Daisuke Tsuji and Eddie Lopez are two young Sacramento-bred actors whose paths have crossed in the first-class theatrical world of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Both have high-profile roles in the antic Marx Brothers comedy "Animal Crackers" as well other supporting roles in the festival's demanding repertory.
Though their career paths have joined this season in Ashland, they'll separate at season's end when Lopez, 27, a Sheldon High graduate, departs for New York after five years with OSF.
On Monday, Tsuji, 30, a graduate of Rio Americano High and American River College, will experience a legendary OSF "Black Monday." That's the day the repertory actors either receive offers of roles for the next season or are told they won't be needed.
Tsuji, sitting in the garden of an Ashland coffee shop, said it would be a shock if he didn't receive an offer for next season, though he felt "prepared for anything."
In two short seasons, Tsuji has made himself a valued member of OSF's talent-stocked acting company, working in a dizzying variety of roles. This season, he plays Emanuel Ravelli (the Chico Marx part, sharing the role with John Tufts) in "Animal Crackers"; Lewis the Dauphin, the haughty French prince in "Henry V"; and Silvius, a lovelorn shepherd in "As You Like It." None of the characters is remotely connected to Tsuji's Japanese heritage, which first got him cast at OSF.
Tsuji came to OSF last year to play Johnny Yamamori, a Japanese American teenager interned at Manzanar during World War II in Richard Montoya's "American Night."
When Tsuji got the call from OSF, he thought it would be for the adaptation of the classic Japanese film "Throne of Blood." (Lopez worked in the ensemble that show.)
"After that, none of my characters here were specifically Asian," Tsuji said. "That's one of the great things about working here. We're just actors telling story. If it's a family, then it's a family even if we don't all look the same."
Born in Kuwait and having lived near Tokyo, Tsuji moved with his family to Sacramento. He grew up in Carmichael. From Rio Americano High and American River College, he went to UCLA, studying theater all along the way.
"I started in junior high school, and at that time I had no idea what I was doing. Then senior year at Rio I was Grandpa in 'You Can't Take It With You.' It's a great show and a great part," Tsuji said.
He also received a wakeup call from his drama teacher at Rio, whom he calls Señora White (she also taught Spanish).
"Señora White took her job seriously, and she took theater seriously. She told me when I was about to graduate that I should keep doing this, keep doing theater because there's something there."
The support continued at American River College, where Tsuji was nurtured by instructors including Pamela Downs, Tracy Shearer and Kathy Burleson.
"Pam was very supportive. She's like a theater mom because she cares about you, not just in class but your progress, the next step," Tsuji said.
"That's when I started thinking, 'I can do this.' "
Tsuji has numerous skills: He plays piano in "Animal Crackers," performing a Chico Marx song he learned on his own. He serves as the fight captain for "As You Like It," and before joining OSF he was a public clown with Cirque du Soleil, touring Japan in the show "Dralion."
Tsuji's versatility will likely allow him to work at OSF as he long he likes, though he knows he can't stay in the cozy confines forever.
His counterpart, Lopez, has decided to leave on a personal high note after completing his fifth season in what has been his only professional experience so far.
"It's time for something new. New energy, different experiences," Lopez said.
"This place has prepared me so I can feel confident to step outside of this circle."
Lopez came to OSF in storybook theater fashion. He went on as an understudy in a small show in Los Angeles. The festival's L.A.-based casting director happened to be in the audience and contacted Lopez after the performance, inviting him to audition for the company. He came to OSF directly after graduating from Cal Arts as an actor who also can sing and dance. He's worked his way up through numerous supporting roles, playing the lead in last year's successful "Pirates of Penzance."
Lopez called it the highlight of his OSF experience.
"It's the largest role I've had and the most difficult singing I've ever had to do. It was one of those shows everybody involved loved and nobody wanted to end."
This year Lopez works in the ensemble of "Medea/ Macbeth/Cinderella," OSF artistic director Bill Rauch's mash-up of cultural icons, as well as "Animal Crackers." His several roles in the Marx Brothers comedy include John Parker, a struggling artist, Horatio Jamison (the Zeppo Marx role) and the Butler. The challenges of the show are the frantic costume changes; the rest, Lopez said, is "pure fun."
The experience at OSF has brought Lopez back where he began experiencing theater, coming to Ashland as a Sheldon High student.
"My theater teacher, Maureen Messier, has been bringing students here for years. I took all the workshops, everything. Now I'm onstage and teaching students who go to my alma mater," Lopez said.
He's also still learning from the OSF veterans he works with.
"You watch their work, you watch how they build something (a character) with a really sturdy foundation," Lopez said.
"The challenge is learning how to be free and open and really available in a rehearsal room, but also knowing you need to make choices you can sustain for 10 months."
The fact that Lopez hasn't yet had to look for theater work isn't lost on him. He knows that pounding the pavement in New York will be significantly different than hiking the trails of Mount Ashland or taking an off day to go boating on the Lake of the Woods. Lopez calls his OSF experience a "great gift."
"They've invested in me as young artist really invested in me in every way, shape and form," he said.
"They turned me into a leading man on stage, and a lot of that's my own hard work, but they've opened every possible door for me."
Lopez will have no Black Monday trepidation this year as he prepares for the next step in his theater life.
"This is the foundation for the rest of my career, wherever I go," he said.
"I have high aspirations, but who knows?"