Interviewing most snakes might be difficult, but Athena, a six-foot female boa constrictor from Conway, is an exception. She flicks her tongue out as I slowly approach her, tasting the air (snakes have no ears and can’t hear, but feel the vibrations) and after a little getting-to-know-you time (for me), like nearly an hour, I’m finally bold enough to let Athena rub her head against my hand.
It’s cold, but in a warm, friendly sort of way. I think she likes me.
Athena, though lacking an Equity card, as far as we know, is one of the stars in “Bertrand Priest,” the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s newest production, premiering this week. Athena, in a “wonderful display of acting,” her co-star Jose DiVincenzo says, portrays a male boa. You probably won’t notice a difference.
“Bertrand Priest” opens on Friday at 8 p.m., but a sneak preview and discussion with director Brad Mooy will be held at 7:15 tonight (April 26). The play runs through May 7.
Ian Cohen’s “Bertrand Priest” was the 2006 winner of the Kaufman and Hart Prize for New American Comedy. The Kaufman and Hart prize is awarded every two years by the Rep, with the winner staged along with the two runners-up in a reading the year of the award, and then fully staged during the Rep’s following season.
The play, with elements of dark comedy and light-heartedness, is set in the past and the present. In the past, Bertrand Priest (Mark Fisher) is encouraged by a spiritual free-spirit, Katrina (DiVincenzo), to pursue a path of writing. In the present, two men, businessman Al Steinberg (Matt Walker) and actor Dennis Kennedy (Eric Martin Brown) prepare to stage a play by Priest. The past and the present eventually intersect.
DiVincenzo, who was part of last summer’s staged reading, was asked back to play Katrina on the MainStage, but wasn’t sure about acting with a snake wrapped around her shoulders and slithering in her hands. But, from all appearances in our interview last week, DiVincenzo and Athena, whose owners answered a casting call, have bonded.
“When Brad said I’d be performing with a snake, I had a cold sweat and my stomach was turning,” DiVincenzo said. “I wasn’t afraid, but more like repulsed. But I said, I’m an actor, I’ll accept the challenge and tell everyone about it afterward.”
DiVincenzo said she was afraid at first of being nervous in rehearsals and alarming the snake, but Athena’s good nature eased any jitters. And her co-star, Mark Fisher, “was charmed” by Athena, she said.
“I’m not afraid of snakes anymore,” DiVincenzo said as the boa wrapped herself around her torso, then began inching up a wall behind her. The owners and handlers showed the actress how to grasp the snake just far enough behind the head with one hand and far enough from the tail with the other to maneuver the reptile during scenes.
And, DiVincenzo said, Athena seems to know how to play to the audience — at least the small ones who have been around her so far in rehearsals.
The snake serves as Katrina’s conduit to the spiritual world, DiVincenzo said. “Katrina gets an intuitive answer when she speaks to Sherman. Sherman speaks in his own way,” she said. “We know that animals can see things humans can’t. Sherman sees auras.”
DiVincenzo seems as free-spirited as the character she plays. The Buffalo, N.Y., native went to theater school at Southern Cal for her master’s degree and has remained in Los Angeles, guest-starring in dozens of popular TV shows, from “24” to the “CSI” franchises to “ER” to “NYPD Blue” to the Ted Danson vehicle “Becker,” and more.
“I’m either playing a cop or a robber, or a prostitute,” she said. “I was also part of two series that were on and off before anyone saw them.”
Her scenes in the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Garner film “Daredevil” were left on the cutting room floor, but reinserted by the director for the DVD. She auditioned for “The Sleeper,” the 2004 Kaufman and Hart winner, and Mooy remembered her when he was casting the “Bertrand Priest” reading.
“Katrina is rough around the edges, but is all heart,” DiVincenzo said. “The play has very mystical elements. Katrina’s dreams are very prophetic. There are some fun special effects the Rep has in the works. Visually, it’s very pretty. It’s a dark comedy, but uplifting at the end. I think people will walk out of the theater having faith in dreams.”