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Olympia Dukakis: The 'Rose' of Broadway

by Gad Nahshon

"I believe in the existence of the American dream. I am a first generation Greek who received an Oscar and my cousin Michael was a democratic candidate for the American presidency," said the great, modest, and honest Olympia Dukakis.

I met her in a village coffeehouse because of her new one-woman play on Broadway, 'Rose'. Dukakis brings, first of all, a quality play to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200). 'Rose' is Lincoln Center's 81st production. The play (opening night, Wednesday, April 12, 2000), was written by the Jewish-American playwright Martin Sherman, who lives in London, and was directed by Nancy Meckler who also is Jewish and lives in London.

'Rose', a one-woman play, essentially a monologue of an eighty year old Jewish woman, was staged in London and turned out to be a great success. The British audience and the critics loved the play and praised Olympia Dukakis' superb acting and performance, and if you make it in the theater in London, you can make it everywhere.

For example, the 'Daily Telegraph' wrote: "This miniature epic emerges as a triumph of Olympian proportions." The 'Daily Mail' wrote: "Dukakis' riveting solo performance," and 'The Guardian Weekend' remarked: "Olympian heights." The 'Guardian' called her a "theatre animal and mentioned her great success in the film 'Moonstruck' which, in 1988, 'enriched' her with an Oscar.

Indeed she has dedicated her life to the world of theatre, film, and television. For 35 years Dukakis has worked as a director, producer, educator, and of course, a hard working actress. She has appeared in more than a variety of 125 productions. The critics wrote: "Nancy Meckler directs it with an admirably invisible hand and Dukakis performs it with enormous skill and sensitivity".

'Rose' is a two hour long monologue of a Jewish woman, a survivor, a Holocaust survivor. She tells you her personal story. It is based on her memory but often you learn that she integrated into her memory, events which she learned about from outside sources. It was not her own personal experience. Sherman, the playwright, wrote in Act One: 'Rose sits on a wooden bench. She is eighty. There is a bottle of water and a glass on the bench as well as a refrigerated pack... Rose declares: "I am sitting Shiva. You sit Shiva for the dead."

Can you imaging the challenge? Dukakis has to sit almost two hours on a bench. She does not even have a chance to stand. Only great performers such as Dukakis could play 'Rose', could digest Martin Sherman's long play. Rose's life is also a panorama, or a survey, of the Jewish fate of our time - from the small town of Yultiska to the settlement in the West bank. She was a victim of pogroms and the Holocaust. She even was on the 'Exodus' as a Displaced Person.

But her story is indeed here in America. She became not only an American who lives in Atlantic City, but also an American-Jewish woman. And she understood the message of America and the meaning of the American dream. Is 'Rose' an ethnic play? Why was Olympia Dukakis attracted to Rose? What appealed to her when she read Sherman's long play? She answered during our interview: "I decided to play 'Rose', first of all, because it is a one-woman play. It was a challenge since I never, ever, in my whole career was confronted with such a unique challenge. I said to myself, let's have a new dramatic experience, let me challenge this long play and memorize it. It was almost an impossible challenge to accomplish. It was hard work for me. I also felt that playing in London on the prestigious Royal National Theatre would be, for me, an American actress, a great achievement and honor. But I can tell you that often I felt frustrated. I jumped from the bench in order to quit and say good-bye to Rose. I memorized the play here in New York. Indeed, it was a tough challenge for me," Dukakis confessed.

She has done the impossible so you must go and enjoy her unique performance on Broadway. By the way, 'Rose' will also tour some cities in America such as Chicago. Also it will probably be produced in Israel too.

Dukakis points out that 'Rose' is also an ethnic play. One can discuss the issue of Jewish identity in the play. It has to do with your roots and heritage. Furthermore, 'Rose' speaks in English but with a Yiddish accent! Yiddish was the world of 'Rose'.

Dukakis said: "I believe in the need to preserve out past. I have a Greek heritage to preserve. We should not forget our past. My father was a Greek who established a dramatic club in Lowell, Massachusetts, my home town, in order to stage the Greek classic plays. He was also a socialist. I preserve my heritage and often I go to Greece. In America, each group wants to preserve its unique ethnic identity. I felt apart from the 'others', or like an outsider. Let me say again: never get rid of your past. You should take it with you to the future."

Dukakis is familiar with the Jewish history and the Holocaust: "The whole world was silent when the Holocaust took place. Not only the American Jews, but also the Zionists. By the way, the Armenians must do something in order to preserve their memory of their genocide." When I asked her how she developed the character of Rose in her mind, she responded: "I simply digested the material. I read books and I saw some documentaries. I learned about Jewish life in the shtetle or about the 'Exodus' Affair (1947) as well. Indeed, in my whole career I played only one role of a Jewish woman in 'Social Security.' I also enjoyed the great talent of my director, Meckler, and I must also praise her and Sherman, the playwright, for their great patience with me."

How do you define Rose? Is she only the Jewish external survivor? Is she only a victim of non-stop tragedies sitting Shiva for dying husbands? Dukakis points to the message of 'Rose': "Rose is an outsider. She is a strong person and a very independent person. She does not like to belong to a group. She enjoys being an outsider. She does not have a formal education but she reads books. She is a very curious person. She likes to have various experiences. She lives with a younger musician and at the end of the play, she sits Shiva because her grandchild Doron killed a Palestinian girl. So she sits Shiva in her memory. But Rose always preserves her unique identity. And always tries to find something new."

Is Rose living in the past? "No! She only speaks about the past. She always looks for her place in our world."

Does Rose understand the meaning of the American Dream? "Yes! She becomes an American Jewish woman. She becomes a business woman as well. She absorbs the American way of life. Here she learns for the first time in her life about ice cream..."

For Olympia Dukakis it is very important to stress the greatness of the American Dream. Here in the new world, one can progress and fulfill one's personal dreams or ideas and at the same time preserve one's ethnic heritage. Dukakis told me about her studies in Boston University and about her great Jewish acting teacher, Peter Kess.

She also used to work as a physical therapist. Dukakis played, directed, and taught. She built a theatre and directed over there for 19 years. She always was a hard worker. Always committed to excellence in the world of theatre: "I preferred the theatre to films. I love the stage," she told me. After the success of 'Rose' on Broadway from April 12, 2000 and on, Dukakis will again play in the P.B.S. Showtime Production of 'Tales of the City.'

Dukakis loves to come back to Broadway. With 'Rose', she believes that critics and the audience will love her new contribution to quality plays on Broadway. Her bio informs us about her past great successes and about her many awards which complement her Oscar (1988).

Dukakis is best known to film and television audiences for her award winning performances in the film "Moonstruck" (Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Awards - Best Supporting Actress) and the highly popular television series "Tales of the City" and "Further Tales of the City" (Emmy, Screen Actors Guild nominations). Miss Dukakis has worked as an actress, director, producer, teacher and activist during a career that has spanned more than 35 years. She has appeared in over 125 productions on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theatre, winning Obie Awards for her performances in Brecht's "A Man's A Man" and Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo." Her film credits include "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Dad," "Look Who's Talking - I, II & III," "Steel Magnolias," "Mighty Aphrodite," and "Picture Perfect." Her television work includes Emmy nominations for "Lucky Day" and "Sinatra" and a Cable Award for Robert Anderson's "Last Act Is Solo."

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