OK, page one: Here we go!' "
Victoria Perez, 33
Appearing in "And the World Goes 'Round," ?Thursday to Oct. 2 at O'Connell and Company, ?and "The Clean House," April 19 to May 12, 2013, ?at Road Less Traveled Theater
Victoria Perez was born into a ?family of performers.?Not long after her family moved to Buffalo from its native Puerto Rico when she was 9, Perez was playing and singing ?in salsa bands all over town with her three ?uncles and eight aunts.
"I was gigging almost every weekend as a 14-year-old," she recalled. She didn't have much time or concern for school, preferring the education she was getting in Buffalo clubs like Crawdaddy's and the Squeeze and with summer music festivals across the region.
But then she tried out for the St. Joseph's swing choir, which accepted Perez and two of her cousins as the first Latina members in its history. After that, the pursuit of theater became her life's dream, taking her on two long sojourns to New York City and finally back to the familiar territory of Western New York, where she has been seen on many local stages since 2006.
"My first experience of feeling love was with theater. And it's like a drug. You want to keep feeling that. You want to keep making a difference in people's lives by making them feel something," Perez said. "There's no other profession that can do that."
Perez's rise on the Buffalo theater scene has been quick. Like many gifted local actors, she got her start at Alleyway (in its annual production of "A Christmas Carol") and appeared there in 2008 in a well-received production of the one-woman show "No Child." Perez turned in an edge-of-your seat performance in Subversive Theatre's 2009 production of "Twilight." That caught the eye of the Road Less Traveled Theatre's Jon Elston and Scott Behrend, who later cast her as Mother Teresa in its acclaimed production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" last year and in the lead role of Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" later this season.
As a graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, Perez's true love is musical theater. But because of her body type and her accent, she said, she's had difficulty getting cast in many musical theater roles. (An exception is her appearance in the Kander and Ebb revue "And the World Goes 'Round" opening at O'Connell and Company this week.)
In terms of musicals she would be a shoo-in for, Perez said, "I could say 'West Side Story' or I could say 'In the Heights.' And a lot of people aren't willing to think outside the box. But in theater, you can cast me in anything."
And they do.
Kristen Tripp Kelley, 38
Appearing in "Other Desert Cities," Nov. 23 through Dec. 16 and "August: Osage County," ?April 26 to May 19, 2013, both at Kavinoky Theatre
Many of the best actors who tread the boards at Buffalo's theaters have made a go of it in New York City, the theater capital of planet Earth. They arrived in Western New York by way of family, or finances, and stayed because they found here that a comfortable life and a seemingly endless supply of creative opportunities can actually coexist.
But for Kristen Tripp Kelley, a highly disciplined actor who grew up in Amherst and studied acting at the University at Buffalo and Purdue University, New York was never in the cards.
"My goal was never to be famous," she said. "My goal was always just to make sure I was doing theater somewhere. And I wanted to spend more of my time working than trying to get work."
To make a vast understatement, that approach has worked out well for her.
Tripp Kelley has held a full-time job as a theater teacher at Nichols School for the past 14 years. In that same time, she has appeared in an increasing number of leading roles at Buffalo's major theaters. This past season, she earned plaudits for her performances in Torn Space Theater's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" and Kavinoky Theatre's "Time Stands Still," in which she played a war photographer struggling to readjust to the rhythms of normal life.
Tripp Kelley is the sort of actor who can take audiences great distances by the slightest gesture or pensive expression. She matches that expressive skill with an understanding of her character that comes from deep research and even the occasional sleepless night. For her, it's just part of the work. And the reward? More work.
She has pivotal roles in two of the coming season's highest-profile plays, both family dramas: "Other Desert Cities" and "August: Osage County," both at the Kavinoky Theatre. Though when she was just getting started, she tended to get cast in "repressed ingenue" roles, Tripp Kelley said, she recently entered a new and more satisfying phase of her career.
"I'm very excited about the kind of roles I'm getting cast in right now," she said. "Women who can't be figured out at first glance, women who have a lot going on internally, who are also brave enough to say what they're thinking out loud. At first I played a lot of women that would just sit on their thoughts. Now I'm playing the women that actually drive the discussion and serve as a catalyst to the play."
Tim Newell, 47
Appearing in "33 Variations," Oct. 21 to Sept. 2 ?at MusicalFare Theatre; "Mister Benny," Feb. 7 ?to March 3, 2013, at Jewish Repertory Theatre ?of Western New York; and "Hamlet," summer ?2013 at Shakespeare in Delaware Park
Sometime in the late-'80s, Tim Newell sat outside a New York City rehearsal space with a group of other aspiring actors hoping to land a bit part in an off-Broadway production. He waited. And waited. And when he finally gathered up the courage to ask what was taking so long, he was told that the director hadn't bothered to show up.
"It was a classic cattle-call scenario. A room full of hopeful people all sitting there feverishly learning their lines for this audition, and me sitting there. And every time the door opened, heads would snap to see who was coming in next," he recalled. "I felt this tension in the room, and I just felt like, then and there, I didn't want to be a part of it."
That was the last time Newell had anything to do with theater. That is, until he moved to Buffalo in the mid-1990s. The Westfield native now ranks as one of Western New York's most active, popular and in-demand actors, a transformation he credits to the inordinate encouragement and generosity of Buffalo's cattle call-free theater scene.
Newell is known best for his comic roles (he reprises a popular turn as Jack Benny in the Jewish Repertory Theatre's production of "Mister Benny" early next year) and an unmatched penchant for classic dramatic villains. His devious portrayal of Iago in Shakespeare in Delaware Park's 2009 "Othello" is well-remembered, and earned him a spot in the title role of this summer's bloody "Richard III" - which he played with a kind of terrifying glee.
"I like playing villains," Newell said. But because of his need to deeply explore the motives of his characters, the level of difficulty ranges widely: "Richard was like slipping into a very comfortable shoe, but Iago was a real struggle."
"Within me, there is that dark and edgy and snide and cynical that I think definitely helps fuel the evil characters I play," he said. "But I think of late, the past several years, I'm not just the villain anymore."
Case in point: Newell's recent performance in the Chicago-based Shattered Globe Theatre's production of "Her Shattered Skin," in which he played a serious British lawyer - to enthusiastic reviews. Then there's "33 Variations," coming up at MusicalFare, in which he plays Beethoven's caretaker Anton Schindler.
And finally, "Hamlet," which may turn out to be Newell's farewell performance. He is planning to move to Chicago. Surprising as it may seem, Newell said, that city is in desperate need of versatile actors in their 40s - actors as comfortable in Jack Benny's shoes as they are in Iago's.
Gerry Maher, 64
Appearing in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," through Oct. 7 at the Kavinoky Theatre and "Dancing at Lughnasa," Feb. 14 to March 10, 2013 and "A Life," June 6 to June 30, both at the Irish Classical Theatre Company
In late February 1995, a few years after ?he moved to Buffalo from New York City, Gerry Maher was at a low point in his life.
He thought of going to the movies to cheer himself up, but opted instead to trudge out to the Irish Classical Theatre Company, when it was in the Calumet Building on Chippewa Street. The show was Graham Reid's "Remembrance," and he can rattle off the cast list to this day: Vincent O'Neill, Jeanne Cairns, Eileen Dugan, Meghan Rose Krank, Greg Stuhr and Kristen Gasser.
"At intermission, I got up to go to the rest room, and as I did I stepped over a corner of the stage and stopped and looked up. And I just thought, you know, I gotta put this back in my life," he said. "So what the theater became for me was a life-saver."
Though he hadn't acted since he was a student in Philadelphia nearly 20 years before, Maher answered an audition notice for the Alleyway Theatre. And that was all it took: "Six months later, I was working at the Irish."
Ever since, Maher - along with O'Neill and Hogan - has been a fixture and an audience favorite at the Irish Classical, where he has played dozens of roles, ranging from juicy bit parts like the valet in "Present Laughter" to serious leading characters like the desperately optimistic impresario Teddy in Brian Friel's "Faith Healer."
But the Irish hasn't been able to keep Maher to itself. Despite having no formal training, he is in demand at many other theaters and estimates he has appeared in some 70 plays in the past 16 years.
Maher's approach to each role, comic or not, is the same:
"If I get the voice right, it seems like everything else follows," he said. "I can play a funny little Irish guy ?in my sleep."
In more complex roles, when he does his work and manages to slip fully into his character's skin (something he said may not happen until a show's final performances), the reason he answered that audition ?ad becomes clear.
"When you've gotten past the point where you're thinking about what my next move is or where my next entrance is or what my next line is, and you're actually listening to the person you're onstage with and reacting as if that's the first time you've heard them say this particular line," he said. "Eventually, you forget...
"You hit this wave, and you just ride it."
Chris Kelly, 38
Appearing in "A Couple of Blaggards," Oct. 25 to Nov. 8, and "Dancing at Lughnasa," Feb. 14 to March 10, 2013, at Irish Classical Theater Company and "Cloud 9," Nov. 23 to Dec. 15 at New Phoenix Theatre.
In the fall of 2010, Chris Kelly ?quit drinking.
The next thing he did was to turn in an extraordinary performance as Oliver, the conflicted protagonist of Alexi Kaye Campbell's play "The Pride" at Buffalo United Artists. And since then, his career - already an impressive collection of leading roles and directorial successes - has blossomed into something far grander than he ever anticipated.
Last season alone, he appeared in "As You Like It" with Shakespeare in Delaware Park, "The Dead" at the Irish Classical Theatre Company and "Blithe Spirit" at the Kavinoky, and directed "Black Tie" at the Kav, "Oliver!" and "Hair" at MusicalFare, and "The Divine Sister" at Buffalo United Artists. This year, he's directing MusicalFare's current show, "The Music Man," appearing in leading roles in two shows at the Irish Classical ("A Couple of Blaggards" and "Dancing at Lughnasa") and one at the New Phoenix Theatre ("Cloud 9").
He also has been managing and directing music videos for the up-and-coming Buffalo band the Albrights.
"They were all overlapping. It was nuts, nuts, nuts, nuts. I didn't sleep," Kelly said of the past year. "When I started to feel better, I think doing all of this, doing so much, taking on so much, became somewhere else to put all of that energy that I didn't know what to do with."
Kelly, a master of the camp idiom, is known above all for his work with Buffalo United Artists, where he's directed any number of riotous productions featuring exaggerated dialogue, bon mot-dropping characters in drag, and all manner of R-rated mayhem. But he's also developed a reputation for remarkably sensitive and emotionally complex performances, from his work in "The Pride" to a charming appearance as the sardonic Noel Coward stand-in Charles Condomine earlier this year in Kavinoky's "Blithe Spirit" alongside Tripp Kelley.
Without alcohol, life onstage and off has in some ways been tougher for Kelly.
"Good old Mother Vodka. It was really nice to look forward to when you were going to get off the stage, or after a terrible rehearsal to sort of soothe everything and make it better," he said. But giving up alcohol also has enabled him to more fully follow his dream of a creative life.
"In my house, there are all these windows on the side where the driveway is that don't have shades on them. So you could walk by on any given afternoon and I might have my iPod blaring and be acting out some music video in my head to any number of songs," he said. "For me, is gratifying in that it fills some need that I have to be expressive, to be silly, to play - to do all of that."?