Steven Burge, who's currently starring with Damon Guerrasio in Love Child, a hoot of a show at the Avenue Theater, is one of the funniest actors anywhere. So it was a surprise to learn that he has to face down intense fears before he can step onto a stage.
It's hard to explain because "If you get up and act, it's obviously a choice," Burge says. "Anyone who does it has to be a little bit crazy. But this is so much bigger than stage fright. I'm not afraid I'm going to forget my lines or where I'm supposed to go. It's a fear that I'm going to die onstage." And he doesn't mean this metaphorically: "My pulse starts to go. I can't breathe."
The problem started a few years back when Burge was in Speech & Debate at Curious Theatre. ("He has a knack for blending stylization with emotional honesty," we said then. "He camps and sashays, but you know there's a real and very interesting person underneath it all.") One night, Burge thought he was having an asthma attack. The show was stopped and an intermission called. "It was pretty seamless," he recalls, "but ever since I'm afraid it will happen again. It's ironic that the thing I love most--theater--can also be the cause of so much anxiety."
In Love Child, Burge and Guerrasio play 26 characters, changing genders, ages and style as required, transforming with the aid of nothing but a quick swivel or change of voice and posture. The plot is impossible to explain, but Love Child is simultaneously a play within a play, a play outside a play, and a play about a play, and it yields a laugh pretty much every two seconds.
How does a man suffering from stage fright deal with the torrent of words, the split-second action? "Damon is fearless, and I rely on that," says Burge, laughing. "If I had to leave, I swear he could just do the whole thing by himself."
Nick Sugar's assured and confident direction also helped. "We worked in chunks. The script seems like it's chaos when you're watching, but the writers were brilliant in the way they constructed it," Burge explains.
As for all those characters: "Nick had us start out as types, very broad, and then bring them down to a more realistic level. He does a lot of work in musicals, so he was able to find the rises and falls in the action, the rhythm. Some of it's almost choreography, the way we spin into character or around each other on the stage."
This is the first production of Love Child outside of New York (the New York Times called it "a delicious romp"), and it seems to have landed in a perfect spot. The Avenue's co-owners, Bob Wells and Dave Johnson, are "really laid back," Burge says. "When you find people who are all doing theater because they love it, it's very helpful."
Burge may have his stage fright under control, but he faces another serious onstage peril: his co-star's comic gifts. "He's a very funny person," Burge says. "Sometimes I have to stare hard at his forehead or cross my eyes so as not to break up."
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