Archive for July, 2011

Claire Mahave as Blunt and Mortimer (and Quickly)

I’ve been in local theater for over thirty years, but this is the first time I’ve played a manly man. (Notes to self: walk like a dude, sit like a dude, stop making those girly hand gestures, legs apart at pretty much all times, use my lower voice register, ground myself, act like I own the place, and when I flirt with my wife, be sure to look at her body, not just her eyes.) In fact, I am playing several men. One is Blunt, a soldier and trusted member of King Henry’s entourage. Another is the romantic (and, apparently, revolted) Mortimer, a rebel who would have been king, had Henry not once played the rebel himself.

It is with noted and self-conscious irony, then, that I report to you that the most difficult character for me to come to terms with is neither of these two men, but my lone female character Mistress Quickly. The reason for this is simple—Quickly is a clown, and I, alas, am not. I am awed by the people who can step into these roles and explode past the boundaries of good taste to ferret out the incredible number of ways a scene can be riotously funny. For me, it’s work, and the results are less than stellar. I agonize over these roles, and if some proverbial fly on the wall were to watch the rehearsal process from start to end (including my at-home solo rehearsals), said fly would marvel at the number of things I try on for size—assuming that flies marvel at anything, which is somewhat doubtful. Anyhoo, one of the things that I value about Pigeon Creek is that doubling forces me to play outside my acknowledged strengths. I mean, I already know I can look tragic and be motherly. I can be a tragic mother with the best of them. But can I be a steadfast soldier or whorish hostess? We shall see, but I am at any rate grateful for the opportunity and will do my very best for company and country.

Preparation for this show has been a little different for me, mostly because I get to fight. I have always wanted to do stage combat, but other than knifing someone in the back and gouging out his eye with my thumb (Ah, Regan! You were such evil fun!), I’ve never had the opportunity because I’m not a guy. As I thought, stage combat is a tons o’ fun but also very challenging. (Notes to self: remember the wrist, the pointy side is supposed to go toward the person I’m trying to hit, keep low, keep the point away from the audience, look at my target, stay relaxed, extend.) It’s a little hard on the knees, but well worth it. In a small bit of delicious casting, I am fighting with Amy, who in her adorable petite-ness makes me look positively brawny. (Spoiler alert: she kicks my butt, which may be taken both literally and figuratively in this case.)

This one’s going to be good, folks. I’m very happy that we’re coming along as quickly as we are. I love working with these women (and Scott, of course), and I know that this show will be excellent. Powers That Be at Pigeon Creek, thank you for casting me, and thank you for not making me learn lines in Welsh.

I hope to see you all at a performance!

Bill Iddings as Cymbeline

“It’s good to be the king.”

Until now, I hadn’t been in a sword fight in 20 years. Back then, playing Macduff in Muskegon Community College’s 1991 production of playwright William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I damn near lost a finger. After dueling with, killing and beheading the murderous title character who seriously had it coming, I sheathed my two-handed broadsword and carried a facsimile of Mackers’ severed noodle back on stage.

What a mess. My hand was smeared so bloody that I hoped onlookers might think the goo was as fake as the decapitation. My blood had splattered on my costume and the boards. Patrons in the first couple rows faced heading home to do laundry, presumably with better luck than Lady Macbeth (“Out, damn spot.”). People had called me a drip before, but this was ridiculous.

“Whoa,” I thought, “that stuff’s supposed to be on the inside.”

Still, we all lived, and further injury is something I’’ve avoided in Cymbeline, a Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company all-male summer 2011 production nearing the end of its five-city Michigan tour. Playing one of the least-present title characters outside of “Waiting for Godot,” I’m the king of Britain. As a monarch, Cymbeline rules by divine right. He’s used to giving orders and being obeyed, no matter what. When anyone defies or questions such a person, that person tends to explode, which Cymbeline on occasion does.

Cymbeline also comes and goes. When he’s gone, he stays gone, disappearing for what sometimes seems the length of a Bible. Just why Shakespeare called this play “Cymbeline” is anybody’s guess, but why quibble with a dead guy who has shown a degree of staying power.

Among Cymbeline’s other hassles — his daughter (Ben Cole) marrying against his wishes and possibly committing suicide, his second wife (Joel L. Schindlbeck) conspiring with her sniveling son (Ross Currie) to usurp the throne, waging war with Italy — the king gets in a brief skirmish with Romans.

In stage fights choreographed by cast members Ben Cole and Michael Empson, Cymbeline’s swordplay is kept to a minimum. A couple bumps, bellows and clangs and he’s outta there, broadsword put aside till the next performance. Thus far I’ve escaped unscathed, pretty much with my dignity intact. As I told director Bob Jones and the rest of the Cymbeline cast during one rehearsal, “It’s good to be the king.”

Anyway, how does an actor good about playing a king?

Most of us have no personal experience in a job so based in nepotism. I’ve never actually been a regent, though I once recited the Pledge of Allegiance to my sixth-grade classmates. Wearing a crown and the responsibility that goes with it finds me trodding foreign territory.

I am, however, beginning to play a lot of older characters, people who have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

Will you still need me, will you still feed, when I’m 64? Seems so.

For Pigeon Creek, I’ve previously played a geezer who gets blinded in King Lear; in The Tempest, Prospero, an aging sorcerer whose closing speech is probably his last; and onn hiatus from undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns, I haunted Hamlet as a ghost, already dead. Who’s next, Yorick?

With any play preparation, reading the script is a good start; I’m certain I heard that somewhere. Learning your own lines is sort of important, though only if you want to keep working. Memorizing what pertains to your character is huge. Especially helpful is discovering what other characters say about yours.

At one point in Cymbeline, the king’s daughter, Imogen, talks about her father who “like the tyrannous breathing of the North, shakes all our buds from growing.” That’s a line reading if ever I heard one, something to be considered for whose moments when Cymbeline is major ticked off. Kings are not accustomed to be questioned. When they are, all hell can break loose. Cymbeline, though, also has a softer side. He loves his daughter, no matter what she’s done. Some of Shakeseare’s kings do not realize that until it’s too late; witness King Lear and his Cordelia.

I also try to find things I have in common with the characters I play. Cymbeline is not only a father of one child, a daughter. So am I. Cymbeline has been around a while. So have I. Cymbeline feels betrayed by his daughter and later worried that his volatile reaction might have resulted in the worst. I try to imagine how I’d feel in similar circumstances, and apply that to my characterization.

I happen to have a few physical pains that come with age. I’ve had one hip replaced, and pain is now telling me the other is on its way out. I’ve tried to make these aches part of Cymbeline. Face it, omeone who’s ruled a country in warlike times is bound to have an assorted bruises and batterings; those are part of the deal. If we hang around long enough, most actors don’t sashay out of this thing called life with the grace of Fred Astaire. We limp for the exit.

Before we bow out, though, we find our places and live there.

My days of playing romantic leads and swashbucklers are long gone. I’ve buckled my last swash, swashed my last buckle or something like that. But I always keep in mind one of the best pieces of advices I’ve ever been given: Wherever you are, be there.

Kat Hermes as Falstaff

I was having drinks with some of my fellow PCSC actors recently, and we confessed that we all imagine that the play we are working on is mostly about the character we are playing (however large or small our part in any given production.) Sometimes, this requires considerable effort and mental re-writing. When I played the lead in The Magical History of Thaisa (otherwise known as Pericles), I spent most of my stage time unconscious and most of the play offstage. And in our spring production of The Frat Boys of Venice, the real story was continually interrupted by all that nonsense about the pound of flesh.

This time, playing Falstaff, I am for once not alone in my opinion that the play is entirely about me. I have a great deal of scholarship and stage history on my side. In Shakespeare; The Invention of the Human, critic Harold Bloom devotes the entirety of his 43-page-long chapter on the Henry IV plays to Falstaff. Conflations of the two parts of Henry IV, such as Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, often focus on Falstaff as the central character. He has been the subject of an opera by Verdi and a novel by Robert Nye. He was so beloved by Shakespeare’s audience, and anecdotaly by Queen Elizabeth I herself, that he earned his own spin-off play, The Merry Wives of Windsor (which ended Pigeon Creek’s 2010 season).

An actor tackling one of Shakespeare’s great roles always gets asked what it is like to feel the weight of all that scholarly opinion (not to mention all of the great actors who’ve famously played the role before) on his or her shoulders. How do you prepare to inhabit one of the most beloved characters in Western literature? For me, the answer is, exactly the way I prepare for any other role. The difference being that this time it is likely that there will be people in the audience who care about the character as much as I do.

There is also the fact that this particular role is one that I’ve dreamed of playing almost as long as I’ve been acting and reading Shakespeare. Because I’ve been thinking about Falstaff for years, I came into rehearsal knowing a lot more about the character than I usually do. I’m sure seasoned theater-goers like our blog readers will not be surprised to learn that many important discoveries about character and story are made in the bar, and before the rehearsal processes even started, I’d had many long, drink-fueled conversations with the director and other actors about what my Falstaff would be.

So for me, this process as has been less about finding the character in rehearsal (though of course, there are many, many exciting discoveries still to be made there) and more about finding ways to translate the Falstaff that lives in my head onto the stage. I’ve written before, in previous actor blogs, about the challenges of playing male characters and of playing characters who are much older than I am, and I’m sure other actors in our production will have their own insights to share with you about those things. With all those physical and technical challenges in the background, my focus is on living up to all of the nuance and grandiosity of Falstaff’s language, on sharing all of the things about the character that I love in a way that helps the audience to love them, too.

Heather Folkvord as Prince Hal

Heather here playing Prince Hal in the all-female cast of Henry IV Part One. Prince Hal is a complex character and a real pain-in-the-a#* for his father, King Henry IV. First of all, he hangs out in seedy Eastcheap. A place where he carouses with his drinking buddies, plans a highway robbery, and takes every opportunity to thumb his nose at authority. Why does he do this? That’s a question I have asked myself more than once.

It turns out, though, there is a reason in a weird Machavellian way. Hal surprises the audience by letting them in on a little secret: his bad behavior is just a disguise. The truth is that he’s been pretending to be a degenerate in order to stage a dramatic “reformation” that will amaze everyone and make him a better king.

Acting like a rebellious teenager and breaking the law is a good thing for the country?

Um, okay. But it really does work. By the play’s end, Hal redeems himself on the battlefield by saving his father from Douglas. He even kills Hotspur, who’s been running around telling everyone that Hal’s a loser and a pansy. As a war hero, Hal shrugs off his bad boy reputation, steals Hotspur’s honor, and demonstrates his ability to govern. Hooray!! A piece of cake for an actor to play. Ha!

But, staging a “reformation” isn’t the only way Hal prepares for his future. Hal’s time in Eastcheap is all part of his “dress rehearsal” for kingship. He prepares for his future is by hanging out with the commoners in Eastcheap: finding out how the “other half” live, how their society works, and how he can relate to them. Then there’s good ole Falstaff. To Hal, the old drunken knight is more than just a buddy. I think Hal sees him as a surrogate father. I can see the appeal of hanging out with Falstaff, who’s always down for a little fun and spends lots of quality time with Hal. Hal misses his daddy. (Emo? Maybe a little.) It’s possible that even some of the cruelty Hal shows toward Falstaff is a way for the prince to express his anger at his father without paying the consequences of being a total ass to the king.

I’m just getting started on this journey to throne. I hope you enjoyed some of my beginning thoughts on Hal and why he does the things he does. Feel free to send me your thoughts and I’ll see you all out there.