Playmates for Life at the Hippodrome

“This is the first time we’ve acted together as husband and wife as husband and wife,” Kevin Rainsberger explains with a smile. A winning smile, from the stalwart actor whose charm, talent, rugged good-looks and prowess have graced the Hippodrome stage for decades. He is speaking of his castmate, the Hipp’s iconic actress Nell Page, whose classic high cheekbones and razor-sharp performances have graced the Hipp nearly from the very start.

photo by Michael Eaddy

Kevin Rainsberger and Nell Page are co-starring opposite Marco Adiak Voli  ( ) and Alea Figueroa ( in the Hippodrome’s production of Karen Zacaria’s daring comedy Native Gardens directed by Kristin Clippard.

“I had to audition four times to win the role of Nell’s husband,” Kevin laughs. He means in the play, not real life. He and Nell Page have led lives in the theatre that have intertwined with dramatic art in such delightfully fruitful ways that this production seems to marry real life to dramaturgy like a well-made play. 

“I’m like this guy,” Kevin says of Frank Butley, the white husband whose life is just fine until the question of property lines draws him into conflict with his new Latinx neighbors. What Kevin Rainsberger is really saying is that he can be like just about any guy he’s playing, and this is the guy for now.

Kevin felt like the guy when he played the lead in Talk Radio at the Hipp, assuming the persona of the rage-fueled host by prepping in the dressing room, plugging in a heavy dose of acid rock.

“It was so freaking intense,” he says. “Chain-smoking. Going full out. So freaking intense. I played acid rock on my head-phones to get psyched up for it. I hate, absolutely hate acid rock. It’s so annoying. It was perfect.”

Again, what he means is he was perfect. His performance nailed the guy.

“That was one show I was able to walk off the stage when it was done and know, damn, I did it. I totally did it.”

Rainsberger’s craftsmanship, his work ethic, is matched by Nell’s. They are working actors. Doing a job they love. In a place they love, full of history and past lives. It’s all wrapped together.

Nell is not only a storied player at the Hipp, but she is also, appropriately, its director of development, having witnessed and participated in the Hipp’s evolution from storefront to world-class theatre.

It all began when she when she was a teenager and she played Antigone and caught the eye of  fledgling Hippodrome talent-seekers, Bruce Cornwell and the one and only Rusty Salling. She was star-struck, but they were the ones who were discovering her.

“Rusty was already like a hero of mine, and here he was complimenting me. Not long after that, I got a call from Bruce. I was shocked. They wanted me to play Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade.”

Anybody would be shocked. That was the whole idea behind Marat/Sade. It’s shocking. The full title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Picture it, start-up homegrown theatre in 1970s Gainesville performing a play set in a madhouse. That’s before we even get to Charlotte Corda, a narcoleptic waif unable to control her behavior who assassinates Marat. Top it off with the meta-trick that she was actually playing an insane inmate of the asylum playing Charlotte Corday. Nell Page had just taken a leap of faith that would determine the course of her life.

Her dad, an Episcopalian minister, was all for it. “The film of Marat/Sade, directed by Peter Brook, was shown here in Gainesville. It was quite a controversy. There was a panel discussion afterward and my father sat on the panel. He thought the film was deep and insightful. He was very progressive and aware.”

And with that encouragement, she took off. And so did the Hippodrome.

photo by Michael Eaddy

Nell remembers the 70s and the theatre environment in Gainesville: “It was the era of three-act plays. It was a time before the Hippodrome, when the only theatre in Gainesville was at the University or the little theatre. That was it,” referring to the Gainesville Community Playhouse.

An independent theatre  doing professional work was a dubious notion then, The Six who started the Hipp were not theatre department students by and large. “Mary Hausch was heading for med school. Greg Hausch was in the theatre department, I think, but Marilyn Wall had never even done costuming before. I think if they had been theatre department grads they might’ve been deterred. They might have known better,” she laughs.

Nell followed her passion to UF and the Theatre Department. The Hipp was quickly transforming into a major theatrical player in the southeast.

“I knew I wanted children. And I knew women in the theatre who were faced with the same choice. And I knew as time went on some of them had a sense of regret. I didn’t want that. And I had roots here. The opportunity seemed unique.”

She had Tennessee to compare it to. She’d lived there for a while after graduation, and it wasn’t for her. Gainesville was.

“The Hippodrome kept growing, kept getting better and better, developing a real tradition of professional excellence, bringing in artists of high caliber from all over the country. To be part of that was something very special.”

Kevin Rainsberger meanwhile worked his way through the Theatre Department at UF and was rewarded for his efforts with an MFA and several jobs right here in town. “Let’s see, I worked at Racks for a while, making $150 a week. I guess it was a step up, then, when I was maître d’ at Ironwood.”

Sure, we can picture that. Kevin Rainsberger playing those guys.

photo by Michael Eaddy

“Then I was the golf pro at Ironwood.” He casually tosses the fact off, yeah, golf pro at the club, and admits he wasn’t really well paid for it. But in 1978 when he won a part in the Hipp’s production of Dracula, everything changed. He was a professional actor now, and the fit was perfect.

It was a perfect fit in Orlando where he did a long stint in Disneyworld as Indiana Jones. Finally, the acting journey led back to the Hipp. The lives he had lived there, onstage and off, came flooding back one night on the Hipp front porch as he sat reminiscing with Nell Page, whose performance he had just watched with admiration.

Their rapport turned into romance and marriage, and now here they are onstage at the Hipp together again as Frank and Virginia Butley. Nell brings a well of knowledge to the role, as a realtor for Campus to Coast Realty  ( ) in a play about a property dispute. But that’s beside the point as far as she’s concerned. Nell accepts the role of actor on her own terms.

As controversy grows over what roles an actor might justifiably play, gays playing gays, Jews playing Jews, each to his own. For Kevin and Nell it’s a matter of basic humanity.

“I think in crisis, in conflict, in real human emotional turmoil, the deeper you go, the more the emotions broaden, simplify, become pure,” she says. “The deeper you go the less variety there is between any of us.”

Apropos of Native Gardens, Kevin agrees. “And that’s the point of this play. It may seem cliché, but it’s true. When the characters we play are drawn into this dispute, it’s gradual, it’s almost natural, the Anglo/Latin presuppositions. But  as it turns out, it’s just undeniable that we’re more alike than we are different.”

That’s the punchline.

“I think comedy is disarming,” says the playwright, Karen Zacarias.  “I mean literally. You let down your armor so you can laugh. And if you laugh, you’re taking things in. I want people who disagree to watch this play and be able to laugh at themselves.”

Native Gardens opens Friday, March 10 and runs through March 26.

Home – The Hippodrome Theatre


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