How many roles and productions can an actress take on simultaneously before she melts down? What are the limits of a single performer's endurance? And what the hell was Jayne Mansfield doing hustling down Lake Street toward the Jungle Theater one night in early August?
These questions and others were on the table last week for Catherine E. Johnson. She seems healthy and well adjusted, perhaps because she has enjoyed a couple of weeks of recuperation after playing four quite different characters in three productions at the 2005 Fringe Festival. "I never would have agreed to it if I knew what I was getting into," Johnson says, laughing but obviously meaning it.
Fringe executive director Leah Cooper is fuzzy when asked whether Johnson set any kind of record by tackling four characters in three shows, although she adds that a new one-show-per-company rule for the festival has made multiple appearances more difficult. One fellow actor suggested that Johnson be awarded a honey-baked ham for her efforts. Johnson seems pleased by the idea, but adds that she is a vegetarian.
Johnson is a Twin Cities native and Carleton College graduate who has worked at the Guthrie and Theatre de la Jeune Lune, in addition to completing a three-year acting program at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This year at the Fringe she played the ghost of Jayne Mansfield, a glamorous young gold digger, a kvetching older wife, and a sassy waitress primed for personal transformation. "I felt a little schizophrenic," Johnson says. "People asked me if the characters were bleeding into each other, but there was no chance of that. My only fear was not being able to remember my lines at all."
In person, Johnson is down-to-earth--she resembles your sister's pretty friend on whom you had a crush in high school. She explored a unique youthful strumpet/aged wife dichotomy in James Vculek's two-act The Princeton Seventh. In the first part, Johnson played a trophy girlfriend whose greatest ambition in life was to be cast in a music video. "It's hard to play a superficial character deeply," Johnson says. For the second act and second character, Johnson was aged about a half-century and transmitted maternal warmth in proportion to her earlier character's fecklessness.
Johnson also starred in an extended vignette for Thirst Theater on the roof of Joe's Garage (she is still amazed by the shitty treatment she received when people mistook her for an actual waitress), as well as in Emigrant Theater's Dead Wait, a new work by Carson Kreitzer in which murder victim Ron Goldman meets Jayne Mansfield and a dead waiter in the afterlife. Johnson gave one of the most distinctive performances of the Fringe, playing Mansfield ebbing away, speaking in a slow, husky drawl equal parts sensual and chilling. "Carson came into rehearsals and told me to slow it down much, much more," Johnson says. "She wanted to push it to more of an extreme, to work it like a piece of music."
Which brings us back to last month, when Johnson was unsure of the Fringe dressing-room arrangements and spent an hour and a half at home dressing herself as Mansfield and then went public. "I was so intimidated by the dress, the wig, the push-up bra," Johnson says. "Then I had to park and walk down the street in full Jayne Mansfield regalia. I had on sunglasses, and I could barely see through the wig. But it wasn't scary going onstage, not after I walked down Lake Street in that costume."
Johnson is currently working with Breaking Ice, an outreach program at Pillsbury House Theatre, and acting in dramatizations for college orientations (other possibilities are in the works, including possible remounts of The Princeton Seventh and Dead Wait). One certainty emerges: Johnson is in no hurry to duplicate her 2005 feat. "I had such a Fringe hangover," she says. "It was like when you went home from college after final exams. I had to sleep 12 hours a night for days."