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STAR TRIBUNE For actor J.C. Cutler, 'Uncle Philip's Coat' is a personal mountain

The solo show about immigration, history and survival opens Saturday at Six Points Theater in St. Paul.

October 20, 2022

Actor J.C. Cutler in Matty Selman’s “Uncle Philip’s Coat” at Six Points Theater. Sarah Whiting

By Rohan Preston Star Tribune

For actors, the one-person show is one of the highest mountains to scale — without scene partners or safety nets.

Twin Cities performer J.C. Cutler first tackled his peak challenge in the early 1990s, doing two solo shows by Eric Bogosian — "Drinking in America" and "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" — at the old Cricket Theatre. Now the journeyman actor is at it again, playing all 16 characters in "Uncle Philip's Coat," which opens Saturday at Six Points Theater in St. Paul.

"A lot of people at 63 wouldn't take on something like this, but I'm just drawn to it," Cutler said, adding that it's much more of a mental and physical workout than he remembered. "Thirty years ago, my brain and body didn't scream at me when I got home and say, 'What the hell, brother?'"

Directed by Craig Johnson, "Coat" is playwright Matty Selman's 1998 stage ode to the stories imbued in one tattered article of clothing. In the play, unemployed actor Matty is stumped by an inherited family heirloom. He tries to get it exhibited, which sets him on a journey digging into the coat's history, from surviving pogroms in a Ukrainian shtetl a century earlier to arrival in New York on a migrant's back.

"When I choose a season, I seek pieces that are relevant to today, tell a good story and will get people thinking," said Barbara Brooks, founder and producing artistic director of Six Points. "This play reflects on how individuals can learn about their past, understand who they are and how they choose to lead their lives. Life can be difficult but at the same time so rewarding and uplifting."

Main trio

The three main characters in "Coat" are Matty, his father, Mickey, and Uncle Philip. The lives of the brothers, who are five years apart, diverge once they migrate to America.

"Philip is what they call in Yiddish a luftmensch — someone who lives on air," Cutler said. "He lives on the street and does his thing. That's how he came out of the pogroms and as the story unfolds, we see how the trauma of early childhood manifests itself in life. Sometimes it's easy to judge people you see on the street."

Actors in solo shows sometimes distinguish their characters by physical tics and cadences, and by props and costumes, among other stage tools. For Cutler, whose many prominent roles include Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater, it's thrilling to both delineate his trio of main characters and to show places where they meet, as if in a Venn diagram.

"It's fun to play the son of a father, then play the father, and you can see the father in the son and the brother in the father," Cutler said.

He added that although being onstage alone can be lonely, it's kind of exhilarating. Besides, while Cutler does not share the stage with fellow actors, he considers theatergoers part of the cast.

"You develop a rapport with your audience — they're your scene partner," Cutler said. "It's direct address so you're vulnerable and open to the moment."

Characters in the family

"Coat" has gotten Cutler thinking about his own family and how he creates his characters.

His late mother, Tina Cirelli, immigrated in her 20s from Italy where, as a child, she watched as her town was obliterated by bombs during World War II.

"They went up to the mountains and survived," Cutler said. "The terror she felt as a 10-year-old running through the streets and climbing over a dead horse — I can't help but draw from that to relate to the pogroms."

Cutler's father was narrative poet Bruce Cutler, whose book "The Massacre at Sand Creek" was nominated for a National Book Award.

"My father would look at the world, assimilate it and articulate it in words," Cutler said. "I look at the world and go, what's the story behind that way of walking or what causes their voice to sound that way."

He does not put his characters together like jigsaw puzzles, Cutler continued. Instead, especially in a show like "Coat," "they're already there" and when he goes to get them, "they just bubble over.

"That might sound a little weird and schizophrenic and as my wife says, 'Try living with it.' "

'Uncle Philip's Coat' By: Matty Selman. Directed by Craig Johnson for Six Points Theater. Where: Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. When: 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu. Ends Nov. 13. Tickets: $25-$40. 651-647-4315. Protocol: Masks required.

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