Casting the Contrast

Staged in 1787, The Contrast was the first American play performed professionally. But to appreciate director Paul Kuritz’s explanation of the comedy during January auditions for a March production, you needed to know less about Ben Franklin’s era and more about Ben Affleck’s.

There’s Col. Manly, a sober hero of the American Revolution. “Think Mel Gibson in The Patriot,” Kuritz tells the dozen or so students who’ve come to Gannett Theatre to try out. “He’s the typical American hero. Like a Ben Affleck character” (which draws a boo from stage manager Sulo Dissanayake ’09).

Written by Revolutionary War veteran Royall Tyler, The Contrast began the theatrical tradition of getting laughs by contrasting American and European attitudes. So Manly’s counterpart is a self-satisfied fop, Billy Dimple –– “the guy in The Patriot who keeps trying to kill Mel Gibson’s kids,” says Kuritz, professor of theater.

During auditions, the door to Gannett stays open, literally. “I never want the impression that Bates theater is a closed shop,” Kuritz says. Everyone remains in Gannett the whole time, with Kuritz swapping students in and out during the reading, so the process is open in another sense: Everyone gets to see everyone else audition. Seeing reactions to the readings, he says, helps him assign parts.

Casting is obviously key — “If you cast well, 90 percent of your work is done” — but Kuritz isn’t looking for the next John Shea ’70. “You don’t want to cast anyone who actually has to act, because there’s a chance they won’t act well,” he says. “If you can cast people who are the part, then you just have to make sure they don’t bump into each other on stage.”

But then how do you cast Manly’s comical country-bumpkin servant, Jonathan, whom Kuritz compares to Larry the Cable Guy? “Jonathan will be harder to cast,” chuckles Kuritz. “No one at Bates wants to reveal natural stupidity.”