The first time I saw Stephen Bienskie on stage, several years back, he was playing a born-again Christian in The Last Session. It's a far cry from his current role, that of serial killer Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb in Silence! The Musical at Theatre 80. Billed as "the unauthorized parody of The Silence of the Lambs," this outrageous show has a book by Hunter Bell, music and lyrics by Jon Kaplan, and direction/choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
Stephen's other credits include Rum Tum Tugger in the final Broadway company of Cats, his award-winning performance as Cal in the American premiere of the political musical The Fix, and the role of a theatrical agent in the current web series Submissions Only. (Check it out; it's hilarious.) I recently spoke with him to find out what led him to Silence!
BROADWAYSTARS: Stephen, did you see The Silence of the Lambs when it first came out?
STEPHEN BIENSKIE: Oh God, yeah. It was a huge movie back in the day. I remember going to see it with my older sister. It was definitely creepy, but it's not just a gory slasher flick; it's got the psychological aspect, as well. And it's one of those movies that stays with you for a long time, like The Exorcist. You can't shake it out of your body after you've seen it.
STARS: In your bio for Silence!, you make a point of thanking Ted Levine, who played Jame Gumb.
STEPHEN: His performance is so unbelievably iconic. Both he and Anthony Hopkins [as Hannibal Lecter] have very little screen time in the movie, but you walk away and you remember those characters. What Ted did in just a few minutes on screen was so disturbing. I don't even know if he's aware that he created such an iconic villain; the character comes up in the strangest places. The other night, I was watching the Craig Ferguson show, and he randomly started imitating Jame Gumb for laughs. All you have to say is "It rubs the lotion on its skin," and everyone gets the reference.
STARS: I seem to recall that some people charged the movie with being homophobic -- because, in a nutshell, Gumb is a man who wants to become a woman in the sickest way possible. What's your take on that?
STEPHEN: I think it was mostly about timing. The movie came out at the height of the AIDS crisis, and people's anger was at a fever pitch -- about AIDS, about how gay people were portrayed on screen. Whether or not Jame Gumb is homosexual is sort of irrelevant. The subject of homosexuality isn't even broached in the film, but I think just having a character like that at a time of heightened anger is what caused the problem. People were hypersensitive to negative stereotypes, and I'm not saying they were wrong.
STARS: Have you corresponded with Ted Levine?
STEPHEN: No -- not yet. I'd love it he came to the show, although I don't know that I'd be able to get through the performance. I'd be so terrified.
STARS: Do you think that shows like Silence! and The Book of Mormon are making extreme profanity and vulgarity acceptable on stage? And, if so, is that a good thing?
STEPHEN: It's all in the context. Profanity just for the sake of profanity is pointless. But the source material for our show is so specific, and the lines and situations are so strong. The effect of the show is based on the idea that, of course, no one would EVER do a musical of The Silence of the Lambs. That's what makes the whole thing so ridiculous.
STARS: What are some other movies you can think of that would be highly unlikely source material for musical adaptations?
STEPHEN: It's funny you should ask. Christopher and Hunter developed this concept that we're all just a group of musical theater geeks from the hills of West Virginia who really love the movie The Silence of the Lambs and who think, "Hey, let's make it into a musical!" The joke is that we're totally serious about it. So we started thinking, "Wouldn't it be funny if this troupe also did Ordinary People: The Musical, or Schindler's List: The Musical?" At one point, we even thought about making posters of the company's other productions and putting them up in the theater.
STARS: Like in Waiting for Guffman and The Producers.
STEPHEN: Exactly. The idea was to approach Silence! The Musical as seriously as possible, if that's even within the realm of imagination.
STARS: In The Last Session, you played a very moralistic, born-again Christian named Buddy. How do you think he would react to Silence! The Musical?
STEPHEN: I don't think he'd last past the first song. He'd storm out.
STARS: Silence! was presented in the 2005 NYC Fringe Festival with much of the same cast, but for the current production, you have a new Hannibal Lecter: Broadway star Brent Barrett.
STEPHEN: Yes. What an amazing man, to step into this kind of craziness.
STARS: Before I let you go, I have to ask you about Submissions Only, which is a hoot.
STEPHEN: It's kinda crazy. What's so funny is, the group that Kate Wetherhead and Andrew Keenan-Bolger have put together -- Colin Hanlon, Max von Essen, and Kate herself -- are some of my best friends. I play Kate's agent.
STARS: What real-life person or persons did you draw on to create the character?
STEPHEN: [laughs] Well, certainly no agent I've ever worked with!
STARS: Good answer.
STEPHEN: In the series, I'm in a relationship with Kate's character's best friend, so there's all this background. I'm just trying to be the best agent I can be and keep an eye out for her.
STARS: In real life, you and Chris Gattelli have been a couple for years. What word do you use for your relationship with Chris?
STEPHEN: I usually say "partner." To me, "boyfriend" always sounds like we're in eighth grade. So I say partner -- and maybe someday I'll say "husband." But that's a whole different article!
STARS: Well, thanks so much for talking. I hope you're having a blast in Silence!
STEPHEN: I'm having the time of my life. This show is like a dream come true. Some people aspire to play Hamlet or a great musical role on Broadway, but for me, to play Ted Levine in Silence! is the ultimate.
Published on Thursday, July 21, 2011
Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org