By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
On June 1, ArtsWest will feature its production of “Sweeney Todd”, but the production will not just be the classic “Sweeney Todd” that everyone knows, says actor Ben Gonio, who is casted as the play’s lead. Gonio tries to avoid getting too political, but states that such exploration of power, control, class structure, and empathy (or lack thereof) will inevitably cause audiences to draw inferences to modern day issues.
“We’re conceptualizing the piece. We’re not just doing ‘Sweeney Todd’; we’re adding some layers to it,” said Gonio, careful to disclose too much about the play before its debut.
“Without spoon feeding the audience, we’ll create theatrical moments that will give way to different interpretations based on a contemporary lens… The audience will be seated and something happens that is not in the script. It will make them think about little bit,” he added.
Sweeney Todd, a villain and Victorian urban legend was featured most notably in the Tony award winning musical of its namesake by Steven Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. The musical has since included many versions that bring up new characters and plot twists. More recently, the “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, is a dark adaptation where a man is so changed by a false conviction and violent disbanding of his family that he returns to society with a new identity and name, set on avenging the destruction of his life and family.
While the classic play retains its appeal, the West Seattle-based ArtsWest production of “Sweeney Todd” aims to stand firmly as a contemporary adaptation that is provocative, yet applicable to our day and age.
“‘Sweeney Todd’ is about class structure. On the surface, it’s a classic revenge tragedy – which makes it satisfying – but on a deeper level, it explores the weaponizing of power and control and how that intersects with empathy. That’s what makes it a piece for our present moment,” said ArtsWest Artistic Director and “Sweeney Todd” Co-Director Mathew Wright via a press release.
For one, ArtsWest’s casting of “Sweeney Todd” involves a diversity in casting that, as far as Gonio knows, is unprecedented. Gonio, a Filipino American, is cast as a lead as well as actress Corinna Lapid Munter for Mrs. Lovett. Emilie Hanson is cast as Johanna Barker, John Han as Tobias Ragg, and Jimmie Herrod as the Beggar Woman. Co-directors Wright and Eric Ankrim have developed a vision for ArtsWest’s version of “Sweeney” that places race, oppression, and power in the forefront of the play’s narrative.
“The big question was always, why should we do this play? Why stage a play from 1979? What does it have to say today? A lot of our decisions about the direction and approach started there. I think one aspect that’s much clearer in this version is that it’s an American horror story, with all the connotations that come along with that – it’s American, it’s contemporary, and it’s horrifyingly relevant.”
There have already been conversations among cast members to introduce layers or original theatrical moments into their adaptation of “Sweeney” that would indirectly draw references to our modern day. ArtsWest production of “Sweeney” encourages cast members of color to bring one’s own experiences into an interpretation of the play. It is a bold, brave, yet understated notion which cast members hope will eventually become more commonplace.
“[It’s] refreshing to me because it’s not using conscious race casting as a tool to be cool, hip, relevant, and modern. It is really about, let’s bring in people of color to these roles and just leave it at that because there is something that people of color will bring into these roles that we don’t have to draw out, explore, and be pedantic about.’ It’s just there,” said Gonio.
“[The cast doesn’t] want to play it safe. They want to make bold choices and create conversation, but we’re not making too much of a point about race at the end of the day. I think it’ll be an afterthought, but we’re not going to make an issue of it,” he adds.
As theater and television actor, Gonio has encountered his fair share of typecasting but states that recent controversies with whitewashing in films and the yellowface controversy in a local production of “The Mikado” have propelled theater and arts organizations to examine their responsibility in casting. In the past, theater and arts groups are apt to produce plays featuring previously successful commercial artists, making breaking into roles for new or underrated actors of color even more difficult. While Gonio still gets the occasional call for race specific roles, he also mentions receiving a recent audition opportunity for a different role typically cast as Caucasian. This change is encouraging for Gonio, who also played a typically Caucasian role as George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, a role which led him to be considered for the lead in “Sweeney Todd.”
Even in his busy life as a father, husband, adjunct professor and creative consultant for startups, Gonio felt drawn to roles that allow him to raise broader issues and push the envelope in minority casting.
“In both our personal lives, we’ve always felt this sense when it comes to performance opportunities that we have to work a little harder to be seen, that we have to work a little harder on the material because there’s always this certain element of the underdog and this feeling that we’re just not good enough… That narrative may have been our prose and we can’t ignore that. We can be aware of it, but I don’t think we should lead with that narrative… Who we are is by the very thing this production is looking for. We should be aware of that narrative but don’t let it be a crutch. If we’re cast traditionally or non-traditionally, that narrative needs to not be strong. We need to be comfortable in our own skin,” he said.
Arts West production of “Sweeney Todd” will play from June 1 to July 1 Thursday through Saturday at 7:30PM and a 3PM matinee show on Sunday. Tickets range from $19 to $39 and can be purchased online, by phone, or at the box office.
For more information about “Sweeney Todd” or to purchase tickets, visit artswest.com.