Emily Eisele and Blake Stone are making their move. When you meet these bright and talented young actors the energy coming off them is palpable: youth, excitement, the new epiphany of their own creative power. Together, they comprise the entire cast of Artist Repertory Theatre’s final show of this season, Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, which opened Saturday.
After a season of fire and brimstone, epics and politics, illusion and disillusion, I and You is something entirely different – and yet, of a piece. It’s a quiet play, but its victories and connections are no less profound for that. Gunderson, “the most produced playwright in the country,” writes in her program notes that Anthony is African-American and Caroline is white but then says, “The race of each character can be altered. The only essentiality is that the characters not be the same race.” It’s a quiet statement, fully in keeping with the rest of Artist Rep’s season but not as in your face. Eisele and Stone are the perfect vessels for such a message, laden as they are with talent, charm, and charisma in abundance.
Eisele (pronounced eye-slee), a native of Fort Collins, Colorado, lived in Portland for about five years. Though she hasn’t had a lot of formal training, she’s been learning her trade on the boards since she was a kid. When she arrived in the Rose City she knocked around for a couple of years, not really making any headway until she became an apprentice at Third Rail Repertory. Her year at Third Rail proved a game-changer. “It was a great way to meet other young passionate artists that wanted to collaborate,” she says. “I was really lucky my year because the majority of us were really dedicated and really wanted to be there and created a lot of our own opportunities together and that’s built a lot of lasting relationships for me.” Along the way, and since then, Eisele has starred in Band Geeks at Broadway Rose and made her Artists Rep debut in last season’s American Hero. Since that production, Eisele has chosen to take her talents to Chicago and make a name for herself there.
Stone, though a Portland native, caught the acting bug in the Northeastern Oregon town of Elgin, population 1,711 (as of 2010). “There’s a little opera house that was being used as a movie theatre that they decided to take the screen out,” he says. “They started doing community theater for all the neighboring towns. My mom forced me to do it but gradually over time I started choosing to be there.” In the few years since he’s returned to the Rose City, Stone has been steadily rising in the Portland theater scene. He was a standout a couple of years ago in the stellar Staged! production of Heathers, subsequently making other notable appearances in Milagro’s Swimming While Drowning and the Red Door Project’s Hands Up. Stone, too, is headed to a bigger city with brighter lights, with plans to move to Los Angeles in the fall.
But for now, Eisele and Stone are sharing a more intimate space in Gunderson’s warm, evocative two-hander.
Acting at its most fundamental is about one human being sharing an experience with another human being. In a play like I and You, this facet becomes even more poignant because that is all it is. It’s two people connecting, finding – creating – a shared space. Eisele and Stone have spent the past four weeks crafting the two hours (“Ninety minutes!” Eisele quickly interjects) of these two people’s lives. There’s no sturm und drang, no fireworks. The drama settles on you as lightly as snow falling from the sky. The play for the most part is just these two kids talking. They were helped, first and foremost, by Gunderson’s script.
“I immediately found the language sat really easily in my voice. That was my first way in,” says Eisele, adding that at first, “Caroline was a tough cookie to crack in some ways. There’s a struggle between what she’s putting out into the world, which is like, ‘I’m not afraid. I don’t care about anything. I’m sick, whatever,’ and what’s actually going on internally, which is a lot of feelings about everything. How can I balance those two things?”
For his part, Stone was practically relieved to play a part like Anthony. “I don’t just get to play a good-hearted, normal kid anymore. It was a lot of fun to actually delve in on a personal level. There’s not a lot of forward moving action. It’s about who these characters are.”
This dynamic is made more readily apparent in that neither of the characters of Gunderson’s play really exists without the other. “From the moments the lights are up it’s the push and pull and the dynamic of these two people,” says Stone. Eisele concurs: “The script is so much about these two people interacting together and how much you learn about someone when they’re talking to another person and they are reflected, versus monologuing for ten pages. Which I love. I would much rather have a conversation with someone than monologue for ten pages.”
Indeed, that’s the action of the play – these two teen-agers learning about each other, decidedly and explicitly, not in a superficial way, but on a profoundly personal level. “You start with two people who have never met before,” says Eisele, “these characters have who they are in their everyday lives with people that they know, but what you’re seeing is something you wouldn’t normally see because they’re around another person that is surprising them and is throwing different things at them and is taking them off guard. Which is really fun.”
“Yeah,” says Stone. “If you saw the other where they were hanging out with their friends it would be a completely different play.”
For the necessary trust to be built up, a safe, collaborative space has to be developed. In the rehearsal room, Eisele and Stone were joined by stage manager Chelle Jazuk, her right hand Megan Moll, and the director, Portland theater titan JoAnn Johnson. “We had a good vibe going in that room,” says Stone. “Everybody got along really well.” Eisele agrees: “They’re all very warm, inviting people. We’re all very silly.”
“I was a little bit intimidated by JoAnn before we started the work,” continues Stone, “She’s a fierce talent. She’s a theatrical genius, for lack of a better word. She just makes things make a lot of sense.” Having said that, both agree that the feeling of intimidation will never come back because now they know Johnson too well. “There are times she cusses,” laughs Eisele, “and it just makes me blossom inside.” Stone agrees: “She’s invented some terms!”
The two actors laugh and joke comfortably with each other. There’s a bond there, forged in the fires of creativity. They’re at ease in each other’s presence. That’s good. That bond is not essential, necessarily, to make great art. But in a collaborative art form, when you’re the only two on stage, when each of you is dependent upon the other one to do their job, to make that connection, having that bond makes dealing with questions about life – and death – just a little easier.
I and You continues through June 17 at ArtistsRepertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.