What the Puck?

Posted on 29 Jan 2009 at 10:37am
By ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Cedric Neal blesses the stage of the Wyly Theatre with an edgy take on Shakespeare’s funny valentine


CEDRIC, KNEEL | Seeing his picture on a DART bus only made Cedric Neal realize there’s a lot of attention on him and the opening of the Wyly Theatre. The DTC’s debut production there, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ opens tonight. (ARNOLD WAYNE JONES/Dallas Voice)

THE WYLY POST
Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Through Nov. 22. Tuesdays–Sundays. 214-522-8499.
DallasTheaterCenter.org.

The first time Cedric Neal saw his face plastered on the side of a DART bus promoting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Dallas Theater Center’s 51st season-opener and debut at the new Wyly Theatre, his initial thought was cock-of-the-wall pride: "I’m the Carrie Bradshaw of Dallas!" he says, recalling the opening credits of Sex and the City.

Then the reality set in.

"I thought, ‘Hold on: Your face is the advertisement for this show. What if it bombs? It’s me out there.’"

Now that’s pucked up. Literally.

Neal, who has only been acting since 2002, essays the lead role in Midsummer, the mischievous fairy Puck. It’s his first stab at Shakespeare, his debut (and everyone’s) on the Wyly stage as the eyes of the country are focused on Dallas’ new Arts District. (The New York Times’ Sunday section has been a travelogue for Big D for months now, giving the city perhaps its most national attention since 1963.)

Don’t think Neal doesn’t know it. He admits the rehearsal process has left him tired and stressed, though it’s not exactly new to him. The last 15 months have been a whirlwind for Dallas’ resident sprite.

First, he was cast in the title role of The Who’s Tommy, the premiere directorial effort by then-new DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty. The acclaim heaped upon the edgy production focused mostly on Moriarty, but that didn’t lessen the pressure of Neal.

Then he was cast in Moriarty’s next effort, a far less-well-received adaptation of the Old Testament called In the Beginning.

Around the same time, Neal was announced as one of the nine permanent members of the DTC’s reformed resident acting company, a tradition that hadn’t existed at the center for 20 years.

There were auditions for major Broadway musicals — Shrek, The Color Purple — where he came heartbreakingly close. And finally, Puck — a character who actually blesses the house just as the Wyly debuts with international eyes honed on it. All that weighs on him.

"I’m scared shitless but I’ll trust the power of the words," he says.

If he weren’t stressed out, it would be a miracle. But then, Neal is a strong believer in miracles.

"There have been times in the past where I didn’t handle the pressure well, but I am a Jesus freak. Glory to God sustains me," he says sincerely. "I am a firm believer that the energy you send out is gonna come back to you a lot stronger. You reap what you sow. I am blessed to be part of these historic events."

Historic not only for the new home, but for the edgy take Moriarty intends for this updated version of Shakespeare. Inspired in part by the graffiti art of Keith Haring, the actors break the fourth wall between audience and performing, descending into bleachers and decorating the entirety of the Wyly performance hall with chalk. Each performance ends with patrons invited onstage to join in the reception for the weddings just witnessed. At least, that was the plan a month ago.

"It would be a lot simpler if we were doing flowers and wings. Working on a Kevin show, we don’t know the final product until opening night," Neal laughs … only he’s not laughing. "Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s the truest form of artistic creativity," a tightrope act for an actor that requires tremendous trust in the vision of his director.

With his boundless, childlike energy — and a bizarre but fervently-professed soft spot for the teeny-bopper-targeted Jonas Brothers — Moriarty has himself often been compared to Puck, the happy troublemaker. Both he and Neal share the same slender frame, the same intensity. Which begs the question whether Neal, Moriarty’s de facto go-to guy in casting, is the director’s surrogate, the manifestation of his personality onstage.

Maybe a little, Neal concedes.

"I’ve never processed a show like I did Tommy or In the Beginning or now Midsummer. It’s amazing the information that’s in that man’s head," he says. "We’re not privy to that process, but it’s definitely puckish. During a certain part [of Midsummer], when the lovers are having their big brouhaha, it’s totally Kevin onstage. During that scene my motivation is ‘I am Kevin Moriarty!’"

But he also needs to be Ced, not "Cedric Neal." And that sometimes means "getting out of the way of myself," he says.

"I’ve tried everything once and probably liked it, and made repeated decisions that led to self-inflicted wounds," he admits. "I’ve been fortunate or unfortunate that most of the shows I have done have either mirrored my life or predicted what I was about to go through. Tommy was major. That wasn’t Tommy onstage; that was Cedric — I almost got lost in that character. But now I get to be a fairy that causes trouble and doesn’t mind. All he wants is to be is loved."

That’s something he can understand, too.

So as the curtain is about to rise once again, Neal is coming to terms with what all his efforts, his ups and downs, have led him to.

"I am surrounded by geniuses: Chamblee Ferguson, Liz Mikel, Joel Ferrell, Sally Vahle. I love being someone totally different for two hours, not worrying about my problems. But I don’t want to let myself down. I go into every show wondering, Is this the one where I can’t deliver, where people say ‘We knew he was gonna drop the ball.’ There are people who are waiting for you to fail," he says, pausing.

"Let them wait."

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 30, 2009.

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