All His World's a Stage
Jonathan S. Tolins' name will appear in lights this fall on theater marquees, programs and announcements ranging from the Hasty Pudding to the Loeb Mainstage to Boston's New Ehrlich Theater. Playwright, actor and director, this Harvard junior pushes himself to experience everything associated with the dramatic arts--be it writing musical comedy or tragic drama, performing bizarre caricatures and serious dramatic roles, or directing conventionally staged and avant-garde performances.
On the surface, Tolins is quiet, modest, at first hesitant to discuss his work, as if it just materialized around him one day as he led his "basic Jewish suburban life" in Roslyn, Long Island. He describes himself as having "a knack for finding something to do," and he does seem simply to drift into one interesting project after another, armed with a natural talent for anything and everyting theatrical.
This semester, for instance, his 'something to do' includes writing the winning script for the annual Hasty Pudding show, directing one play and starring in another, not to mention joining On Thin Ice--Harvard's improvisational theater troupe--and having his first-ever play performed by a theater group in Boston.
Friends, co-workers and professors are amazed by Tolins' seemingly infinite, and infinitely flexible, talent. "He is somebody born a man of the theater," says Lowell Professor of the Humanities William A. Alfred, who taught English concentrator Tolins in a playwriting seminar last year. "He thinks in theatrical terms."
"When he came to the Pudding, we were surprised, he was thought of as a Loeb type," says president of Pudding Theatricals W. Nicholas Weir '87. "But when he got involved in the Pudding he fit in well and really enjoyed it. Then when he went on to writing scripts, he captured the essence of the Pudding show, understanding Pudding convention and idiom and pushing the formula to its limits."
The play, tentatively titled Bye, Bye, Verdi, is about what happens when "grand opera meets Grand Ole Op'ry," says Tolins. In it, "the Oprah Winfrey Company's funding is cut off, and it is forced to join forces with [Nashville's] Grand Ole Op'ry to fight Christian evangelist Holly Arethanthou, who wants to transform the opera house into a religious theme park."
The inspiration for the script stems from Tolins' passion for opera, he explains. "Also, I'm a big fan of show biz and all its tackiness," he says.
Adrian D. Blake '88, who co-wrote the Pudding script, says he had a great time working and "thinking up funny things" with Tolins. "I work with him great. We'd sit in front of old Mary Tyler Moore shows and steal the gags," he jokes. "But seriously, he's good to write comedy with because he is able to laugh at himself."
"He has an amazing ability to combine a serious attitude to serious drama without taking himself too seriously," says Blake, adding that this quality was what made Tolins so successful in such a variety of theatrical genres.
Tolins wrote his first and so far only, serious play in Alfred's seminar last year. Titled The Unveiling, the primarily autobiographical play recounts the funeral and the unveiling of a tombstone of an old man and the way these events affect the man's family. The action focuses on a grandson who gradually comes to understand the nature of his grandparents' relationship, Tolins explains.
Alfred praises the work as "beautifully characterized and about something important--how people comes to terms with the fact that other, older people have imperfections they cannot change."
The Unveiling was read last week at the New Ehrlich Theater in Boston as part if that troupe's NEWorks series. Of the six plays to be read this fall, three will be chosen for workshop production and one will be a full production to end the season this year, says Vince Mailer, dramaturge at the New Ehrlich Theater.
Mailer decribes Tolins' play as "strong in character and dialogue, but structurally so realistic that it might be better suited for film than stage. Jon says he wanted to stay away from being too theatrical, and he stayed a little too far." But Mailer says that the theater hoped to see more of Tolins' work and that he was certainly still in contention in the program.
Before he began writing plays, Tolins directed and acted in several campus plays during the past two years, and he plans to keep up those roles as he expands his other activities. In late October, he will direct The Skin of our Teeth, a "bizarre American classic" which Tolins updated slightly to make it less confusing for the audience. Tolins calls himself a "conservative director" and says he was surprised that he was given this potentially avant-garde play to direct. The play, he says, "has a load of thoughts on morality, family, war and love that are worth re-examining."
And if all this weren't enough, Tolins will portray Salieri in a December production of Amadeus. This is a sort of dream role for him, as he already used it in high school to garner top honors from the National Catholic Forensics League. Salieri is another in a long series of bizarre character roles--from Voltaire in Candide to Sultan Battery in last year's Pudding extravaganza--that Tolins has exploited throughout his Harvard acting career.
During his gradual and thorough exploration of every aspect of theater, he picks up new acquaintances and new ambitions.
At a Pudding performance last year, cast member Jon Tolins announced that a friend of his was in the audience, and requested permission to bring him backstage. Tolins' fellow transvestite thespians were amazed to see that the 'friend' was none other than PBS talkster Dick Cavett. Cavett not only came backstage but took the whole cast out to pizza where he was awarded a facsimile of the famous Pudding Pot in the shape of a pizzeria pitcher and christened Alternate Man of the Year, recalls Weir.
The praise Tolins gets from his peers is so lavish that at times his theatrical co-workers can't avoid giving their enthusiasm for him the little extra push that is all it needs to turn into self-parody. "He knows everything about everything," complains fellow Pudding script writer Blake. "He hits a golf ball better than I do, he has to shave more often than I do, and he was a great Little League baseball player."