When Chris Kendall was first asked to be in Tuesdays With Morrie, a play adapted by Mitch Albom and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher from Albom’s memoir about his visits to a dying onetime professor, the actor wasn’t sure he was interested. He’d tried reading the book and hadn’t been able to finish.
“I thought the author was a jerk," Kendall recalls. "I felt he was mainly interested in himself.”
But after the offer from Cherry Creek Theatre, he read the script and changed his mind. Kendall had been afraid that Morrie would be presented as “some kind of saint," he says. "And you can’t portray a saint without some dyspepsia. But he comes across as a very deep character. He’s interesting, humorous and not perfect, a human being with a full spectrum of feelings and foibles.”
So Kendall took the role, and he's glad he did. He found that working with director Billie McBride and co-star Antonio Amadeo gave him room to explore. Rehearsing “has been a real journey," he says, "as there are so many deep emotions that get stirred up, and reliably so, over and over again.”
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Kendall has been a significant presence on the Front Range theater scene for many years; he's lived in Denver “with brief sojourns elsewhere” since 1960. In high school, he did a couple of children’s shows at the Bonfils Memorial Theatre, and from 1979 to ’82 worked with Hunger Artists, Slightly Off-Center and the Mercury Cafe. In the early 1980s, he had a small role in a Denver Center Theatre Company production of Androcles and the Lion starring Mercedes Ruehl.
He lived in New York for most of the 1980s, taking acting classes and working as a computer programmer. The acting classes were revelatory. After his first monologue, the teacher asked him to “get back to the start, sit down, start at the top, go very slowly, close your eyes, do your monologue as quietly as you can. Go slower. Slower."
“He forced me to focus on each word I was speaking,” Kendall remembers. “Before I got three sentences in, I was in tears. I’d been playing emotion and not paying attention to emotion. Doing what I supposed an actor was supposed to do.”
After returning to Denver, Kendall did little acting; he says he had pretty much given up. Then he met actor-director Geoffrey Kent, who was casting a cowboy-themed Macbeth, and during the rehearsal process encountered many of Denver’s top theater artists. Kendall has since delivered memorable performances with the likes of Curious Theatre Company, the Edge Theater, Benchmark, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Miners Alley and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, winning several acting awards along the way, including two Henrys, a Marlowe and a Best of Denver.
Kendall is not a flashy presence on stage, but a quiet, deeply compelling one, with a magnetism that arises from his profound immersion in a role. “To me, it’s all in the words,” he says. “As human beings, we inherit all the capacity for feeling that other humans have, and it’s just a matter of being open and allowing these feelings to come through us, whether we’ve experienced anything like the character's experience in our lives or not. The willingness to show emotion in public tends to become rare among male children in no time at all. The capacity for active make-believe in public is also stifled. But I use it constantly. It may be my only stock and store.”
All Kendall’s acting experiences haven’t been ideal. He remembers wooden co-stars, irascible directors, having to cover himself in glittery gold makeup that took forever to put on and take off for Androcles, and a hyper-energetic actor “who basically roughed me up. She was always hitting, elbowing, knocking into me.” he says.
Morrie is a quintessentially Jewish character, and Kendall is not Jewish — though it’s hard to imagine a more convincing Freud than the version he created four years ago for BETC’s Hysteria, a play that teeters between horror and hilarity, weeping and laughter, and in which Kendall was the wise, sad — and very Jewish — linchpin. He was also an entirely believable Shylock in District Merchants at Miners Alley last year. Along the way, Kendall has given a fair amount of thought to the complex issues of appropriation and cross-cultural casting.
“I prefer not to have such issues become the story, when the real story is complete between the covers of the script,” he says. “Are there boundaries that should be observed? Of course.” Playing Morrie “is not equivalent to putting on blackface, any more than playing a character with a limp would be as offensive as playing someone afflicted with palsy," he continues. "If you try to draw a line somewhere, you end up cutting the baby in half. We have to rely on each other's sense of propriety.”
Kendall has always had a deep appreciation for Jewish humor and says he found inspiration in several Jewish comics, from Mel Brooks to Max Shulman, the creators of Mad magazine to Larry David. “There’s a particular kind of wry sensibility that I find very engaging and intelligent," he notes. "Rocky and Bullwinkle — there was a gift for making dry jokes that even as a child I was able to get; they made me feel smart because I understood the humor.”
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Kendall thinks the Denver theater scene he has watched unfold over so many years is now flowering. “All these companies are competing to get shows as soon as they’re available, shows that have been on Broadway," he says. "So there’s a lot of good contemporary theater coming here.” Small theaters are more willing to pay the non-union actors who once would have worked for nothing, which attracts more talent — another sign that local theater is becoming “a real contender for national attention.” he adds.
In addition, companies are getting more savvy about audience-building and finding ways “to get people to be members, donors or at least subscribers. Which allows them to hire more actors, pay them better and produce better theater," he says. "It’s an organic process. People see better theater, they come back. And it’s all been gaining steam in recent years.
“It makes me feel happy that I made the then-painful decision to move back," Kendall says. "I love living here.”
Tuesdays with Morrie opened October 21 and will run through November 24 at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, as part of the 2019 Neustadt Jewish Arts, Authors, Movies and Music Festival. Tickets, $33 to $38, are available at cherrycreektheatre.org