Curtain Call: OSF veteran David Kelly returns for one-man show at Grizzly Peak
If you’re directing a play and you need somebody to play a character called Mayor Throttlebottom, which well-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor comes to mind?
Too late. David Kelly already played that role — in the fifth grade.
“I wore my dad’s suit and put a pillow under it to make me rotund,” the veteran OSF actor said. “The other kids laughed. That was the most important thing at the time.”
In 28 seasons at OSF, Kelly’s roles ran the gamut from Humpty Dumpty in “Alice in Wonderland” and Lumière in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” to Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing” and Biff in “Death of a Salesman.”
Other memorable roles include Henry Condell in “The Book of Will,” Benny Southstreet in “Guys and Dolls,” Pickering in “My Fair Lady,” Major-General in “The Pirates of Penzance,” Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part 1,” Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Argan in “The Imaginary Invalid.”
Space limitations and the Mail Tribune’s freelance budget don’t permit listing the many other roles the versatile actor has performed for OSF audiences over the years.
Not a member of the company in 2022, Kelly has been busy elsewhere since the pandemic.
He was featured in a summer run of Jane Austen’s “Emma” as Mr. Weston and Mr. Woodhouse for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. And he is currently understudying for a production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at Boston’s Huntington Theater, directed by Lili-Anne Brown, who directed “Once on This Island” for OSF this season.
The production of “Emma” was a new adaptation by Kate Hamill.
“It was my first time working in live theater in two and a half years. I had a wonderful time and I love Minneapolis,” he said.
Kelley, an Ashland resident, is coming home to perform in a Rogue Theater Company production of “Every Brilliant Thing,” a one-man show playing Nov. 30, Dec. 1-4, and Dec. 6-10 at 2 p.m. at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland. OSF company member Caroline Shaffer directs.
Tickets — $25 for preview night, Nov. 30, and $30 for the balance of the run — can be purchased online at roguetheatercompany.com.
“Every Brilliant Thing” is the story of a man who begins writing a list, at the age of 7, of every brilliant thing that makes life worth living when his mother first attempts suicide. While the play tackles the serious topics of mental health and depression, it is also filled with humor, joy and hope.
Director Shaffer and Kelly have acted together, going back to 1980, and have been long-time friends.
“Caroline is a fantastic partner who is offering so many great ideas about sharing this play with a lively Ashland audience,” Kelly said. “I sure hope they are ready to help us tell this story, as the play won’t work without the audience directly participating.”
Even before the curtain speech, Kelly, who is the Narrator in “Every Brilliant Thing,” will hand out numbered slips of paper with text that he explains will be used during the performance.
“It’s very simple and very low-pressure,” he said. “Everyone in the room experiences the story together. Therefore, there are no light cues and the houselights are up the whole show.”
Kelly’s character compiles the list in an attempt to make his mother realize that there is much to live for.
“He finds out, however, that life isn’t that simple and the problems of severe depression are not so easily solved,” Kelly said.
It’s his first one-man show.
“This is a new thing for me,” Kelly said. “I’m not an improvisatory actor and have never done stand-up. Luckily, I love this material, and I’m happy to perform it in Ashland.”
Despite the misery and heartbreak of despair, sometimes the only way to cope with it is with hope and humor. Kelly believes they serve the play’s story.
“If the entire experience is grim and hopeless, the audience will shut down,” he said.
Kelly, 62, was born and raised in San Jose, California. Both his parents were teachers.
“My mother had wanted to be an actress, but it never happened. Both of them were very supportive and excited about my acting career.”
Kelly had his sights set on working at OSF since the age of 13.
“Seeing shows at OSF when I was a teenager made me realize I might be able to act in multiple plays in a season and live in a fantastic town,” he said.
His drama teacher, Joe Parker, cast him in roles all three years of high school.
“I also worked at a semi-professional theater in the South Bay,” he said. “The artistic director took me under her wing, gave me private acting classes and cast me in shows.”
He remembers attending many shows at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in the ‘70s and seeing inspiring actors like Fredi Olster, Peter Donat and Raye Birk.
“It was a production of ‘Equus’ in 1976, starring Peter Donat, that changed my life,” he said.
Kelly was about the age of one of the characters, Alan Strang, a young man going through cataclysmic life changes.
“Who knows if I would be as impressed today? But it was a perfect experience at the time,” he said.
Kelly earned a B.A. in drama at the University of California, San Diego, and an M.F.A. in acting from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
In the 1980s, he worked at Shakespeare festivals in Garden Grove and San Francisco in California; and in Utah, Colorado and Montana.
“The Montana Shakespeare in the Parks was the best job I’ve ever had as an actor,” he said. “Ten actors, traveling with a van and a truck, set up portable stages in 50 towns in 60 days.
“In many of the small communities, we were the cultural event of the year, so they would make us dinner and we would stay in local homes, as there were no hotels. Montana S.I.P. is still going strong,” he said.
After auditioning for OSF four times, he finally got in.
“I started work at OSF in 1991 and only because I got lucky,” he said. “Someone else in the ensemble dropped out at the last minute.”
He had a small role as Curtis in Sandy McCallum’s production of “Taming of the Shrew,” and played various soldiers and messengers in Pat Patton’s “Henry VI, Part 1.”
“I got lucky 27 more times, getting asked to come back each year. I’m very fortunate to have had a life beyond my expectations,” Kelly said.
He particularly enjoyed the repertory experience.
“I loved playing two shows on the same day in different worlds,” he said. “For example, to go from playing in ‘Imaginary Invalid’ in the afternoon in the Bowmer and getting to do ‘Pirates of Penzance’ outdoors at night was a dream come true.”
His wife, Terri McMahon, is also an OSF veteran, with 23 seasons under her belt. Although they didn’t work together often, one of his favorite times was when they played ex-sweethearts in a play called “Humble Boy.”
“We’ve been in six or seven plays together, but haven’t had many scenes together,” he said. “One of our goals now is to find work together, wherever that may be.”
Kelly spent the pandemic doing play readings, podcasts, and online workshops of new and old scripts.
“But the best thing that happened to me was I got to be a second-grade teacher assistant at Walker Elementary in Ashland, working with two fantastic teachers, Kathleen Mateas and Amy Preskenis,” he said. “In the next few years, I hope to return to that job full time.”
Since “Emma” closed at the Guthrie, he has been living in Boston with his wife, who has started work on an M.F.A. in directing at Boston University.
After “Every Brilliant Thing” closes, he will return to Boston to pursue film, television and stage work.
And then there’s always the teacher assistant gig at Walker Elementary. If you’re a second-grader there, you should be so lucky.
Reach writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.