For the past month, Jodi Kellogg has been going beautifully to pieces three nights a week and once on Sunday afternoons. The scene is always the same: Midway through the second act of Park Square Theatre's production of The Heiress, Kellogg's character, the guileless ingénue Catherine Sloper, waits in a darkened house for her beau to arrive and spirit her away from her glacially indifferent father and the stultifying confines of Washington Square society. As midnight passes and Catherine realizes that she has been jilted, the blood drains out of Kellogg's cheeks. Every muscle in her face works through the arc from disbelief to anger and despair. Finally, her angular features dissolve into a mask of inconsolable grief and she collapses to the stage in a heap of lace and tears. In the hands of a lesser actor, such a melodramatic flop could ring as clumsy or false. When Kellogg falls, it is devastating. In her final preview performance, a woman in the second row burst into tears and wept quietly until long after the house lights had come up.
Kellogg, who always watches the audience from the corner of her eye, noticed the sobbing lady. Oh, honey, she thought, this must be really close to home for you. "I'm drawn to characters with a lot of pain," Kellogg explained during a break in an audition the other afternoon. "Not because I have a lot of pain, but because I want people to understand it. There's something wrong with our world--people can't understand that someone could be in so much pain."
One might imagine that the liberal distribution of pathos on such a regular basis would leave Kellogg a bit frayed around the edges. "It's always a risk to cry like that. One of my friends came to the last preview show. Afterwards, he said, 'That's the most naked I've ever seen you.' I think he's actually seen me naked, so that was pretty amazing. It's not like The Cryptogram, though, where I was literally having a nervous breakdown onstage every night. That was like 64 minutes of Mamet beating you over the head with an emotional stick."
On good nights, Kellogg can immerse herself so completely in her character that she later cannot later recall the most mundane details of her performance--she calls it "white blindness," after a phrase coined by director John Clark Donahue. On the best nights, she is wired with nervous energy for hours afterward and has trouble sleeping. It is a temporary rapture, and, like everything in Kellogg's life, a balance between exhilaration and exhaustion.
Jodi Kellogg, age 39, is a relentlessly prolific performer. Since May of 1998, she has acted in ten plays for five theater companies. In addition to her dramatic turn in The Heiress, she recently finished concurrent runs in 15 Head's The Mountain Giants and Ten Thousand Things' The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Before that, she played a half-lunatic war widow in Park Square's Taking Sides, the perennially malevolent Nurse Ratched in Fifty Foot Penguin's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and a leather-clad Goth prophetess in Outward Spiral's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. She is currently preparing for her newest role, a befuddled businesswoman named Belinda in Park Square's production of the farcical metaplay, Noises Off!
The profusion of theater in the Cities--there might be 75 or perhaps 100 semiactive companies in any given year--has created a class of part-time professional actors. Yet perhaps none of these performers can match Kellogg's staggering output, season after season; the number of characters she has played would give pause to someone with multiple-personality disorder. In a sense, the diversity and volume of Kellogg's work is representative of the freewheeling independent theater scene. A playwright, a director, and a half-dozen Jodi Kelloggs could keep the Shubert Theater booked for a year.
A few days after the opening of The Heiress, Kellogg was back at Park Square to read for a part in Lisa Loomer's The Waiting Room, which is scheduled to make its area premiere there next season. In the theater's atrium, the play's title seemed deliciously apropos: A handful of actors were lounging about on green cushions making small talk or flipping casually through their scripts. Kellogg was dressed for the audition in a black sundress and matching stockings. Her dark hair was pulled loosely back to display large, intelligent eyes and a wide and ready smile. A casting agent once told her that if she ever hoped to get work in television or film, she would have to get her teeth whitened and would have to "do something" about her nose. "But I've never been the jeune première type," Kellogg said with a wry grin. "I guess she thought she was helping me out, but you really can't take it personally."
The jeune première type often connotes a woman who is pretty enough not to be upstaged by scenery yet insubstantial enough not to upstage her male peers. Kellogg's charms are more refined. "I think of myself as a character actress," she says. "I'm always stretched."
Indeed, Kellogg is regarded by many directors as the best character actress in the Twin Cities, and is cast accordingly. "The actor's job is to communicate the ephemeral," explains Richard Cook, who directs Kellogg in The Heiress. "There are actors who are performers. With them, it's all out there and it's entertaining but glib. Jodi's not boxed in by psychology or a particular emotive range. It's like she can transform how she feels about herself."