Marc Kudisch was channel surfing recently when he came across "The Witches of Eastwick" on HBO — the 1987 film version of author John Updike’s novel about a trio of sorceresses tempted by a devilish stranger named Darryl Van Horne, memorably portrayed by a demonic Jack Nicholson.
Just as he started immersing himself in the wicked tale, Kudisch abruptly turned it off. If he was going to make Van Horne his own creation for audiences inside Signature Theatre, it had to be a characterization that was completely different than the one on screen or in the pages of Updike’s book.
"I always like crafting my own thing. I don’t care what the source material is; whether it be a novel or whether it be a film, the minute that it touches the stage it has it own life," he said. "As an actor, you want to create something that’s organic and be able to express something organic to the audience that’s honest."
Kudisch is the star of director Eric Schaeffer’s musical "The Witches of Eastwick," which makes its U.S. premiere at Signature Theatre (2800 S. Stafford St.) from June 5 – July 8. As the theater describes the tale: "In the tiny New England town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, three unhappy women innocently plot and conjure for their perfect man over a heady brew of brownies and weak martinis. When their longings are made flesh in the arrival of one Darryl Van Horne, all hell breaks loose. Quite literally."
The musical has already played in London’s West End, but this version will include some significant revisions in tone and in the score.
For Kudisch, it’s also a significant departure from previous incarnations of his character.
"There are very specific things that aren’t in the film and aren’t in the novel. I think what’s different between the book and the film is that we are more specific about what a witch is, and what a witch is for Darryl. We’re trying to focus on the ‘why?’" said Kudisch. "Why does he need these women? Why does he want these women this way? Why?"
In that last, one-word question, the tenor of Kudisch’s phrasing changed. Gone, for a moment, was the voice of an esteemed stage actor; in its place was the serpentine tones of a man who has made a career of finding the devil inside of his characters.
KUDISCH HAS previously worked with Schaeffer, scoring a Helen Hayes Award nomination for his role in "The Highest Yellow" back in Signature’s old industrial "black box" theater space on South Four Mile Run. When the rights to "Witches" became available, Schaeffer called him quickly for the role of Van Horne.
Kudisch was already on board for "Witches" when another nefarious role came his way: That of the Snake in "The Apple Tree," a Roundabout Theatre Company musical revival that featured the story of Adam and Eve and co-starred Broadway standout Kristin Chenoweth.
"‘The Apple Tree’ was sort of a last-minute thing at The Roundabout. Let me put it this way: 10 weeks after they decided to do ‘The Apple Tree,’ we were in previews. They offered me the job, and literally two or three weeks after that we started rehearsal," he said. "It’s interesting that I was cast to play the Devil twice."
Reviews were strong for the production and for Kudisch, whom Newsday claimed "can be adorable and creepy in the same instant." Kudisch said that impression wasn’t necessarily the one he wished to make.
"I don’t go for any vibe. I play the intent, and the result comes from that intent. Everybody is going to interpret that differently," he said. "I never thought of myself as ‘adorable but creepy.’ I found the approach to the character that I wanted to find; once you find your legs, you let it all go and run. At the end of the day, it’s also about fun and the abandon that you throw in."
For the Snake, Kudisch said his physical performance was influenced by the show’s score. "When I heard the music, my body literally started to react to what was orchestrated," he said of what the NY Daily News called his "cobra-like body lingo."
Yet despite having perfected one devilish character, Kudisch believes no two demons are the same.
"These are the sorts of characters I’ve made a career out of playing — these sort of heightened, stylized larger-than-life personalities. Even for myself, I don’t want to fall back or rely on things I’ve done in the past," he said.
"It all depends on the style of the piece. Everything has to come from an organic place; from truth. From there, you can draw the line as far as you want. Clearly, I don’t want this to become a cartoon, especially because Darryl is such a creature of science and strategy. Like the Serpent in ‘The Apple Tree,’ his power is knowledge."
Kudisch as Van Horne exerts that power on a trio of witches in Eastwick, played by Christiane Noll, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan and Emily Skinner.
"These three women singing together is like sex; it really doesn’t get any better than this, and that includes Broadway. Me? I’m around to enable. My job is to be a chameleon, in so many ways."
IN EARLY MAY, Kudisch and the cast of "The Witches of Eastwick" had just started formal rehearsals, according to Signature publicist Suzanne Stephens. Yet the star was already starting to learn more about his character.
"With Darryl, I have a stronger idea with how I want to play this guy since the start of rehearsals," he said. "What I love about this character is that it’s all about human nature, and Darryl’s not responsible for anything. He’s an enabler. The Devil doesn’t force anyone into anything; the Devil drops carrots in front of you."
It’s the same mentality Kudisch had when he played yet another devilish character: The Proprietor in the Broadway version of Stephen Sondheim’s "Assassins."
"People said I was the Devil in that. I tell them, ‘I was the enabler,’" he said. "These characters that I like to play walk a fine line. What I love about ‘Assassins’ was that whether you agree or disagree with the morals, the Proprietor had a point. That’s what I love about that play: There’s another national anthem — listen to it. The more you ignore it, the more these characters are going to come banging on your back door."
Marc Kudisch has proven throughout his career that he's able to journey inside a devil's head — does he ever regret taking the trip?
"Do I have a problem playing these characters? No. There’s logic behind every characters, and that logic makes sense to them. I don’t apologize for it."