By Doug Strassler
"Tell me more about you," is the first thing Begonya Plaza says to me as I meet her in front of the Cherry Lane Theatre, where her new show, Teresa's Ecstasy, is set to open on Wednesday, March 14.
I must be careful here, I think. Should I let her know that I have been a fan of hers since catching her in Maid to Order, a fun 1980s comedy starring Ally Sheedy? No way. I must be composed, professional. I mention several of the outlets for which I write, and we settle down in a cozy West Village bistro for an early pre-show dinner. Conversation returns to the show. "Phew," I say to myself, "well-played, Doug."
Ecstasy is about Carlotta (played by Plaza), a writer en route to Avila to research the famous Saint Teresa. Before arriving there, she makes a pit stop in Barcelona to hand her estranged husband, Andres (Shawn Elliott), divorce papers. Over a wine-abetted lunch, he fights to find a spark that might rekindle their flailing relationship, while Carlotta has bigger concerns on her mind. Will Pomerantz is the director.
Plaza, who has a college-age daughter, began work on Ecstasy six years ago. "I was looking to return to acting after taking time to be a mother," she explains. "I wanted to get back to action." Initially, however, it was written as a one-woman show about the 16th century saint. Plaza had written a screenplay about the artist Salvador Dalí, and in doing her research found that one of the books at his bedside table was her autobiography. (That screenplay became The Persistence of Memory, a movie to which Glenn Close is attached.)
"I thought, 'Why would someone like him, someone so perverse, be interested in her?'" Plaza says. She read the book herself, "and I got sucked in. She is fascinating, that whole period of time, the Spanish Inquisition, it's all fascinating, and I wondered what it would be like to play Teresa. We think we live in a macho world now? She lived in an atmosphere of prejudice. I'd probably become a nun too then ? it would be the only way to educate myself!"
According to Plaza, who says she always travels to monasteries when beginning to write something (literally, "it's a blessing"), it wasn't the religious aspects of Teresa's life as much as the spiritual elements that touched Plaza and led her to explore the woman further. She sent an early version to Elliott, a friend of hers, who told her that her subject was too perfect. "There was no conflict! He told me people would get bored," Plaza explained. At one point in the process, Plaza had a phone conversation with her ex-husband, with whom she has an amicable relationship. "He is a noble but opinionated man, and he likes to contradict. He was dismissing what I was talking about," Plaza continues, "and I thought, 'That's my conflict!'" She rewrote the play to focus on Andres and the Teresa-influenced Carlotta; eventually Elliott himself won the part. (Linda Larkin also stars as Becky, Carlotta's publisher).
I tell Plaza that history and cross-cultural differences seem to dominate her work. In addition to Dalí and St. Teresa, Plaza has also written about such people as Evita Perón, Simón Bolivar, Dolores Ibarruri, Antonio Machín and such subjects as Iraqi veterans and the Spanish Civil War. She agrees. "I don't know why I wasn't interested when I was in high school," she jokes. "But history is the gossip of the past, right?"
While definitely excited about Ecstasy, Plaza is still in that apprehensive pre-opening phase. "It's a roller coaster ride," she says. "But I am filled with gratitude. I keep saying, 'Let's have fun.'" This leads me to refer to an interview I once saw with Kathy Bates, in which the acclaimed actress also discussed the importance of having fun when acting. "It is called a play," I repeat to Plaza.
"You just mentioned my favorite actress!" she exclaims. "I looooove her." And now I'm not just an interviewer talking to a talented artist; we're two fans on common ground. So I let my guard down and admit my fondness for Plaza and Maid to Order. Plaza laughs as I tell her how much joy that brought my family as a child growing up, and while I get the impression she hasn't thought of the film in quite some time, she smiles at the memory and said it was fun to make.
After the interview is over and we've parted ways, I think about what Plaza said about feeling gratitude for what she gets to do. And a similar feeling washes over me, too.
For more information about Teresa's Ecstasy, go to http://teresasecstasy.com/.
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