By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
There at least four versions of Phyllis, and Natalie Venetia Belcon knows them all. That's what happens when an actor stays with a new musical for a long time: She absorbs the revisions, cast changes, and workshop productions until she carries the entire history of a character.
And Phyllis has a fascinating history. She's the wild antagonist of The Last Smoker in America, a satirical musical about the near future, when the U.S. makes smoking a federal offense. When Pam, an average housewife, becomes the leader of the pro-smoking rebellion, Phyllis, her neighbor, furiously defends the rules. A self-righteous do-gooder who smiles so hard her face might break, she's at her perkiest when she's squashing the revolution.
Belcon, who created the role of Gary Coleman in Avenue Q, has been playing Phyllis since the show had its first read-through in 2006. Since then, it's been part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival and had a regional premiere in Columbus, Ohio, and the version that's currently Off Broadway at the Westside Theatre is different from everything that's come before. There's a new ending, and the score, by Bill Russell and Peter Melnick, has been tweaked countless times.
However, even though the older versions are gone, they're not exactly forgotten. Belcon sometimes has to remember which Phyllis she's playing now. "There's a lot of muscle memory, so when stuff is removed, it might be hard to adapt to it," she says. "Or when a song is lost, even if it's not mine, it's like, 'Nooo! Don't take that away!' And of course, there's adapting to different actors and their processes. It's like remodeling your house."
Even the slightest change can affect how Belcon plays her character, especially when a new cast member plays a scene differently than a previous co-star. For instance, Jake Boyd, who plays Pam's son Jimmy, has a fresh take on his character's relationship to Phyllis. "He's a lot more direct when he is delivering his rudeness," Belcon says. "The other young men that have played him have played it [as though] whoever happened to be in the house, they'd be rude to them. But now, it's coming directly at me." That changes her response to the kid's attitude, freeing her to be more aggressive. "When I tell him things, I don't feel so bad," she laughs.
Meanwhile, Phyllis isn't the only thing Belcon keeps in mind. Last Smoker is also full of loopy fantasy scenes, and each one creates a new character for her to play. When Jimmy imagines he's a superstar rapper, Belcon throws on a hip-hop costume and performs as his DJ, and later, she appears as an Irish clog dancer. These characters have given her several more revisions to keep track of.
"As busy as it is, I actually prefer it when I have parts like that," Belcon says. "I am not a fan of costume changes---that part of it does not excite me in the least---but I do enjoy being able to do the different characters." Asked why, she says, "Maybe it's because I was raised in a certain way, where you act very dignified, so on stage when I'm allowed to run wild, to have too much sugar and run free at the playground, I embrace it."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of Natalie Venetia Belcon (with co-star John Bolton) by David Alkire