Peabody Southwell on her most vulnerable role yet

A scene from a 2016 workshop of anatomy theater; Photo: James Daniel

A scene from a 2016 workshop of anatomy theater; Photo: James Daniel

On June 16, David Lang’s anatomy theater makes its world premiere at REDCAT as part of LA Opera’s Off Grand initiative. Based on actual 18th-century texts, anatomy theater follows the story of Sarah Osborne, an English murderess, who is tried, executed, and publicly dissected before a paying audience of fascinated onlookers. Gritty, emotional, and inventive, the opera features several villainous characters, but none more vulnerable than Osborne, who is masterfully brought to life (and death) by mezzo-soprano, Peabody Southwell.

“On the page, Sarah Osborne could read like a woman who has fallen and become a victim of her society,” says Southwell of her role.

Sarah was born poor, abused by her stepfather and then, because of that, was kicked out of her house by her mother at a young age and forced to make her way on the streets. She became a prostitute, and drank heavily to deal with that lifestyle. She fell in love with her pimp, married him and had two children. After reaching her breaking point, she killed her abusive husband and their children. The opera begins as Sarah is hanged for her crimes.

“What’s interesting to me about anatomy theater is that they refuse to present Sarah as that tragic female archetype” explains Southwell. “Instead they present her as an active villain.”

While Southwell is no stranger to playing fierce female roles, the role of Sarah Osborne presents different emotional and grueling physical challenges.

“It’s been difficult for me to play Sarah as hard, and as villainous as some of the other strong women with a dark side that I have played in the past,” Southwell says of the emotional challenges. She continues, “Even my Carmen, which is really quite dark and very wounded, has some softness. I like to think that Carmen wants to be loved, but she can’t let anyone get close because she refuses to be truly vulnerable. Sarah is different altogether. I believe she began her life functioning with a healthy dose of vulnerability and was quickly hardened by her brutal environment. What’s interesting about playing Sarah is that I identify with her coming to that breaking point. Bob McGrath, the director, has really pushed me to make her coarser and unapologetic. They want the audience to hate her. I also think that’s important, because it makes the theme more effective, which is to search for a person’s evil within their viscera, and find none, because our morality is not linked to our guts.  But, I’ve also been fighting against the woman in me, who can understand how someone with Sarah’s life can reach that profound breaking point.”

Making Sarah a darker, unapologetic character is a challenge, but nowhere near as difficult as being stark naked on stage for fifty minutes, while playing dead.

“I’ve never done anything harder than that physically,” Southwell says of that experience. “I’m not claustrophobic at all, but I felt trapped in my body when we workshopped the piece in New York. I have my eyes closed, and I’m naked, but I can’t take a deep breath, because audiences will see it. I can’t swallow, because my neck is lit and audiences will see my larynx move. If the other actors, who are cutting my body, push me too hard, I have to stay in whatever crumpled position they’ve moved me. It’s really intense.” Trying to overcome these physical challenges, Southwell started to sense with her eyes closed, the moments when the lights become darker on her and she can take a deep breath.

In fifty minutes, there are three of those moments.

It’s a testament to Southwell’s preparation and artistry that she is able to tackle such a challenging and layered role. She hopes the role and the show resonate with audiences and that they take away something beyond nudity and gore. She says, “I hope that audience members ask themselves the tough questions of representation. What have my actions implied about who I am? Have I given a fair representation to the outside world of who I am internally?”

With such a vulnerable performance by Southwell and an overall production that so viscerally digs into the heart of a villainous character like Sarah Osborne, anatomy theater is sure to strike a chord with audiences and perhaps help audience members reflect on themselves.

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