Actresses share experiences playing sisters in two shows at Utah Shakespeare Festival

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2 2014 1:00 p.m. MDT

Eva Balistrieri, left, and Cassandra Bissell play two sets of sisters in the Utah Shakespeare Festival: They appear as Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in "Sense and Sensibility" and as Luciana and Adriana in "The Comedy of Errors."

Rachel Brutsch, Deseret News

CEDAR CITY, Utah — Shortly after the curtain rises on “The Comedy of Errors” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the audience watches a shrill, angry woman take the stage. Speaking in a sharp Southern accent, she rails against her husband while her sister, looking meek and concerned, stands nearby.

Things are progressing as they should for this production, but there may be just a moment of surprise for some audience members in the Adams Shakespearean Theatre who previously saw these two women perform not just in a different venue but also in very different roles.

Cassandra Bissell and Eva Balistrieri portray the Southern belle sisters Adriana and Luciana, respectively, in director Brad Carroll’s 1849 California gold rush spin on Shakespeare’s famous comedy. But at other times, they grace the stage of the Randall L. Jones Theatre as the Dashwood sisters Elinor and Marianne in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan.

In “Sense and Sensibility,” it’s Balistrieri’s Marianne who lets her feelings get the best of her while Bissell’s Elinor generally remains the calmer, level-headed voice of reason. As the actresses move between roles, their characters trade temperaments.

While playing roles in more than one show is often a requisite element of repertory theater, in which multiple shows are performed in rotation, it’s not often that two actresses get the opportunity to play two sets of sisters together — or have to spend so much time together.

“Luckily, we like each other,” Bissell said in an interview with the Deseret News. “It’s really fun getting to play sisters in both shows because we get along.”

The duo said there are benefits to working so closely together.

“I think from the beginning, for both of us, we were much more comfortable in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ World than we were in ‘Comedy of Errors’ Land, ” Bissell said. “And that was good that we both felt that way so that while we were in rehearsals for ‘Comedy,’ we sort of had each other’s backs.”

Balistrieri agreed with Bissell and added that it would be much more difficult to play opposite a different actress as Adriana in “Comedy.”

“But the fact that even when we weren’t in ‘Comedy’ rehearsal, we were still building a relationship that served ‘Comedy’ and vice versa, that makes the process a lot easier and … makes the shows better, because you have these real relationships with people,” she said.

Both actresses said their roles and relationships in “Sense and Sensibility” align more closely with the way they are in life than do their roles in “The Comedy of Errors.”

“I think she (Bissell) has more Elinor, and I have more Marianne in me than I do Luciana,” Balistrieri said.

Despite which roles they say fit them best, the actresses said they are grateful for the chance to push themselves to fill their roles in both productions.

“I feel extraordinarily lucky that these are the two shows that I’m getting to work on because they are so different from each other, and so you get to stretch these different muscles,” Bissell said. “It’s always a gift as an actor to be given an opportunity to sort of push yourself outside of those comfort zones.”

Getting in character

Performing two such different roles poses some challenges, the actresses said, in terms of both developing the characters and adapting to the stage environments.

Bissell and Balistrieri had to adopt British accents for “Sense and Sensibility” and Southern accents for “The Comedy of Errors.”

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