Rafael Untalan is currently making his Theater J debut playing Marcus G. Dahlman AKA Marcus Gee in Yellow Face. He last performed in the area at Imagination Stage in Anime Momotoro. For three years he was part of the acting company at Oregon Shakespeare Festival playing a wide range of roles in plays such as Cyrano de Bergerac, As You Like It and The Cherry Orchard. Other regional credits include The Ramayana at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), A Tale of Two Cities and In the Northern Lands at Seattle Children’s Theatre, Twelfth Night at Theatreworks, The Winter’s Tale and Amadeus at Marin Shakespeare Company, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Virginia Shakespeare Festival and Kiss of the Spider Woman, Lorca in a Green Dress and Blood Wedding at Miracle Theatre. Rafael’s film and TV credits include TNT’s Leverage and Eden and Earth which were both produced by Invisible Pictures. Rafael holds an MFA from The Academy for Classical acting at George Washington University. You can see from Rafael’s credits that he is incredibly versatile and with his role in Yellow Face he has the challenge of making a somewhat egotistical character sympathetic. Without giving anything away, I will say that Rafael successfully makes this happen. His performance is one to see. Although playwright David Henry Hwang uses Asian Americans as the focus of Yellow Face, it is an important piece of theatre tackling issues that affect all ethnic groups working in the arts today. If you enjoy good acting, production and writing, check out Rafael and a stellar group of performers in Yellow Face playing through February 23rd at Theater J.
Were you interested in performing as a kid?
Almost everyone in my father’s family sings, dances and plays instruments — so to a certain extent, performance is in my blood. That said, I’m the first actor in my family, so it was hard for me to identify acting as a calling. It was not until college that I came to understand that my desire to be and do EVERYTHING (astronaut, NBA superstar, writer, Jedi Knight) could find an outlet via acting. Actors are, among other things, experiential dilettantes.
How do you best describe the character you play in Yellow Face?
Marcus is an “ethnically ambiguous” actor who, like many actors, in an ardent explorer, and natural seeker — and something of an opportunist. Like many Americans, he has a profound sense of cultural rootlessness. When the Asian American community embraces and even lionizes him, he goes ‘all in,’ and becomes a powerful positive leader within that community. This gives him a real sense of belonging, for the first time in his life. His joy and his zeal are both absolutely sincere and heartfelt, as is his heartbreak and isolation. Marcus’ capacity for commitment is extraordinary; I admire it.
You have performed in a fair amount of the classics by people like Shakespeare and Dickens. Do you have a particular favorite classic play and is there one that you are dying to get your hands on?
There is not one, there are MANY. Shakespeare’s great tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth) are among the greatest stories ever told; of the four, I’ve only performed one as professional. Having said that, one of my favorite characters in the canon that I’d love to wrestle with is Philip the Bastard in King John. He is an outsider, with a razor sharp wit and remarkable facility for language, gifts that are only matched by his capacity for self-reflection and ultimate growth as a character.
One of the issues talked about in Yellow Face is ethnic appropriate casting. Do you feel the casting opportunities have gotten better for all ethnicities say in the last ten years?
My sense of it is that, writ large across the American theater, there has been a great deal of thinking and discussion about this issue over the last ten years. From that perspective, we’ve come a long way. However, these statistics bear out little, if no progress: “According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition 77 percent of all roles on New York City stages during the 2011-2012 season were filled by white actors. Asian American actors came in at 3 percent, tied at the bottom with Latino actors.” * These are statistics about New York, but they also reflect my experience as a regional theater actor. I’ve only been on the east coast for a few years, but I would have to say that the west coast is somewhat more advanced in this area.
*[David Henry Hwang, interview in the Washington Post, 1/24/14]
After Yellow Face where can we see you next?
I will be teaching and directing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Summer Seminar for High School Juniors this summer. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to spending as much time as possible with my soon-to-be three-year-old son, Henry.