Disappearing Woman

After full immersion in character roles, Denise Elia is suddenly being noticed

the arts | stage |

On the Boil: Denise Elia as Hecate and David Yen as Macbeth in last fall’s Loading Zone production.

By David Templeton

I like stepping all the way into whatever I’m presented with,” pronounces actress Denise Elia, spearing a shrimp over lunch last weekend in Santa Rosa. “I like disappearing into my roles. I want every one of my characters to be a really full, rich, deeply developed character, so I always try to find that character somewhere inside me, and then I start hauling it up and out into the open until I see the image of that character in front of me—and then I just step in.”

Though Elia has been performing frequently in the North Bay for the past three years, first appearing on the stage of the Sixth Street Playhouse as Pageen Ryan in Mame , it is only recently that audiences and critics have begun noticing her as one of the best young actresses to be working in the area. The problem—which, upon examination, is really anything but a problem—is that Elia, 29, has a way of disappearing into her roles so completely that she seems like an entirely different actress from role to role.

Whether singing and dancing in musicals like Mame, Sweet Charity and Oklahoma , smoldering as an emotionally conflicted cop in Actors Theater’s Lobby Hero , or flattening audiences with her comic timing, spot-on New York accent and scalpel-sharp comedy precision in the Sonoma County Rep’s currently running Moonlight and Magnolias , Elia immerses herself so completely that all one remembers later is the character seen onstage.

But that kind of invisibility can only last so long, and it was as the lead in last year’s Wait Until Dark , presented by Healdsburg’s Raven Players, and in last fall’s Macbeth , staged at the Loading Zone theater in Santa Rosa, that it suddenly became impossible not to notice Denise Elia. In Macbeth , playing the multiple roles of Malcolm and Hecate, Elia gave one of the most physically committed performances of the year, prowling, slinking, screaming, fighting, pleading, threatening and terrifying her way through a three-hour production that ranks as the scariest, most imaginative Macbeth I’ve ever seen, with Elia delivering one of the most memorable performances of the year.

“Of everything I’ve done in theater, ever, I think Macbeth was the first time I was able to utilize nearly everything I know, all the skills I learned in college and everything I’ve learned along the way,” Elia says.

Born in Long Island, Elia studied theater and Italian at the Center for the Arts in Buffalo, N.Y., and founded her own company devoted to performances of Italian theater. After graduation, she moved to Whitney, Ontario, where she was briefly married, and where she found a niche doing stage managing and assistant directing. After the dissolution of the marriage and a brief return to New York, she visited some friends in Santa Rosa, and over the course of that summer, fell in love with Northern California.

With its vast number of theater companies and devoted theater audience, the North Bay has turned out to be a great place for Elia to develop her acting career. She’s been auditioning for several major roles in local shows this summer, and expects to not be idle long once Magnolia ends its run next weekend. Eventually, she says, she plans to test the film and television waters of Los Angeles.

“I think Santa Rosa is a really great place for an actor to cultivate and nurture themselves,” she says. “There’s really quite a lot of work here, and I’ve been soaking up as much as I can.”

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