There's something wonderful about big, ensemble shows. Intense, two person dramas are great, but sometimes you just want to see an entire stage filled with people—a whole community interacting. These plays are also a boon for actors because there are more opportunities to get cast, and you can learn a lot from being part of a large company. But they are also a drag, because someone still gets the lead and someone still has to play the villager, a part that may have little stage time, no lines, and not much to do.
When I was cast as Villager #7 in my youth, our director dragged out the old axiom "There are no small parts, only small actors," which didn't console me for a second. But as I got older I understood what she meant. And now I often judge the quality of a large production by how good the supporting characters are. If Shopkeeper and Shopkeeper's Wife are giving it their all even though they don't get the spotlight, that's an amazing ensemble.
Reviewers often don't have the luxury of recognizing a great actor in a crowd scene because there are so many other things to cover, and not that much space on the page. So I wanted to give a specific shout-out here to an extremely impressive actress filling several small parts this summer at American Players Theatre: Cher Desiree Àlvarez.
After creating a gorgeous Emily Webb in the Milwaukee Rep's production of Our Town last spring, she returned to APT to play small but essential roles in As You Like it, The Recruiting Officer, and Measure for Measure. As primarily a background player, her job is to complete the stage picture but not pull focus from the main characters. But she fills her parts with such intention and specificity, it’s impossible not to notice.
In The Recruiting Officer her character doesn't even have a name. She’s the “Barista's Wife,” adding to a bustling street scene where the main characters drink coffee, talk about who loves whom, and establish other plot points. But at the end of the play, her cries for justice to spare the life of her husband are so heart-wrenching that they practically stop the show. She single-handedly tips the scene from comic to tragic.
Similarly in Measure for Measure Àlvarez is an essential part of the play, although her stage time is brief and her lines are few. She enters at the top as Juliet, Claudio's very pregnant fiancée. The character is basically the visual proof of Claudio’s crime of premarital sex. But the joy she exudes as her lover admires her swollen belly, the despair that envelops her like her prison uniform, and the gratitude she projects as she presents her newborn baby to Isabella at the end of the play form an powerful through-line.
So, on behalf of the audience, I'd like to thank Cher Desiree Àlvarez for sharing her substsantial talent with us throughout the summer in these minor roles. Her skill and artistry have contributed to a greater whole in each production. And they have not gone unnoticed.