The Challenge of Many Faces with Joseph Valente
Joseph Valente describes the challenges that accompany doubling.
One of the most difficult and rewarding tasks of an actor is taking a character off the page and creating a real, living, breathing, human being onstage with all the necessary depth and complexity. I have been given the great challenge and opportunity to go through this process with five distinctly different characters in Pigeon Creek’s summer production of Antony and Cleopatra. This being my third major production with Pigeon Creek, I was familiar with the routine challenges that come with playing Shakespeare, but found the sheer number of characters to be initially daunting, as it was essential to make each one unique and interesting in its own way. Fortunately I had great help and guidance from the direction of Katherine Mayberry, as well fantastic scene partners that gave me so much to play off of with each scene.
An actor playing multiple roles is nothing new to Shakespeare. In the Bard’s own time, it was common to have one performer bring several distinct characters to life. About twelve actors can provide enough cast to perform any of Shakespeare’s plays, and some works require even less than that. Antony and Cleopatra, being one of his longer and more intricate plays is ripe for ample doubling. Though some characters are only in a few scenes, their activities influence the plot and direction of the play enormously.
When approaching a role, I begin by working out the character’s backstory, first starting with the script’s given information, and then filling in the gaps with my own imagination and interpretation. Though this practice was certainly helpful to this production, I wanted to avoid becoming lost in the massive detail of years of background experience on five very different people. Thus to keep focused I made the center of my efforts to the simple question of why each character is included in the play, and what purpose they serve.
The Soothsayer is a mysterious fortune teller that appears early in the play warning both the queen’s handmaidens and Marc Antony that their futures are tainted with unfortunate happenings. A similar character appears in Julius Caesar warning the title character to “Beware the Ides of March.” The Soothsayer’s role in the story is to warn the characters of the coming storm, as well as to give the sense of impending doom and inevitability. With this purpose in mind I was able to find a character burdened with the weight of truth, and the humiliation of being regulated to entertainment and pageantry, even while holding such crucial information.
Menas the pirate is a brute that allies with Pompey against the triumvirate. His role in the text points out the folly of Pompey in trusting Caesar, which both mirrors and foreshadows Antony’s own downfall at the hands of Rome’s first emperor. Providing a background for Menas proved fun, as it is never fully revealed why he places his fortune and resources to Pompey. I decided that Menas could have once been a soldier under Pompey’s famous father who was defeated by Julius Caesar. His alliance to Pompey could very well be seen by him as a way to regain his former honor and position. Creating a character necessarily cynical, world-weary, and brutal proved to be very enjoyable.
If Menas is cynical and realistic, Scarus, a soldier in Antony’s army, is the direct opposite. Scarus sticks with Antony to the very end, his purpose being to demonstrate the vast power Antony once held as a member of the triumvirate, as well as showing how Antony’s demise affects the lives of every one of his followers, particularly the most loyal. Loyalty is central to Scarus’ character as he rants against Antony’s Egyptian follies in his first appearance, yet still decides to follow his master to the end. Paul Riopelle (Antony) helped me in the development of this character as he pointed out that Antony may even see something of his former self in this scrappy, young idealistic soldier.
Thyreus is an overconfident ambassador in Caesar’s inner circle, who is sent to attempt to drive a wedge between Cleopatra and Antony. Ironically Shakespeare uses the character to accomplish the opposite effect, as his actions pull the two title characters even closer together. His overconfidence in his own cunning and skill, proves his downfall, as he is outwitted by Cleopatra, and receives a severe beating at the hands of Antony as a result of his actions. Something tells me that Thyreus has a long history of outmaneuvering his opponents, which is why Caesar sends him to Egypt in the first place. Unfortunately for him his skills did not prove strong enough for this particular situation.
Dercetas is a guard in Antony’s army that is one of the last to defect to Caesar after finding Antony mortally wounded in a suicide attempt. Shakespeare uses the character as a vehicle to inform Caesar of Antony’s final demise, as well as to further emphasize the tragedy of such a swift downfall. Interestingly enough, Dercetas thoroughly praises Antony during his defection to Caesar indicating how hard the switch is for him, and how deeply his master’s downfall has hurt him. It was fascinating creating a character pragmatic enough to know when to quit, but still loyal enough to proclaim his former master’s greatness to the enemy he is defecting to!
All in all my experience with Antony and Cleopatra has been an exceptional learning experience, as it has given me five distinctly different characters to make my own. Not many other shows provide one with that much opportunity for creation. I am greatly enjoying myself on this production and wish to sincerely thank Katherine for her exceptional direction as well as my fellow actors for their great work that inspired me to work even harder to achieve the greatest truth in performance. I can honestly say this show boasts one of the most talented, hard-working casts I have ever had the pleasure of working with.