D.C. audiences swoon, whether she's playing Shakespeare or a tap-dancing pig
By Nelson Pressley
Left, Holly Twyford in the title role of If You Give a Pig a Pancake at Maryland's Adventure Theatre in 2010 (photo by Bruce Douglas); right, Twyford with Kyle Schiefer and Max Talisman in Lost in Yonkers at Theater J in Washington, D.C., in 2009 (photo by Stan Barouh)
Helen Hayes Award voters really, really liked Holly Twyford last year. The Washington, D.C., actress was nominated not once but thrice in the leading actress category. How's a poor panel of judges to choose?
You'd think Twyford would have split her own vote and left the trophy open for someone else: Tonya Pinkins for the musical Black Pearl Sings!, Lisa Harrow for Rock 'n' Roll, Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped.
("Rhoda!" Twyford gushes admiringly of the TV icon Harper, who was also Tony-nominated for her uproariously raunchy, booze-soaked Tallulah last fall, in an Arena Stage presentation. "Me and Rhoda!")
Yet Twyford took the prize, and not for her characteristically clinical work as the scholar Hannah Jarvis in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at the Folger Theatre, nor for the delicate seriocomic balance she struck as Bella in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers at Theater J. The performance that most captivated Hayes hearts was Twyford's lusciously tart portrayal at Signature Theatre of Diane, the worldly talent agent managing a rising Hollywood star's inconvenient (marketing-wise) homosexuality in Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed. After all, it was such pure fun: Twyford, looking glam and effortlessly working Diane's high-end accessories (namely her loaded purse and cell phone), detonated laughter again and again with precisely calibrated punch lines (the barb discreet, the insult direct, etc.).
"Somewhere, Rosalind Russell must be beaming," Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks declared. In City Paper, Trey Graham opined, "All you really need to know about The Little Dog Laughed is that its star is getting rapturous applause for her exits."
Rounding out the critical sweep, in the Post, Celia Wren dubbed Twyford "the Sarah Bernhardt of the D.C. theatre scene"—and this was in praise of Twyford's turn as the enthusiastic star of a kids' show at Adventure Theatre, If You Give a Pig a Pancake (based on the popular children's book franchise by Laura Numeroff). The lanky Twyford, in a slim pink dress with a corkscrew tail in the back, gamely scrambled onto a counter and licked a pancake plate clean, murmuring, "Très, très, très, très bien!" Modeling a hat and flashing a smile as wide as a sombrero, she channeled the soul of Bert Lahr dopily fishing for a compliment: "Huh? Huh?"
Twyford's whole-hog willingness to play this tap-dancing pig for squirmy tots reveals a few things you might not know about this busy actress.
First: She and her longtime partner, Saskia Mooney, have a young daughter, aged three. "This is the first thing Helena's been able to see me in," Twyford exults over (yes) a BLT sandwich.
Second: Twyford doesn't take herself terribly seriously, despite acclaim for roles that often have been as heavy as her entertaining Diane and her giddy pig were light. At the Folger, Twyford has played Juliet and Hamlet (or at least the leading fourth of the Dane, given that director Joe Banno had psychologically quartered the complicated Prince). This season Twyford will star in Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children at Ford's Theatre, and in the spring she'll make her Shakespeare Theatre Company debut playing Anna in Harold Pinter's Old Times.
Yet she's also played the artist-turned-dog in Lee Blessing's Chesapeake and Crab the dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. "My animal repertoire is rather extensive, yeah," Twyford says, clearing her throat importantly.
Third: She's pretty businesslike about her craft. For example, Twyford tackled the porker role months ahead of time, reports Pig director Jerry Whiddon. "She was not just breezing in and making it happen," says Whiddon, who also directed Twyford last fall in Lost in Yonkers. "She didn't change her approach to the work in any real way."
"I did learn from the more experienced actors I have worked with not to be too afraid to put in my two cents," Twyford offers. "And now I really put in my two cents. I put in like four dollars, actually."
Twyford's early roles included gigs at Arena just as its acting company, long Arena's cornerstone, was dissolving in the 1990s. Twyford drew laughs as the Irish maid in Long Day's Journey into Night under Douglas Wager's direction; she played Ermengarde in The Matchmaker with Robert Prosky headlining, and appeared in John Strand's update of The Miser, which pecked at the greedy Reagan 1980s and featured longtime Arena actors Halo Wines and Richard Bauer. "One of the characters was doing a Cuban accent, so there was a lot of spit," Twyford recalls of The Miser. "And so he spit at Richard. And the mileage that Richard got out of juuuust very carefully wiping the spit off of his eye—it was amazing! These were all master classes. And part of a master class is understanding that there is not one answer—there are a bunch of different ways to do this."
The prospect of real clowning makes Twyford feel a touch shaky, yet she managed the baggy pants/knockabout shtick successfully (another Hayes Award) in Aaron Posner's staging of Two Gents, in which she played Speed as well as Crab.
"My sense of myself is that I tend to sit back and evaluate my options, and then proceed," Twyford figures. "And that was a case where I couldn't do that. It was the same with If You Give a Pig a Pancake—you have to dive in, because the logic will not make sense of it."
Design can help—she makes a joke about Beane's Diane being built on a foundation of high-fashion hair and shoes—but the lack of control can be nerve-wracking. "I feel like I've heard, many, many times, the director or somebody say, 'No no no, don't worry—you're going to be wearing a huge trash can, so it's going to be fine.' Or, 'No, this is where you'll be wearing the hat that's two feet long with the dog on top.' That makes a difference."
It's funny how soberly both Twyford and Whiddon—in separate interviews, days apart—discuss comedy. They're grave as policy-makers, strict as engineers. And it's that intensity, Whiddon suggests, that gets the laughs. "It's only a nanosecond [on stage]," he says, describing the negotiation of any given bit, "but we'll talk about it for half an hour." And sometimes after all that, he adds, the honest response is, "Um—no."
While Twyford's obviously willing to clown around, her trump card is her verbal ability—mandatory in Shakespeare, and manna in such breezy comic classics as Desk Set (which she did at the Studio Theatre, playing the Katharine Hepburn part) and Twentieth Century (Ken Ludwig's adaptation of the screwball comedy at Signature). There's a touch of trumpet in her voice, so she can honk, bleat or cry. But it's the mental acuity behind that voice that's key, the fine-grained nuance and quick thinking that makes zingers sound easy. She'll mine that vein again this fall at Signature in Ludwig's A Fox in the Fairway, a country club farce that Twyford categorizes as screwball comedy.
"She's got a touch of Diane about her, actually," Twyford says of the sardonic divorcée she'll play. "She's got a smart mouth on her. But she's got a good heart." That deadpan cliché makes Twyford cackle, and it inspires a further description that she delivers with breathless zest: "And she's got a checkered past!"
In other words, nothing serious.
Critic Nelson Pressley writes regularly about theatre in the Washington, D.C., area.
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