In 2007, I saw one young actor give two performances that were so different in tone, so stylized and so conceptually daring that they signaled the emergence of a bold new talent. In a revival of Franz Wedekind’s Lulu at Yale Rep, Louis Cancelmi played the first of the titular siren’s lovers in a wild, Expressionist fashion that managed to be outwardly large, even cartoonish, yet emotionally truthful and touching. A few months later, at Soho Rep, Cancelmi played the lead in John Jesurun’s stripped-down version of Philoktetes. Talking to the audience in a hushed monotone, Cancelmi made his face into a mask and kept his physical movements to a bare minimum. The effect he got was trance-like; he created a different, burned-out world for you, all the while letting you see tiny glimmers of emotion and hope in his eyes. I’ve never seen a performance that was so confidently minimalist; at no point did he seem tempted to go for a slightly bigger effect to keep your attention. Instead, he drew me deeper and deeper into his character’s stoic despair, just as in Lulu he splashed me with the pain of a patently absurd man.
Cancelmi studied theater as an undergrad at Yale and trained for a while in Paris at a conservatory called Acting International; he then did a summer intensive at Steppenwolf in Chicago and has worked with Austin Pendleton at HB Studio in New York. He didn’t have much time to craft that complex performance in Philoktetes: “I think I had eight days of rehearsal and three days of tech before the first preview,” Cancelmi remembers. The following year, Cancelmi made a huge impression in the long-running production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted Off-Broadway, playing a feral soldier opposite Marin Ireland (who is certainly a performer to watch herself).
“That experience in Blasted was inimitable, in every regard,” says Cancelmi. “There were difficulties, certainly—the inherent difficulty of the text and subject matter—but in some ways this was one of the easiest times I've ever had with a play. By which I mean: all the pieces seemed to fit on their own. The actors, director, designers all seemed to be on the same page more or less from day one; nobody shied away from what the play required, everyone tended rather to embrace it; and, once we had sorted out the technical challenges of making the whole thing work, each performance seemed to give new energy to the next.” Cancelmi has certain roles he’d like to tackle when he gets older, like Faust and Beckett’s Krapp, but he’s mainly focused on playwrights he’d like to explore. “I'd like to do some Racine,” he says, “some Kleist, some Pinter. More Sarah Kane. Some Bond, some Kroetz, some Thomas Bernhard.” This December, he’ll be appearing in a new play by Melissa James Gibson called This at Playwrights Horizons. At this point, I’m ready to see anything that Cancelmi is in.
Where you'll see him next: in This at Playwrights Horizons, November 6-December 13.