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The Arts

Tressed for success: The role of wild-maned 'super-Jew' was a lock for local actress

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/5/2015 (685 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Actor Connie Manfredi was taken aback when she was informed that she was being scheduled for a haircut prior to Thursday's opening of Bad Jews.

The former St. Vital resident had been brought back from Toronto and cast in the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production specifically because she possessed a great, wild tangle of brown tresses that seemed to have a mind of their own. Now some stylist would attempt to tame her defining physical trait.

Connie Manfredi and Justin Otto

MATTHEW S. DUBOFF

Connie Manfredi and Justin Otto

Above (L-R), Manfredi, Andrea del Campo, Otto and Kristian Jordan.

MATT DUBOFF PHOTO

Above (L-R), Manfredi, Andrea del Campo, Otto and Kristian Jordan.

"Oh, great, my hair is too crazy to play the crazy-haired woman," says Manfredi, feigning mock shock.

On a recent summery but blustery day in a downtown park, the vivacious 25-year-old constantly pushed away the ringlets blowing in her face. She talked at length about Daphna, the character she portrays in New York playwright Joshua Harmon's biting comedic drama about three young adult Jewish cousins who disagree about who should inherit a treasured heirloom after the death of the family patriarch, a Holocaust survivor.

Daphna is the kind of person who, Harmon has said, everyone knows is Jewish when she steps into a room.

Manfredi, 26, is Italian. Director Kayla Gordon sent her the script of the 2012 off-Broadway hit without indicating which of the two female roles she was being considered for, although it wasn't hard to figure out. One is Melody, a WASP with stick-straight blond hair that she wears with a barrette to be extra cute. So-called super-Jew Daphna is described as "two-thirds body, one-third hair," with a 'fro that clogs the drain after one shower.

That's the story of the University of Winnipeg graduate's life.

"It's everywhere; it's everywhere on me," says Manfredi, sporting a grey T-shirt with "Freak" written across the front in large block letters. "You'll probably leave with some. In rehearsal, it's everywhere -- on pillows, floors and the coffee station. It makes itself at home wherever it is."

As a girl, Manfredi loathed her hair to the point that she kept it short. Or she would slick it back with gel into a ponytail to make it look straight -- except for what she called a "puffy mess" at the end. The teenager once attempted to straighten her hair for a school photo; she found herself immortalized under a pyramid of frizz.

"I really like it now," she says. "Since university, it's been long and huge. I'm happy to be Connie, the girl with the hair."

Playing someone so ethnically specific is a first for Manfredi, whose parents are Italian-born. She is all too familiar with a passionate culture, and the struggle to maintain and honour her own cultural history, while seeking her own way of life. Debates at her extended-family table at holiday time can be just as loud and volatile as those depicted in Bad Jews; she knows the territory.

"I feel like an honorary super-Jew and I hope people who come to see the play feel I am," says Manfredi, who moved to Toronto in early 2014. "I feel that Joshua Harmon wrote the character in such a clear, specific way that whichever actor plays this role, the Jewish thing will happen."

Manfredi came to theatre with the idea of being a serious actor performing in substantial dark comedies, but got sidetracked by musical theatre in local productions such as Avenue Q, Spring Awakening and Ordinary Days, the latter two for Gordon's Winnipeg Studio Theatre. Last summer she was in the supporting cast of Disney's The Little Mermaid at Rainbow Stage.

Bad Jews offers the opportunity to pursue what she got into the business to do -- a lead character with plenty of lines.

"I'm used to being in the ensemble," she says. "It's rare I play a character that gets to talk. I go, 'Here's your hairbrush, Ariel, see you in 25 minutes.' Then it's, 'Oh, hey, Ariel, I'm your fellow underwater creature.' More often than not I'm a person who helps support the story."

Daphna is a much more demanding acting challenge. She is a mouth with hair, an Orthodox super-Jew who wages a fierce war of words about identity and faith with Liam, her non-religious cousin who is dating the shiksa (non-Jewish woman), Melody.

Bad Jews is the third most-performed modern play this season in the United States. WJT is presenting the Canadian première. Harmon, 31, had the title in 2004 and it took him eight years to conceive a story that would fit it.

That provocative name has gained Bad Jews a lot of attention, good and bad. Posters for a London production were banned from the Underground over fears they could be construed as anti-Semitic.

"It's definitely a polarizing title," says Manfredi. "If you don't know the context and see a poster for it, you'll be, 'Who do I complain to?' It's horrible to read, but it's kind of the only title for the play."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Thursday, May 7, 2015 at 10:14 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

12:26 PM: Corrects phone number

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