OAKLAND -- If actor/writer Jennifer Le Blanc moves from live theater to films, she'll probably play a superhero with formidable biceps, bad teeth, a limp, and the ability to see through walls.
Le Blanc likes to play against type.
Her resume begins with a high school stint as the Artful Dodger, runs through most of Shakespeare, waltzes in and out of Jane Austen and in "By and By," a Shotgun Players production running through June 23, which includes dual roles as wife/lover/daughter/chemistry experiment.
"One of the reasons I love acting is that it's an opportunity to practice compassion. You spend your life playing another character. You have to find humanity, even in an evil villain," she says.
Le Blanc has had plenty of "compassion practice" in the last few, busy years. After living and working bicoastally, she's let her New York apartment go and established the Montclair home she shares with her husband, Gregg, as ground zero.
"We fell in love with the Oakland hills. It has village shops, it's close to BART and we can hike in nature, near the city. It's the best of all worlds," she says.
Just because she's "settled," doesn't mean she's put the brakes on a lifetime as a mover. Growing up in Novato in Marin County, she studied ballet. At Cal, she chose English literature as her major. A guest gig in a Shakespeare play at her high school alma matter realigned her goals when theater director Randall Stuart offered to shepherd her career.
"He launched me," she says, simply.
After gaining text, vocal and physical "finishing" skills and a master's in fine arts at Colorado's National Theatre Conservatory, Le Blanc sailed onto the boards at TheatreWorks, Livermore, Marin and San Francisco Shakespeare Festivals, Word for Word, San Jose Stage Company (where her Austen adaptation recently premiered) and more. And now, joining Shotgun for the first time in playwright Lauren Gunderson's exploration of human cloning, family, truth-telling and "the real stuff of life," Le Blanc is ironically not playing against type.
Le Blanc is Denise, the daughter of Steven, a scatter-haired scientist whose pioneering forays into the sci-fi world of human cloning miraculously resulted in a healthy, living, breathing -- and swearing like a sailor when she discovers her petri dish origins -- child. Denise is bright, emotional, and vulnerable, just like Le Blanc. But Le Blanc is also insightful, sexy, elegantly sturdy, and supremely capable and so it seems entirely appropriate that she also plays the older Denise, deceased wife of Steven and DNA contributor to the younger Denise.
It would be confusing, except Le Blanc is masterful in the two roles. Parsing out opposing physicalities (a teenager's schlump-tense jumble versus a spouse's easy, hands-on intimacy) and differentiating vocal registers (mumble or rat-a-tat for the daughter and low, smoky tones for the wife), she builds two complex parts into a muscular, intricate, theatrical firmament.
"It was a wonderful opportunity, figuring out distinct characters who are also the same people -- that's rare," she says.
Also rare is her work with the Arabian Shakespeare Festival. Officially founded in January 2013, but dating back to 2010, the Santa Clara company is involved in a pilot program with the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.
"In 2012, I went with two other actors to workshop Shakespeare with Arabic women," LeBlanc explains. "It was life changing."
Introducing the female students to theater principles was groundbreaking and, not unpredictably, Shakespeare's thematic material tore up the terrain. A "Midsummer's Night's Dream" scene, where a daughter is dragged before a father and told she must marry his groom of choice, caused the actors to "laugh until our bellies ached, then cry," Le Blanc recalls. "A student from a progressive country would say, 'That used to happen, but it doesn't anymore.' Next to her, a woman would sob, rendered speechless by her different circumstance. The play will never be the same for me."
As "By and By" completes its run, Le Blanc is already in rehearsals for a June 27 Livermore Shakespeare Festival opening of "The Taming of the Shrew."
"When I get a chance to go and say beautiful words in a transformative space ... ," she says, pausing with an actor's dramatic timing, "Well, this world is a wonderful place, but we can make it better. Theater's uniquely suited to do that."