By Ken Trainor
If you were going to predict the arc of Jason Narvy's theatrical career, you probably wouldn't guess that it would go from Los Angeles, playing a character named Skull Skullovitch on the kids' action series Power Rangers, to assistant professor in the theater program at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois. But that is precisely what happened.
Narvy, 39, played the comic villain from 1993 to '99 in over 300 episodes of the hit show, plus spinoffs. At the age of 24, he decided, "I gotta go to college," which began a long association with higher education, ending with a doctorate in Theater Studies from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2010. He was hired for the Concordia opening right away.
He's come a long way from Eugene Skullovitch. "The stupidest guy in the cast of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers ends up with a Ph.D.," Narvy says. "Freud would have a field day with that."
He's also a long way from L.A., but Chicago is where he wanted to be.
"It's a playwright's city. Rent is cheaper. There's a lot more storefront theater. New York doesn't have that kind of vibrancy on a small scale. Off-off Broadway is hurting. It's too expensive. You can't find affordable spaces. I'm excited because of Chicago's theater reputation. You can take risks here. They have a working-class approach to theater. You won't find a better theater town."
Coming out of graduate school, Narvy wanted to teach, "but I didn't want to walk away from theater."
The timing was right with Concordia. Eunice Eifert, who founded the theater program, was retiring. She did "a bang-up job," Narvy says, establishing the program on a solid, old-fashioned dramatic arts model.
Now the Communication and Theater Department is looking to expand and innovate, under the leadership of Chair Laura Pollom. They've hired two talented young playwrights, Narvy says, Jayme McGhan and Andy Pederson, and Narvy is artistic director of ACT (Artists of Concordia Theatre). Stephanie Stroud is managing director.
Narvy immediately set his sights on the Madison Street Theatre storefront in Oak Park. The timing was right again as Circle Theatre was moving out and Village Players was fading into the background. He saw an opportunity to use the space as a teaching model, training students to run their own repertory theater company.
Rosemary Foley, director of Madison Street Theatre, was thinking along the same lines, so they made it happen. Narvy sees it as "a kind of ministry, reaching out to the community. Theater is a healthy way to vent youthful, misguided energy."
The "grand experiment" begins tomorrow night with Concordia's production of Cabaret.
The plan is to produce four shows a year, two in the fall, two in the spring, with at least two being new works by Chicago dramatists.
"If you want to work as a theater professional," Narvy says, "you have to work on new plays." The 30 or so theater majors and minors participating get plenty of hands-on experience, everything from makeup to sound to box office. They've created a Theatre Student Board of Managers. Essentially, they're running the show, working with professionals in the field.
This is Narvy's second year teaching at Concordia, which as a conservative Lutheran institution, doesn't exactly have a reputation for "cutting-edge" theater. But he says there is "huge support for the arts at Concordia." And he doesn't see any conflict between theater and theology.
"It deals with the soul," he says, "all theater does. You witness something that reflects big themes and issues, and it produces a kind of communion. I'm interested in plays with some depth, that deal with the human condition in ways you can't ordinarily articulate. What we're doing has a positive social benefit. That's the way the university looks at it, too."
One skill he gained from his Power Rangers experience has turned into a specialty — stage combat. "That's my thing," he says. "I learned martial arts, rapier and dagger." In fact, he studied with the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat to become a certified actor/combatant. And it's no walk in the park.
"There's something about the point of a sword," he says. "It's like a magnet for the eyeball." Sir Laurence Olivier, he says, "had more scars than any soldier." Narvy has to keep reminding his young college actors that it's not combat, it's acting with props.
Actually, he said, it's more like dancing than anything else. In England, his partner was a professional dancer and they ended up graduating from the program with honors.
As for his own nefarious background as Skull Skullovitch, he says, "Yeah, my students harass me about it. But it gives me street cred." They were the perfect age to watch him, after all, growing up.
"Sometimes," he says, "they ask me for my autograph. I tell them, 'Get on academic probation and you'll get my autograph."