Lola Pashalinski: Evoking a Sense of Menace

Following a preview performance of "Terrorism," a play that bowed Off-Broadway at the Harold Clurman Theatre on Mon., May 23, Lola Pashalinski says she "drew a blank on some of the dialogue. I pieced my way back but it was a bad moment, and extremely rare. Maybe I ate too close to show time, resulting in brain drain."

The muffed lines were evident to no one in the audience. On the contrary, Pashalinski struggling for the right words seemed fully appropriate to the character she plays, an enraged bigot who feels herself besieged from all sides. The suspicious biddy has murdered her own husband and is now trying to convince a neighbor (Laura Esterman) that she should be on guard against her son-in-law, a dangerous member of some unnamed but very distasteful ethnic minority.

The prescient, dark, and comic "Terrorism," written by the Siberian-born brothers Vladimir and Oleg Presnyakov well before Sept. 11, is a series of interconnected scenes depicting various forms of terrorism, psychological as well as political. The setting is nonspecific. Each of the nine actors, all playing multiple roles, has at least one main scene.

Along with the obvious challenges of moving seamlessly from scene to scene and character to character, "You cannot play 'menacing,' " notes the 60-something, Brooklyn-born Pashalinski during a phone interview. "The fear experienced by the audience comes from the accumulated images. It's the same old tedious thing: You don't play a villain; you just play the truth. It's my job to find the reasons in myself for why the woman I play would go to such extremes, would murder her husband and hate her neighbor's son-in-law.

"This is a play that doesn't overexplain," she continues. "You have to decide from the totality of the play how all the characters relate to one another. I believe they all live in the same bleak housing project in a country like Chechnya. I see my character as someone who has been oppressed her whole life by an abusive husband and finally she has taken action. I can feel sympathy for that. It's more difficult to sympathize with her racism. She is a dyed-in-the-wool racist. It's never said, but I suspect the son-in-law she hates is someone from the Mideast. But I love the comic side of that kind of personality."

The intelligent and straightforward Pashalinski cheerfully describes herself as a performer "born with the soul of a baggy-pants comedian." A founding member of Charles Ludlam's high-camp Ridiculous Theatrical Company—she performed with it for 13 years, appearing in 17 productions—she does not deny that she has endured some typecasting over the years. But that's not a complaint. "I suffer and celebrate it," she quips.

"I'm a short, overweight woman of a certain age and there is only a certain palette of roles that I can play. But they're wonderful. I've played Lady Bracknell ["The Importance of Being Ernest"], the Nurse ["Romeo and Juliet"], and I played Toby Belch at the Goodman in 1993. 'Twelfth Night' is a deeply erotic, sexual-bending play. This production"—which employed gender-reversed casting—"revealed what is already in the play but unspoken."

Pashalinski is openly gay herself—her partner is actor Linda Chapman—but feels it's had no bearing on the roles she has been offered: "If there are any limitations, it's the weight." Still, she admits her sexuality has informed her artistic sensibility.

Consider her play "Gertrude & Alice: A Likeness to Loving," an amused valentine to the iconic modernist Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, two harbingers of revolutionary aesthetics and radical lifestyle choices that are now commonplace.

"I've always loved Gertrude Stein and felt that as a gay woman, I understood her in a way that many biographers did not," recalls Pashalinski, who co-wrote and co-starred in the piece with Chapman. "I wanted to explode the myth of what Stein was about. She was a wonderfully wry woman. The pleasure in playing Stein was the pleasure of breaking a secret code. It's not only that she wrote in an expansive style. She was also very funny. And the play gave me the chance to work with Linda."

Pashalinski earned an Obie Award for her performance in "Gertrude & Alice," which toured Great Britain as well as colleges throughout the United States. She also received Obies for her performances in the Ridiculous Theatrical productions "Der Ring Gott Farblonjet" and "Corn." She has performed in dozens of shows nationally and Off-Broadway, and made her Broadway debut in "Fortune's Fool," which starred Frank Langella and the late Alan Bates. Among her film and TV credits: "I Shot Andy Warhol," the remake of "Godzilla," "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," "The Equalizer," and a recurring role on "One Life to Live."

Didn't Act for Two Years

Pashalinski's early goal was to be an opera singer: "I had no sense of reality, no concept of anything. When my idol, German soprano Irmgard Seefried, was in town autographing record albums, I showed up at the record store and asked her, 'What's the latest you can start singing?' She said, 'If you're not singing by the time you're 16, forget about it.' It's not true, but I was 20 and crestfallen. I remember taking myself to a Tad's Steakhouse for dinner and giving up."

For the next decade, Pashalinski, the daughter of an insurance salesman, bounced around from odd job to odd job—"mostly in publishing"—and briefly attended college before dropping out. "I was an underachiever," she states matter-of-factly.

Peripherally involved in New York's bohemian scene of the late 1950s and '60s, Pashalinski had many friends in the arts, connections that led to her serving as assistant to the director at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, which gave rise to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

She looks back at her time with the company nostalgically, as so many of its top players died of AIDS. And with their deaths, the wild humor identified with them seemed to die as well: "It's not that theatre is humorless—'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' is very ribald—but it's just that things are not as funny or bright. Not as much makes me laugh to the point of a bellyache. The laughter is no longer cathartic."

Asked about the state of gay theatre today, Pashalinski is not convinced that it really exists anymore. "The moment of gay theatre is over," she responds. "In its day it was a tool, but now almost everything is mainstream."

Still, she equivocates on drag performers—a movement that's "funny and sexy," she says—and the all-women Queens Company, whose mission is to produce all-female versions of the classics.

"I especially liked their production of 'The Rivals,' " she notes. "Many of their members are gay, but I don't think what they're doing can be called gay theatre."

When her tenure with Ridiculous ended, Pashalinski fell on hard times. "The kind of acting I did was not transferable," she recalls. "I had never acted anywhere else, never auditioned, and didn't know the difference between an agent and a casting director. It took me two years to get another acting job."

She credits such experimental directors as Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Lee Breuer, and JoAnne Akalaitis with casting her and introducing her to new acting styles and approaches, helping her to launch her post-Ridiculous career.

At the moment, however, Pashalinski's thoughts are on "Terrorism" and her conviction that the senseless fear each scene evokes should have resonance for contemporary audiences: "Considering the horrors today, the total menace of our world…." She leaves the sentence unfinished. "I was just listening to NPR and heard that 300 kids in Africa had disappeared and there's the suspicion that they may have been used for snuff films. I hope audiences leave the theatre realizing that they'd better stay awake and do something."