Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Couple plays hard on stage

Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen are two of the most respected - and dedicated - people in the local theater community

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Ed Cohen and Dee Anne Bryll are co-directors of Ragtime.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
It looked a lot like a military campaign.

On a Sunday afternoon in late August, Dee Anne Bryll was marshalling her forces, an army of more than three dozen, in a church basement in Norwood.

While her co-director (and husband) Ed Cohen took notes of his own, Bryll worked from a typed page and a diagram as she directed bodies forward, back, across, around.

She wasn't preparing for battle, merely blocking out the opening scene of a community theater production of Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Ragtime, a huge undertaking for an amateur group.

"It's a leap of faith," Bryll says. "You have to believe you can do it."

With their track record separately and together, it's not such a big leap to believe this particular couple can pull it off.

The spins, the dips, the twirling cakewalk were repeated and repeated until all the movement focused into an evocative stage picture that spoke of a time and place brought to life in the best-selling novel by E.L. Doctorow.

"She has a unique ability to make nondancers be able to shine on stage," says Forrest Fairley, who has appeared in each of the Bryll/Cohen partnerships. In Ragtime he plays a variety of characters, including J.P. Morgan.

"She convinces the audience that the ensemble can dance by creating simple but memorable stage pictures. It's a rare talent."

After three months of rehearsals, Ragtime (which chronicles the intersecting lives of upper middle-class, African-American and immigrant families at the turn of the 20th century) continues through Saturday at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater under the Cincinnati Music Theatre banner.

What: Ragtime
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Cincinnati Music Theatre, Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater
Tickets: $13-$16 (plus handling charges). 241-7469
The Hyde Park couple seems to breathe theater. As actors and directors, they are two of the most respected - and most popular - names in Greater Cincinnati community theater. Bryll is also one of the region's best choreographers.

They work separately, they appear on stage together occasionally, and every couple of years Bryll and Cohen direct together.

The first time, in 1992, was Windy City. "We got married and went right into rehearsal," Bryll laughs. Other efforts include Evita and Stephen Sondheim's Assassins.

Their reputation for challenging work, award-winning results and a sane, professional work environment brought more than 100 people to audition. The above-mentioned small army signed on for a grueling rehearsal schedule.

"People are working other jobs, we utilize their time as best we can," says Bryll.

"It is avocational in name only," says Cohen, who favors matter-of-fact delivery in his conversation.

Bryll is the enthusiast. Words seem to bubble out and sentences often end in exclamation points. "We saw Ragtime in New York," says Bryll, "we loved it; I've always wanted to do the opening number."

Cohen expands: "We went to see The Civil War at Showbiz Players last year and thought, there are all these wonderful African-American performers here and nobody's using them. We mentioned it to Cincinnati Music Theatre, not necessarily for ourselves."

"We're honored they picked us to do it," Bryll inserts.

Good fit

When they're working together, their meeting of the minds is obvious. Off-stage they're a mutual admiration society.

He's wry; she's sunny. Their appearance fit their personalities. He looks every bit the lifelong intellect. She has a dancer's body, not the deceptively frail frame of a ballerina but the more muscular physique of a gymnast - and a ready smile.

She raves about the Ragtime producing team (Sandy Cantor and Kathy Beiting), and longtime collaborators Mike Morehead (lighting designer) and musical director Dick Wesp.

If you want to play a game of "Six Degrees" in Cincinnati community theater, you'll want to substitute Bryll's name for Kevin Bacon's.

Last year when she performed in The Children's Hour for Drama Workshop, all but one of the women in the cast was a former student.

"Almost everyone in theater in Cincinnati - professional, semi- and community - knows Dee Anne because she's an avid professional who really cares about the product, the audience, the process and the people," says John Wesseling, former president of ACT-Cincinnati, the association of community theaters.

The word "team" comes up a lot in Bryll's conversation.

Cohen gently scolds, "You're too self-effacing."

Cohen says their personalities are best explained in their decorating tastes. "Hers would be all pastels and flowers," he laughs. "Mine would be all black. With a deep floral pattern."

Bryll giggles appreciatively.

At home, "Dee Anne makes sure the light bulbs work. She owns a tool kit."

Their friends laugh that you shouldn't ask either of them to cook, at least nothing elaborate.

"They're smart," says actor Bill Hartnett, who knew them separately before Bryll and Cohen discovered each other for happily-ever-after second marriages.

Hartnett first worked with Cohen in the late '80s when they shared a stage at Beechmont Players. Hartnett was there last year when Cohen attempted to continue the life of the admired, emerging IF Theatre Collective.

"The whole mission really appeals to me," says Cohen. That mission is doing out-of-the-mainstream work with a high-quality company.

Among last year's efforts was the regional premiere of Lebensraum, a fantasy about contemporary Germany making reparation for the Holocaust. Cohen persuaded composer (and UC professor) Joel Hoffman to create an original score

That said, IF is currently resting on a back burner.

Cohen will likely direct an entry in the Cincinnati Fringe Festival next spring (he's looking at possibilities) and has a slot with Mariemont Players in 2004-05.

Calm and composed

Hartnett and wife Ellie Shepherd met Bryll "at least 20 years ago, when the world was young and we took tap dancing lessons from her."

"They're calm," Shepherd. "They never get excited. They understand each other very well, and they respect that. Watching them gave us the courage to direct together." (The Hartnetts' next teaming is Visiting Mr. Green at Stagecrafters, opening Saturday.)

Their friends and colleagues suspect co-directing is a walk in the park. They talk about mutual support, respect and understanding.

"The homework is of great magnitude," Bryll admits. That opening sequence took eight hours to choreograph on paper.

"We have a lot of fun together," says Cohen. "We're lucky we work well together. I don't know how many couples have the chance to collaborate like this."


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