Lori Larsen isn't shy. If you've seen her onstage even just a few times in the last 35 years of her brilliant career, you've probably always sensed that the frank, un- affected honesty of most of the women she portrays is somewhat inspired by Larsen's own openness, that she's the laid-back kind of gal who'll invite you into her home, offer you wine and cheese, and then casually tell you that, oh, her mother gave birth to her on the very table from which you're dining. Which, by the way, is precisely what she does say after filling a couple of wine glasses.
"She needed a hard surface to push from, you know," Larsen explains, remembering Mom. "Out I came on this very table, into John Bastyr's arms. So what else do you want to know?"
Yes, that John Bastyr, the Northwest's preeminent doctor of naturopathy, and, yes, it does seem a perfect way for Larsen to enter the world. But it's her latest entrance most worth discussion now, as daffy Dotty Otley in Noises Off (opens Wednesday, Dec. 15; 206-443-2222), the first return to a major role on the Seattle Rep's main stage since 1985 for this self-professed Queen of the Fringe.
"I've seen 'em all come and go," she drawls, laughing. "It's like being at a party—if you stay in one spot long enough, finally they come around to you. That was 19 years that I waited, and every year I hoped for something."
Her carefree candor was the best thing about the Rep's faded hippie play New Patagonia several seasons ago—"I know that world," Larsen confesses—but Noises Off's Dottyis a bigger deal, a mother of a role in the mother of all farces. Michael Frayn's comic masterwork charts the disastrous unraveling of a second-rate British ensemble attempting to survive the production of a third-rate, door- slamming bit of nonsense called Nothing On. Larsen's Dotty is a has-been diva having an affair with one of the younger actors, an involvement that increasingly distracts her from her duties as Nothing On's maid, Mrs. Clackett, whose placement of a plate of sardines is crucial to the would-be laughs of the play-within-a-play.
Larsen should be able to handle the mania, which seems to have been her lot in life. A Seattle native from a family of actors in the city's Danish immigrant community, her first professional job was at age 19 in a 1969 ACT production of—what else?—the madhouse drama Marat/Sade.
"That was a great gig," she says, recalling the Vietnam-era unrest that fed the fires of every artistic endeavor at the time. "I remember once we were rehearsing [in the U District], and we were inside [singing], 'We want a revolution now!' and we came outside, and there was tear gas and riots and it was like, 'Whoa, life imitates art!' It was really an intense time."
Noises Off offers its own kind of intensity. The show is farce as a heady lesson in breathless, breakneck timing, a fact that has defeated previous local productions of it. Larsen swears the challenge won't beat this staging.
"[Director] Richard Seyd has done this show three times," she says. "So in Act One when you go, 'OK, when I pick up the sardines I should go this way because it's the logical way,' he says, 'No, if you go that way, in Act Three you won't be able to do A, B, C, and D.' So at first it was really weird, 'cause we'd go [into rehearsal] and [he'd] go 'No, you pick up the thing here and then you go over there,' and [you'd think] 'What, am I chopped liver? I don't have any ideas of my own?' But it isn't about your own ideas. It's about technically getting all the ducks in place. And now our own ideas are starting to spring out, because we're not worried about it, we're just doing it."
Doing it means weeks and weeks of sardines, stairs, and enough athletic door-slamming to qualify the play as an Olympic event, a task that Larsen praises her fellow actors for mastering. They've all had the luxury of a rehearsal set with actual doors and stairs, not always a given in such productions.
"There is one place where they go slam! slam! slam! slam! slam!" she says, detailing the complicated comic frenzy of Nothing On that fuels the uproar of Noises Off when things start to fall apart. "They have worked on it for two weeks. Do you know how hard that is? With all the little stories that they're telling? And finally, after two weeks with real, functioning doors, they got it."
Larsen knows as well as perhaps anyone in town what it means to work at something until it's right—a devotion that doesn't, however, always mean employment.
"You can be mind-boggling and then be out of work for two years," she notes. "That's the way it works here. I have been really broke so many times. I remember in 1997 I was so broke that I went to the Bon Marché and bought a towel for $15 and that was my big purchase of the whole year! I felt like Scarlett O'Hara: 'I will nev-ah be hungry again!' And yet, of course, it comes and it goes."
Things would appear to be on the upswing for now. Larsen recently received a $15,000 Fox Fellowship, a grant which encourages the further study of acting for professionals in midcareer. "When I first got nominated and they said, 'What would you like to study?' I was really huffy about it," she laughs. "'I don't need to study nuthin'! I know everything!' And as that started to break down, because you have to write something [for the grant], I started to think, 'What are my weaknesses? What would I like to learn? What am I afraid of?'"
She first decided to face her college fear of improv—in her UW years of study such spontaneous comedy had been "the most traumatic thing in my entire life. Every single day I failed, and I went home and I cried"—by using the grant to work with local expert Matt Smith. She then focused all her attention on refining, with renowned L.A. voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg, whatever skills would finally allow her to play the kinds of roles she's never really played.
"I've played so many quirky, wacky characters," she says. "I want to be able to walk onstage in a beautiful dress and not do too much. The other parts I understand. I want to be able to do it all."
She shoots, she scores: Larsen was just cast as high-toned society matron Mrs. Culver in the Rep's April 2005 production of W. Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. It's a major victory for her—"My midcareer training is working!" she proclaims with a triumphant roar—coming happily on the heels of her turn as Dotty, which, along with an appearance in The Time of Your Life earlier in the season, represents another milestone in her career.
"This is the first time in 20 years that I've done two plays in [the same] theater in the same season," she says, laughing again. "I feel like, 'Oh, I'm gonna be overexposed!'"