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Stage Preview: Friends lean on each other to make 'La Mancha' possible

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One is an artist capable of understanding and communicating the humanity in the most inhumane of conditions.

One is a colleague and cohort, standing vigil to protect his friend from unknown dangers and inspiring him to dream the impossible dream.

Their names are Avery Saltzman and Ted Pappas, and as the Pittsburgh Public Theater prepares for the only American production of "Man of La Mancha" outside the current Broadway revival, they're quick to kid each other about who most closely resembles whom in one of history's most poignant buddy dramas.

"Man of La Mancha"

Where: The Public Theater at O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

When: Friday through March 2: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Feb. 15, 22, 27 and March 1-2. Performances begin at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 and 25.

Tickets: $29 to $53; 412-316-1600.


"He's brilliant," says artistic director and choreographer Pappas, who is tackling for the first time the classic musical he's always wanted to produce.

"He's inspirational," says, Saltzman, a Toronto character actor now in his 10th show with Pappas.

"He's inventive and pre-pared ..."

"... Original and focused ..."

As the mutual admiration society continues, it's easy to believe they're not just saying that. The respect is genuine and hard-earned. Their friendship began 17 years ago, when Pappas saw something special in the young Toronto actor that warranted a role in a Toronto production of "Kismet" that was otherwise flush with New York professionals. Since then, Pappas has placed the versatile character actor in a variety of roles. It could be nepotism, but it feels like something deeper.

"... Inspired and willing to take chances ..."

"... Capable of elevating my work and challenging me to be my best ..."

Saltzman sees in Pappas a director who knows that 90 percent of the challenge is in the casting. Once rehearsals start, he lets Saltzman flex his artistic muscles. Pappas sees Saltzman as a theatrical Swiss Army knife, capable of whipping out whatever tool is necessary to communicate the nuance in any role. As a freelance director for the Public, he built his 1998 production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" around Saltzman. As artistic director, he relied on Saltzman's vaudeville sensibilities for over-the-top comic relief in their 2000 production of "The Pirates of Penzance."

"The stakes are higher, too, when you're working at this level with a friend," says Saltzman. "You come into a room having done shows with Ted thinking, 'Will I be able to come up with something different, will I be able to give him what I know how to do best, will I disappoint this time?' I can count the great directors I've worked with on one hand, and Ted is one of those fingers ..."

"Avery's not the only actor to give me a finger, but it's usually not that one," cracks Pappas. "Actually, we're very good friends, but it's not like we hang out together after the show. I think we've seen one movie together in 17 years. We call a lot and check up on each other, but I think of Avery as a very intimate friend who sees me when I'm at my most vulnerable: in the rehearsal studio.

"I want to say that I don't treat him any differently than anyone else, but I don't think that's true. With Avery, I tend to protect him, involve him, inspire him. I have to be my very best when he's in the rehearsal. I have to be prepared because he can handle a lot more than most actors. I have to have a lot of energy, a lot of patience, a lot of curiosity while he works because ..."

"... Most directors, other directors, a normal director will not have all of that stuff to throw at you," says Saltzman. "The first time I met him, he scared the [bejesus] out of me."

"It was my audition technique," says Pappas, straightening in his chair and delighting in a story he must have heard a hundred times.

"It was a big, huge show," says Saltzman. "It was gonna get a lot of press. In my callback audition with Ted, we were in this beautiful rehearsal hall and I was in the center of the room. He was in the corner with his back to me. I was singing and he was just standing there, far away and not watching."

"It was an audio thing," says Pappas. "I knew what I'd do with him physically, I just wanted to know if his voice would convince me and the audience."

"... And I'm standing there singing and going, 'Why is his back to me? What'd I do wrong? Then I didn't hear from him for like two months. It was maddening."

The professional relationship grew into friendship. About a year ago, Pappas heard that Saltzman had a window of opportunity and immediately requested the licensing to produce "Man of La Mancha."

"I knew it would be the musical to do this year," he said. "'La Mancha' always surfaces when our country is troubled. So I asked and I got the show three days before they decided to do it in New York. I got it right under the wire and, frankly, almost accidentally. I think they didn't realize they were giving away the rights to do the show in a town that is, I imagine, going to be a major stop on a tour sometime in the future. And now, you can't do it in another major city. We're the only major theater in the country that has it."

The production stars Brian Sutherland as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote and Saltzman as Cervantes' guardian and sidekick, Sancho Panza.

"It's an amazingly well-written story," says Saltzman. "I know what it's like to take a journey with a friend, so coming into this I know that these two men have found something in each other to make them go on the road together. There has to be some kind of deep friendship to ..."

"... Enable us to understand why Sancho stays with him despite all the mishaps, despite the danger. He's a man who inspires him in a world that lacks inspiration ..."

They glance at each other, realizing at the same time that they're no longer talking about the play.

"... And if anything comes toward his friend ..."

"... He'll jump in front and protect him."

The only question remaining is which one is walking into the Inquisition?

There's a long pause as they look at each other and laugh.

John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

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