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Kristine Nielsen at Chautauqua

Kristine Nielsen, left, is one of the great comedic talents in American theater today.

In recent years, the Chatauqua Theater Company, under the artistic direction of Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny, has been filling a void in our region’s cultural landscape by connecting us to the most important artists in the American theater. Their stated mission is to “offer their loyal and discerning audience the best in classical, contemporary, and new plays and to feature a company made up of internationally acclaimed professional actors, directors, designers, playwrights and faculty, joined by 14 of the finest emerging actors in the country.”

Believe it or not, they actually do that. They really, really do!

The program was created by legendary (truly legendary) founding artistic director Michael Kahn, whose goal as to build a professional theater company centered at Chautauqua that would be among the finest in the world. For me, the only frustrating part is that they’re 90 minutes away, and that even when the great names of the American theater are working there, it is necessary to explain who they are!

A case in point is the presence of Kristine Nielsen this summer, who is currently playing Penelope Sycamore in the classic Kaufman and Hart comedy, You Can’t Take It With You. Jesus God, people! It doesn’t get any more perfect than that!

Kristine Nielsen is one of the greatest comic talents working in the American Theater today. She has been the muse of playwright Craig Lucas who created two iconic comic characters for her: the title character in Miss Witherspoon, and the vivid and indelible Mrs. Siezmagraff in Betty’s Summer Vacation (Obie Award, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nomination). She was the original Crazy Mary in A.R. Gurney’s play of the same name. She was the original Bootsy in Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die and appeared in his play, Our First Lady. She originated the role of the agent in Based on a Totally True Story, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

In addition to having seen all of those performances, I feel privileged to have seen her playing a variety of roles, including an unbalanced Marilyn Monroe in Jackie, a satiric homage to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

With her deft comic touch and her amazing comic timing, Miss Nielsen imbues her characters with humanity, and always an undercurrent of human vulnerability. Casting her as flawed but loving mother and would-be playwright Penelope Sycamore is a flight of inspiration. “A loving, but self-absorbed woman who goes through life with blinkers on,” says Nielsen.

In You Can’t Take It With You, Alice Sycamore is the only “normal” member of a kooky family. Mayhem ensues when she brings home a boy from a normal but stuffy family, and they arrive for dinner on the wrong night. This is a comedy in same ilk as Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, and the prototype for a many an American comedy since, in which the populist values of love and family loyalty trump pretentiousness and materialism.

Speaking by telephone from Chautauqua, Miss Nielsen opines, “The world is so crazy today. It seems to be the perfect moment to reconnect to the larger values of a play like this. What else can I do? What better way is there for me to help the world than to help people look at it all and laugh!”

Nielsen is associated with brand new plays. Has it been a challenge to take on an established comedy classic from another era?

“Well,” she says, “you must always consider your audience. In this play, for instance, we make fun of spiritualism, and here I am right at the back door of Lily Dale! People here love spiritualism! I needed to find a way to say the line without evoking a gasp. I give the line a touch of Madame Arcati,” she reveals, referring to the medium in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

In describing her analysis of Penelope Sycamore and of a classic Kaufman and Hart comedy, Nielsen reveals that while her performances look spontaneous and intuitive, she actually works in a methodical, analytical fashion.

“Drama is easier,” she explains. “You don’t have to understand exactly where a tear is coming from. But laughter is more delicate and more dangerous. And here at Chautauqua, our opening night audience is practically our first audience. You do not get a month of previews to make sure you don’t end up with egg wash on your face. And you know right away if a laugh has completely missed the mark. In You Can’t Take It With You, we spend most of Act I winding up the spring for what we’re going to let loose in Act II, and it is so worth it! The play is beautifully crafted and we want to do it right!

“And of course, there are moments that have taken us by surprise. There is a point, when our daughter has left us and we wonder out loud if it is our fault, if it’s anything we’ve done, and of course it’s everything we’ve done! I mean we’re well-intentioned, but we haven’t exactly been wonderful parents! And the audience just howls! Well, playing those parents, you might feel a little upset by that at first!”

Nielsen explains that she met playwright Christopher Durang through mutual friends and that he is a very shy person, really. “We’d meet waiting to use the bathroom at parties and things like that, but we really bonded and became close when we did a horribly misguided production of Ubu Roi together. I mean people walked out and those who didn’t, stayed to boo! You get close when you go through something like that!”

In the theater, such connections are invaluable. Charles Busch is a friend from college she reveals.

Nielsen loves being at Chautauqua and working with the young company.

“We call them interns, but they are actually all incredibly talented young professionals destined to be the next big stars of the stage and screen. And I tell every one of them—‘Remember…someday you must call me so that I can play your mother!’”