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Actor plays nine characters in acclaimed one-man play

As the coronavirus pandemic grows, keeping live theaters closed and social distancing protocols in place for the foreseeable future, some performance companies have experimented with different ways to stay alive.

At the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, the answer was to stage and film one-person productions for online presentation. No cast, no live audience, no problem. Sounds simple, right?

Not for Mike Pavone, who will play nine different characters in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.”

The recorded play will be screened online on the Stellar streaming platform nine times between Jan. 22 and Jan. 31. Tickets cost $25. For more information, go to cinnabartheater.org.

The title character doesn’t actually appear in the show. The 80-minute performance begins with a detective from a small town on the Jersey Shore investigating the sudden death of a gay youth, Leonard Pelkey. Pavone plays not only the detective but all the people the sleuth meets on his quest for answers.

“I am literally reacting to myself,” Pavone said. “Suddenly, I’m a woman character on the other side of the stage with a different accent.”

Pavone, a retired film director, screenwriter and television producer from Southern California who now lives in Sebastopol, has performed locally at the Left Edge Theatre, 6th Street Playhouse and the Spreckels Peforming Arts Center, but the Cinnabar production is a departure for him.

“I’m scared to death,” he joked. “I’ve never done a one-person show before.”

The show is directed by Nathan Cummings, education director and associate artistic director at the Cinnabar Theater, who has no doubts that Pavone is up to the job.

“Mike is just absolutely willing. He is able to bring a great amount of humor to the show, as well as the drama,” Cummings said. “He comes with a lot of knowledge and experience, which helps us in the situation we find ourselves in.”

For example, Pavone understands how to play to the camera.

“This play is really more like doing television,” Pavone said. “I was a semiregular on a couple of TV series.”

Pavone made multiple appearances as the character Jimmy O’Brien on the series “Any Day Now,” which ran from 1998 to 2002, and he played the recurring role of Donnie Paruana on the “Street Time” series, which also employed him as a writer.

His other credits include directing the 2011 film “That's What I Am,” featuring Ed Harris.

Pavone switches from one character to the next without costume or makeup changes, Cummings explained.

“He does it all with his body and his voice,” the director said. “He plays a 50-year-old divorced mother, a 16-year-old girl and a 75-year-old chain-smoking hair salon patron. This is storytelling.”

The show’s playwright is James Lecesne, an actor, author, screenwriter and LGBTQ rights activist, who wrote “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” based on his own 2008 young adult novel. The play premiered off-Broadway in New York City in 2015 and was performed the Old Globe in San Diego the following year.

This is not Cinnabar’s first experiment with filming a solo play for later streaming.

In September, the Cinnabar presented local actress Laura Jorgensen starring as advice columnist Ann Landers in the one-woman show “The Lady with All the Answers.” Her performance was filmed on the theater’s stage with a full set and costume changes, then offered online.

What excites Pavone most is that the online format will give the new production a reach that stretches far beyond Petaluma.

“You can buy a link and watch the show anywhere,” the actor said. “What’s really great is the idea that my crazy cousins in New York can see it.”

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