Repertory Company Member Brad Sytsma discusses the differences of his two characters in Two Gentleman of Verona.
My experiences thus far performing with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company have all had one thing in common: the characters I play all have names or titles that begin with the letter “D.” Two Gentlemen of Verona is no different; but taking on the dual roles of the Duke and the Dog presented a new array of challenges to overcome when creating their characters.
I generally start with the text when creating a character. I look at my character from his own perspective, from the perspective of the other characters in the play, and from the perspective of someone viewing the play as a whole. Early in the rehearsal process, when we were discussing our setting and treatment of the play, it was easy to come up with ideas on how to play the Duke. Translating Italian royalty into an intimidating Mafioso came easily and made a lot of sense for the character. Determining how to play the dog, however, was a wholly different process.
I haven’t played an animal onstage since I portrayed the Big Bad Wolf in a Kindergarten production of The Three Little Pigs, and apart from Launce’s monologues (or Dogologues as I began to refer to them), not much is said about the faithful, if not so trusty, Crab. Because Crab has no lines, I had to move on to what other characters said about the dog in order to figure out what his personality was like. Launce, on one hand cares for his dog deeply; while almost every other character that encounters the canine tries to keep him at bay. This says a lot about the dog. Crab is the kind of pet that his master loves, but no one else wants around. Even Launce, throughout his dogologues, goes on about his disappointment in Crab’s behavior: first at his lack of sensitivity toward leaving home, then for his lack of discipline in the presence of the Duke. One thing is clear though, which is that Launce loves his dog. So Crab must be played with some redeeming dog-like qualities.
Once I knew what Crab’s personality should be like, I faced the challenge of bringing the dog to life onstage. Janelle and I worked long and hard to find the moments in Launce’s speeches that could be accentuated by a dog’s behavior, and I ended up memorizing not only my lines as the Duke, but Launce’s lines for the dog. Once we had the shape of Launce’s speeches worked out, I then had to figure out what to do with myself between the jokes and moments that we had built. Dogs don’t speak English, they may recognize a few words and commands, but they generally have no idea what we are saying. Dogs rely on the tone of your voice and your posture to understand what you are communicating and feeling. This is something I tried to work into my portrayal of Crab. I would try to actively tune out the words that were being said and pay more attention to the tone and body language coming from the other actors onstage; obviously still tracking buzz words that would cue certain actions throughout the scene. This opened several doors for me, as I was able to interact with the audience more freely, respond more genuinely as a dog to Launce, and bring the right kind of energy and motivation to the character.
I think the most challenging part of playing both the Duke and the Dog is the quick change that occurs after my first dog scene. I have just over a page of dialogue to get out of the dog suit, into a suit and tie, try to fix my hair, grab a letter from the prop table, and enter the next scene. With a lot of help from Anessa, I’m able to make the physical changes just in time, but switching from the headspace of the dog to the Duke is the more difficult process. Crab is a ball of energy, dependent entirely on those around him, and whose motivations are very simple; the Duke on the other hand is reserved, he keeps his cards close to his chest, is unafraid to remind others of his power physically if the situation calls for it, and only revealing the information he holds when it best suits him. Making this mental transition from one polar end of the spectrum to the other, especially when I barely have time to catch my breath backstage, is daunting and definitely something I put great care into accomplishing each night.
I have really enjoyed the challenges that come with playing both the Duke and the dog and hope the audience can enjoy the differences in these two characters, each of whom bring something unique and special to this production.