North Coast Journal bannerCOVER STORY

WHEN MY CUE COMES, CALL ME,
AND I WILL ANSWER.

by BARRY BLAKE

PHOTO OF TOM DODGENTOM DODGEN IS A REGULAR GUY, surprisingly unassuming. You might call him a blue-collar kind of actor. When asked to describe himself as an actor, he speaks matter-of-factly, in little snips.

"Very good at character analysis, deciding what the character is going to be. Very reliable once I get my lines down. A-l-w-a-y-s (he drags it out to underline the inevitability) late getting my lines down. But other actors can depend on me on stage. I can pull things together, have very good concentration. Uh good, dependable actor that's going to come through every night ... with some inspiration, I think, some discoveries that will make it more fun, more interesting."

Although he's taken a few courses, he never really spent much time in college studying acting or anything else.

"My mind had too many other things in it," he said.

There's no sticky vanity in his relaxed conversation, no self-promotion, no affectation. He has a loose, easy smile; his laughter meanders amiably, then gathers and rolls.

Slouched in an old chair, he seems lost for a moment as his fingers gently caress his chin. He pokes around, as if he's discovering a new body part.

Dodgen is 48. His is a workmanlike attitude.

"Describe myself? You mean physically? I'm average looking, look much better on radio than I do on TV or stage. I'm under-educated, socially liberal, fiscally conservative.

"I am not an exerciser," he adds.

As Charley Bullet, he has been "the morning man" on local radio for 16 years.

"We were doing Chicken Soup and Barley at the old Pacific Arts Center Theater and John Webb, who was managing KXGO at the time, had a bit part. Radio was in reel-to-reel time; you played beautiful music and said something every 15 minutes. He offered me a job. `Anybody could do it,' he said, so I gave it a try."

That was the birth of the Chad and Charley Show in the heady days of KXGO. The station enjoyed huge shares in the Top 40 market and had a rabid teen following. Two Chads have come and gone, but Charley Bullet goes on, now solo.

Today he's on KEKA in a country music format. Dodgen rather likes his radio character.

"Charley is always in a good mood, has a good sense of irony; he likes to make fun of people who do stupid sorts of things." Sounds like typecasting at work in the a.m., but it isn't as easy to typecast the real Tom Dodgen. Dodgen has played many different roles in 40 or 50 local theater productions over the years and has performed as many as 4,000 radio shows.

"Career" isn't part of his vocabulary when he talks about what he does in the theater, although he thinks it would be nice to audition in Ashland, Ore., someday.

Does he have theater production expertise other than acting? "Yeah, I've done lighting, set design and construction over the years. Done a lot of lighting his voice sort of grimaces especially when I was living in Florida, not only plays, but people would hire me to do beauty pageants and stuff like that. Anything that needed a light there, I'd put `em up."

Does he have photos to run with the interview? "Don't know why. I've just never been one to save pictures, or a scrapbook, photographs, souvenirs, that sort of stuff. I only save things about my son." He and his 17-year-old son, Toby, are close. Dodgen is more interested in parenting than being consumed by career.

"I have no intention of directing at all." He sits forward in his seat, amused. "I am the kind of actor who goes over the top and tries everything he can think of and expects the director to pull me down and stop me. So, as a director, there'd be nobody to stop it. It would be destructive. You'd have a show that was so full of bits and idiotic stunts that it would be ridiculous. I have no idea of directing at all," he chuckles.

Dodgen has played the character Bottom (in A Midsummer Night's Dream) four times.

"It's a lot of fun to do because of that play-within-the-play at the end; I just explode." His favorite line, which describes Dodgen as well as Bottom, is, "When my cue comes, call me and I'll answer." He's done six Shakespeare in the Park productions in Arcata's Redwood Park.

"I sit backstage and listen to the language going out through the trees; I'm in heaven."

(He's letting the back of his fingers caress his chin again as his eyes drift toward the window.)


Michael Nakashima, Tom Dodgen and Anders Carlson in
"Much Ado About Nothing," photo by Linnea Conway


Dodgen was Horatio in Hamlet. He'd love to play Hamlet in Hamlet, but he "is not physically right" for it just now. He enjoys cooking a specialty: Chicken Kiev, buttered peas and Moreland potatoes. On a deeply psychological inventory of forced multiple-choice questions he passed up a) a rainy night in Georgia, b) a first baseman's glove and c) a morning sunrise and checked d) "Give me a long-handled teaspoon and a pint of Chunky Monkey."

"Did Macbeth a couple of years ago," he says in such an unassuming way, one couldn't know if he played Macbeth himself or some other character. But he solved the dilemma when he continued the thought.

"That was probably the biggest challenge I've had. Not a bad production. Huge challenge just memorizing the lines; it's like 900 lines or so."

Walk in the Woods, last season's successful two-man show for PACT in which he played a Russian negotiator, was another very demanding, critically applauded piece of work. When a director spots a play or role that suggests Dodgen, they call him. He doesn't call them.

"That would come dangerously close to directing for me. I have an employee kind of mind. I don't want to manage and make decisions. You tell me what you want me to do, and I'll get it right for you."

Something like that happened at PACT when it was decided to produce T-Bone 'n' Weasel, which opened last weekend (see Calendar for dates).

Keion Morgan plays T-Bone, Kevin Johnson is Weasel and Tom Dodgen plays everyone else. Or, as he jokes, "I'm South Carolina." Either way it adds up to nine characters, one of them named Verna Mae Buford. Verna Mae, among others, is responsible for the rediscovery of his chin. To accommodate these roles, Dodgen had to shave his beard for the first time in 20 years.

Jon Klein's comedy is about friendship, loyalty and racism. It's a bonafide hoot! Klein's plays Southern Cross, Betti the Yeti, Octopus and T-Bone... are new off-Broadway successes, popular in university theaters for flirting with the politically incorrect danger that accompanies topical dilemmas. Laughter is generated by fine-tuned scripts that show off the playwright's timing and ear for language.

Just out of Black River Penitentiary, T-Bone and Weasel steal a car and set sail across South Carolina on a crime spree. "Sail" may not be the right word. Unfortunately, T-Bone wasn't aware of the First Law of Successful Car Theft: Steal a Car You Know How to Drive. It gets worse. Soon it's apparent that they are destined, instead, for a journey of funny features in the Stupid Crimes column of Comic Relief.

Along the way the two bump into nine Snopesian South Carolinians, all played with keen understanding and gracious and sometimes broad irony by Dodgen. Mr. Fergus, the store ("De Sto") owner, could be their first victim, but darned if he doesn't have a gun. Others especially Happy Sam, the used car dealer; Verna Mae, who hires them to keep the birds out of her rice paddies and perform other services; and the Rev. Gluck, minister of the Church of the Ravine, whom they meet in his chapel under an overpass are frighteningly believable.

T-Bone and Weasel banter and complain and trash talk and diss each other good-naturedly. But everything slows down when they sidle up to another shrewd and slothful victim. Director Clint Rebik has captured the show's delightful rhythm that emanates not from the action but from the characters' nature.

First, you laugh at the "On the Road with the Stupids" pair. Then you laugh at the outrageous nature of the character they are trying to scam, like the very corrupt Officer Roy Clamp. Then Officer Clamp slowly turns his head and fixes his dull stare hard and long on T-Bone. The laughs subside, and you realize you are watching the ignorantly racist predator (played to a turn by Dodgen) enjoying the torture of the trapped prey.

This play is just for the moment. It never tries too much, never lectures. It offers glimpses, painful recognitions of the difference between naive stupidity, the power of loyalty and friendship, and the studied evil of ignorance and bigotry.

Road signs projected overhead map the tour. Tom Roscoe's set design is simple: a raked platform and three cubes cleverly manipulated to suggest place. Pre-show music features Creedence Clearwater Revival; just before curtain we hear "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Fortunate Son," thematically chosen, no doubt. At one point, Weasel explains their endless ill-fortune by saying, "I knew it. The country's gone to shit since Creedence broke up!"

Dodgen gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. He gets it right, from Happy Sam's goofy cynicism to the painfully poignant Clayborn and Raincoat.

Kevin Johnson is a terrific young physical comedian, and Keion Morgan is not only black (PACT had to postpone this show last year for lack of black actors) but relaxed (particularly as the play went on), believable and very funny.

T-Bone 'n' Weasel contains tough language but is terrific. Teenagers will love this play. At curtain last Friday night the audience was transfixed. Some rose to applaud. Others sat and applauded. But nobody left very soon. It was as if everyone wanted to stay a little longer and keep the ride going just a bit farther.


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