Justine C. Turner | Performer of the week
Crime noir isn’t the easiest genre to capture on stage, but the Den Theatre does admirable work with Don Nigro’s City of Dreadful Night, a quickly paced thriller in which everyone has something to hide. Justine C. Turner delivers a sultry performance as Anna, a femme fatale who lures two men into her web of deception that stretches back to before World War II. Turner got her first taste of theater as a child, and she began performing when her family moved to Oak Park. She became acquainted with Chicago theater as an undergraduate at Columbia College, and since graduating has gone on to become an ensemble member at Strawdog Theatre. Turner speaks to us about classic femme fatales, how noir is like Shakespeare, and why the genre still resonates with contemporary audiences.
What was your first reaction when reading City of Dreadful Night?
I really loved it. The last monologue was just—it was such a challenge that it really appealed. And also just the whole film noir genre is something that I’m fascinated with. Generally, 1940s is such a fantastic style. And then noir being one of the first genres where women were on equal footing with men as far as complexity and dimensions. I just thought it was really neat with all the twists and turns, and I hoped that people wouldn’t be able to figure out the script from the first moment.
Were you fairly well versed in film noir history? Did you go and watch any movies once you got the role?
I definitely watched movies when I got the role, and then we actually watched Double Indemnity as an evening of research. But I used to work at a video store when I was in college and so would watch a ton of different genre films. I would definitely not say that I know everything there is about [noir], but it’s a genre that I’ve enjoyed.
Did you take inspiration from any of the signature screen femme fatales for your role?
Oh yeah. Barbara Stanwyck, and they mention a lot in the script Ida Lupino. And I actually didn’t know much about her before I started working on the show, and then I watched a couple of her films and read about her. And she’s actually fascinating because she was one of the first female directors in Hollywood. They keep mentioning [Anna] looks like Ida Lupino, and you know, I can try to do as much as I can with hair and makeup. Part of the thing I found fascinating was she was a very independent woman at time when there weren’t a lot of those women.
What has been the biggest challenge of this role for you?
It’s kind of silly, but probably lines. It is a very repetitive script, and making sure you don’t fall into the wrong cycle of those lines was a big challenge. And we had a shortened rehearsal process. Because of scheduling and different things, it ended up being a shorter rehearsal process I’m not necessarily used to, so that was definitely a challenge. But overall it’s just a really great group of people, and the cast that I had to work with was so supportive and with each other. That definitely made any of those challenges not feel insurmountable.
How did you work with director Ron Wells to create that noir feeling in rehearsals?
A lot of it was just working with the language and working with the words. It’s a lot like Shakespeare in the fact that it’s not necessarily a style that you put on for the text but rather one that the text itself creates. So allowing that text to create the rhythm and work on the rhythm of the speech and not let that overwhelm you. That was a lot of what we worked on, working on the rhythms and finding the appropriate moments that you did take that breath or that pause or that moment to take everything in. A lot of those pauses were written in for what we did, but then there’s figuring out how to work with the rhythm that is sort of that noir, fast-talking speech while still trying to make it understandable.
Have you noticed anything different in this process versus doing something that’s in a more traditional style?
You know, I’m not sure. I think there’s definitely more of a focus on language and technical elements and there’s certainly not Suzuki or movement. As part of Strawdog, I did a couple shows that had a lot more movement in them. There’s a certain amount of freedom that gives you, to be able to move to express emotions. This genre, especially within a certain scope of light, it doesn’t allow for that, which is definitely different. And having to wait until you know what those lighting elements are is different.
Do you think there are any themes or story elements of noir specifically that resonate with modern day audiences?
Well, noir to a large extent was a reaction to the war, to World War II and being disillusioned with the world around you, and I think the fact that we’re just—I’m hoping, knock on wood—coming out of a recent depression, there’s certain disappointments, like the way our government handled certain things or the way our lives have played out, that I think noir speaks to. There’s a disillusionment to what you thought was the American Dream, which was the bankers in America telling people that you needed a house and that you could qualify for a mortgage. I mean, I definitely think there are connections to that in the fact that noir was a reaction of disillusionment to this promise that I think to a certain extent we deal with now. I think it’s not as dark a disillusionment in today’s world, but I definitely think that’s there, and what the ’90s promised Americans was not exactly what was delivered.
City of Dreadful Night runs through March 16 at the Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-609-2336). Read our review of City of Dreadful Night.