“Bright-eyed Fascination” with The Fantasticks’ Ben Isaacs

by T. Jerald Sandberg

About a month ago, I experienced The Fantasticks in which Ben Isaacs played El Gallo, the agent of paradox and chaos. I say I experienced The Fantasticks because this production was one of the most intimate I have attended. I arrived about fifteen minutes early and learned that I was buying the second to last seat in the house. I entered an already packed Black Box Theatre at the Covey Center for Arts and watched as attendants filled every empty space with fold-up chairs for those still waiting outside to see the tale of two lovers brought together by their conniving fathers and forced to learn the true meaning of love. No more than twenty feet away, at center stage, two chairs and a chest were semi-blocked from view by a banner painted with the name of the musical. The crowd was buzzing with anticipation as Ben and his other colleagues entered stage right, parading around the stage and up the aisles, clapping patrons on the shoulders and shaking hands to the opening song. In this capacity, Ben had an overgrown and scraggly beard giving him just the right older, roguish look El Gallo needed to woo the disillusioned Girl and send the play into a chaotic tailspin.

Normally Ben is clean shaven and his boyish looks, coupled with the memory of his aged performance remind me of the paradoxical theme that makes The Fantasticks unique despite its rather cliché motifs and storyline. In our interview, I asked Ben what drew him to the part of El Gallo and he talked primarily about the theme embodied by the character: “[El Gallo’s] final speech, his ‘Curious Paradox’ speech where he talks about–you know–‘there is a curious paradox that no one can explain. / Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain? / Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain? / Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?’ Which … these are questions that people wonder about so much and then El Gallo says I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s that way but I do know it’s true which is another theme that really, really makes a lot of sense to me.”

Ben talked candidly to me about why this theme means so much to him. A lot of it has to do with his faith. Ben served a full-time two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his mission, he worked sometimes 12-hour days trying to convince others why they should have faith. The challenge of trying to explain the inexplicable seems to have left a lasting impression on the young actor. In the end, he says, he learned from his faith that “many of [our] questions [about life] are answered but many aren’t. But even if I don’t know all the answers, I still have faith that things will turn out well if I hold on faithful and if I don’t lose this bright eyed fascination with the world, if I don’t allow myself to become jaded like so many people allow themselves to become. So those are the things that really drew me the most to El Gallo. I feel like he had some really important things figured out well and I wanted to help other people feel that and see that as well.”

This production in particular offered Ben a couple of unique ways to help his audience feel and see and ultimately experience the importance of the story. Unlike the original production’s call for a simple piano and harp arrangement, this production couldn’t afford a harpist. Call it circumstantial luck or a moment of pure genius, but the director decided to put a guitar in Ben’s hands, asking him to fill in the missing parts. Throughout our interview, Ben talked about gathering the audience into this sense of nostalgia. In the first act, El Gallo sings, “try to remember the kind of September / when grass was green and grain was yellow / try to remember the kind of September / when you were a tender and callow fellow / try to remember and follow.” In order to achieve the mood of this song, Ben talked about trying to remember back to his childhood, “I would recall some images before I would begin. I would think about growing up in Missouri. I would think about fall in Missouri and about what that meant for me to grow up there. I thought about–you know–being a little boy living in Idaho when snow would come and they would drive these huge snow drifts into the middle of the road just to plow the road … and my tiny brother and I just running across them in the dark. I have this really distinct image of that which brings me to the nostalgic place to help [the audience] gather in … in this sense of nostalgia and younger, more naive, more simple, more innocent times.”  He says all of this with a twinkle in his eyes that makes you believe he’s El Gallo again, convincing you of better times. But if memories fueled his emotional preparation, the guitar ended up being, in his opinion, the perfect vehicle within the play for conjuring up this feeling of nostalgia. Comparing it to a wand, he described his experience with the guitar as an “outside-in” approach to fueling the emotion he needed to make El Gallo a realistic character, “El Gallo, my character, is kind of this wizard, vagabond type of guy and so [I was] able to use the guitar as a means of casting spells and these enchantments on the other characters. … That was probably one of the most unique aspects of the production.”

I asked Ben if all this nostalgia isn’t a bit contrived, a ploy to deliver a more powerful shock factor when everything turns to chaos in Act II. “Oh, absolutely,” he responded. “The first act is very fairytale-ish and then it ends with–you know–they’re in this beautiful pose the fathers and Luisa and Matt. El Gallo says, ‘I wonder if they can hold it? They will try to but it won’t be easy.’ Then you come back and the second act is where it all falls apart. So, yeah, that nostalgia is definitely about that. We get people invested in the fairytale and that is what they are expecting. And then not only are [the characters’] fairytales smashed … but that of the audience is smashed as well and they can finally see, ‘wow, this is not quite what I was expecting.’”

Fortunately for Ben, all the excitement of destruction is facilitated by El Gallo who ends up being the agent of the chaos that ensues in Act II. Unfortunately for Ben, that role required him to hurt his best friend, Ted Bushman, or at least act out hurting Ted’s character, Matt. Early on, Ben expressed that one of the main reasons he wanted to have a part in The Fantasticks was Ted. For him, “when you work–acting wise–with someone that you know really well, you act less and less–like ‘Act’ with a capital ‘A’ I mean–less and less because the things that you are saying, you can say it so authentically because it’s someone that you know.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I asked him if their good friendship got in the way of truly getting into character. He said, “my job was to make [Ted] look good, was to orchestrate this thing that would make him appear great and then destroy it for his own good. So it really helped me connect to–I guess–the need to hurt him and to put him through difficult things so he would come out on top in the end.” And indeed, in the end, the idea that adversity can help us grow and teach us to love more (or at least with greater understanding) comes full circle as we see two best friends on stage act out what it means ‘“to die a bit before we grow again.”*

 

*Interviewer’s Note: As of late, Ben has earned quite a bit of recognition for his performances. Most recently, he won the Classical Acting award in the Irene Ryan Competition at the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival at Weber State University. Ben is auditioning next week at the Cedar City Shakespearean Festival. He hopes to earn enough over the production’s season to move to New York City to start his acting career. Wherever life takes him, I think it is clear that Ben will go with optimism and a “bright-eyed fascination with the world.”