Sunday, November 12, 2017

Richard, Cubed

A typical rehearsal look.
Actors who perform the classics are likely, if they've been around long enough, to appear more than once in certain plays.  Two weeks ago, I closed Richard III for the third time.  I was always a bridesmaid in these productions; I hoped to play Richard himself for years, but the chance never came.  Instead, I've had to be satisfied by playing various supporting characters in various productions. 
Jack played R3, from his own adaptation, and
directed the thing too. I was thrilled to be
invited to play his Buckingham.

My first encounter with the hunchback who had misplaced his horse was back in <gulp> 1999. My buddy Jack Young, at the time the artistic director of the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, SC, invited me to join his production of the play, in which he was to both star and direct.  It was a herculean task, in my opinion, but if anyone could accomplish it, Jack was the man.
This tableau, or a similar one, opens just about every production of Richard III, though Shakespeare did not write it.  In his original, the play opens with Richard alone onstage, lamenting his fate and revealing his plans to the audience. Modern directors are convinced this is a weak beginning, and wastes a chance to illustrate the arrogant power of the Yorks who have, seemingly, won the Wars of the Roses. So every production of R3 you are likely to see will begin with this family's revels (or procession or coronation or whatnot), followed by Shakespeare's original opening.
Christina Keefe, a great friend from grad school
suggested I play Buckingham. She played mad
Queen Margaret, a brute of a role which is
sometimes cut from American productions, as
she serves no dramatic purpose and is confusing
to viewers unfamiliar with the dynastic
entanglements of the Wars of the Roses.

My grad school comrade Christina Keefe, Jack's wife and the leading lady of his theatre, had suggested he hire me for the show.  I was told that my name first came up to play the small comic role of the Mayor of London; Christina wondered why Jack would waste me on such a minor character, considering he would have to hire me as an out of town actor, and provide lodging and transportation for me as well.

This gal played the Mayor, a role I was later to play. Twice.
They agreed I should play the much larger role of the Duke of Buckingham, Richard's co-conspirator and later, betrayer. Depending on the adaptation, Buckingham usually turns out to be the show's second male lead.

Buckingham ends the play being led to
his execution. This photo was on my
 Christmas Card that year.

I have to admit that I don't have many specific memories of the experience at The Warehouse. I recall I spent a lot of time working the text; Buckingham was the largest Shakespearean role I had played to date.  He is definitely one of those roles which I would like to attempt again, now that I'm more <ahem> seasoned.  
Our star was not the only one with a hump.  Our stage had one too. We played in-the-round, with a misshaped hill in the center as the defining scenic element. 

Fourteen years later, Richard III reentered my life. 
After a prelude lifted from Henry VI, Part III (a prequel of sorts to Richard III), my second R3 began with a procession of the royal family down the stairs of the playing space, through the audience . I'm up top, in the beard and white tie.
Richard's opening "Winter of our discontent..." speech was
delivered, in part, through a bullhorn as a political stump
speech. In all the productions of R3 I've seen, I don't believe
I've ever seen one which begins as Shakespeare intended: a
solitary figure limps onto a bare stage, turns to the crowd and
tells them his plan. Too dull for modern audiences I suppose.
Even Olivier began his iconic film version with pageantry.
And McKellen's film begins with a tank breaking through
a wall; his opening speech doesn't show up until scene 4.
I had only been in my New York apartment a few months when I responded to a casting call for Hudson Warehouse, a company which produced classic (mostly Shakespeare) shows outside in Riverside Park.  

I never really adjusted to the weather issues, but I have
to admit, when the sun is setting on your face, it gives
the performance a glow which I've never felt from
artificial lighting.
It's probably lucky that I had not, at the time, experienced how hot New York summers got, especially if you're dressed in business suits spouting classical text, but I had never spent a summer in NY, so I assumed hey, if Joe Papp can attract all that A-List talent to do Shakespeare in the Park every year, the climate must be tolerable.

The playing space used by Hudson Warehouse is huge, well-suited for big Shakespearean epics (if not for acoustics, which are as you might imagine). I wrote about trying to meet the challenges of this space here and here.

As the clueless Mayor of London.
Just as so many years earlier, it was the role of the Mayor for which I was initially engaged at Hudson Warehouse. Shortly before rehearsal began, an additional role became available, that of Richard's brother, the Duke of Clarence.  It was possible to play both roles, and it was a terrific pairing.  

Clarence is led to the Tower by
Brakenbury, a minor character whom I
was to play in my next R3. The irony of
this shot only became apparent recently;
I conquered this scene when I was
playing Clarence for HW, but in the
smaller role of Brakenbury for Titan,
I repeatedly fell short.
Clarence has a strong dramatic presence in the early scenes of R3, including a speech about a dream, full of imagery and dramatical moments.  After this speech, Clarence is murdered, but not without a fight (and plenty of blood. Hudson Warehouse loves to work with blood). I loved the fact that, in our version, Clarence did not simply accept his fate, but instead fought back as best he could. His slaughter was inevitable, and very fun to play.
The murder of Clarence is written to be performed offstage, but Hudson Warehouse had other ideas. During rehearsal, we were wondering how to get my lifeless corpse off the stage when I joked that I could simply be tossed over the wall. Everyone looked at each other, and a dynamic fight sequence was born. This became my favorite moment in the play.
After this very bloody scene, I cleaned up myself as best as possible in order to return to the stage as the Mayor, perhaps the only specifically comic role in Richard III.  After getting a few laughs in a few scenes, I donned the bloody t-shirt in which Clarence had been murdered in order to reappear as his ghost, haunting his brother.  The juxtaposition of these two roles, one dramatic and one comic, was great fun to play, making this my favorite overall experience with any of my R3s.
There were no artificial lights used outside at Hudson Warehouse, merely a few streetlamps of questionable efficiency.  As the sun set, the play reached the sequence in which Richard is haunted by the ghosts of all whom he has murdered. I made my ghostly entrance by climbing the wall over which I had been tossed, reappearing with bloody shirt and a score to settle.
My third go-round with Richard III ended only a few weeks ago.  
Let's Partaay! Titan's production also opened with the royals celebrating their success, before brother Richard hobbles on to spoil everyone's fun.
I have worked repeatedly with Titan Theatre in Queens since arriving in NY six years ago (in fact, they afforded me my NYC debut, I wrote about that here), so when artistic director Lenny asked me to join his production of Richard III, I agreed.  
This was my only R3 which used actual kids to play the
young Princes in the Tower (you know, the ones who get
murdered). On the wall, you can see the major motif of
Titan's R3: each time somebody bites the dust, our "hero"
paints a line to keep score.

I was once again to play the Mayor; this time the role was doubled with that of Brakenbury, a minor official in the royal court whose primary duties seemed to be keeping the keys to the Tower.  
I mentioned on social media that Brakenbury is the guy who is always standing next to the person who's talking. I did a lot of "active listening" in the role. I also disappointed myself greatly. My lack of focus in this character led to several <ahem> senior moments, during which my mouth refused to do what my brain instructed, and the scene had to be rescued by other actors. I have never had such trouble onstage before, and I remain perplexed as to why my brain built a wall around this particular moment.  It was embarrassing the first time it happened; when it happened a second time, I had officially humiliated myself.
This is a selfie I took in the dressing room, of
the Mayor. I had to take a selfie because there
was scant photographic evidence I was in this
production. It became a running gag that I did
not appear in any rehearsal photos nor any
promotional materials nor any Instagram
entries. So if I wanted a picture of myself
as the Mayor, I had to take it myself.
I brought a few new touches to the role of the Mayor, but overall, my performance in Titan's Richard III was not one to celebrate.  It was the most limited amount of stage time I had experienced since playing a nameless fishseller in Volpone at the Shakespeare Theatre Company back in 1996.  I had to admit that I was working my way DOWN the ladder of importance, role-wise, in this play: from the costarring villain Buckingham in my first R3, to the satisfying supporting role of Clarence in my second R3, to the most recent endeavor playing that guy who is always hanging around on the sidelines.
The Duke of Clarence pleads innocence, in Hudson Warehouse's Richard III (my second). I would welcome the chance to play this guy again, as well as the Duke of Buckingham (from my first R3). I'm afraid I have no desire to revisit my third R3, in which I was a major disappointment to myself.
Another backstage selfie: Lord Brakenbury.
We were not a good match.
After our final performance, most of the cast remained behind to help with the show's strike, but I slipped out into the rain, to take the 15 minute walk from the theatre to the subway station.  As I trudged along, getting wetter and wetter ("My kingdom for an umbrella!"), I had to admit this was an ignominious but fitting end to a theatrical experience in which I had disappointed myself so thoroughly.  Not all artistic endeavors can be personal triumphs, but when it's a personal failure, the aftertaste is sour.  It will be a while before I attempt my fourth Richard III.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Where Do The Good Boys Go To Hideaway?

I'm a bit obsessive about keeping notes regarding all my professional dealings, so I can say with absolute certainty that it was June 3, 2016, when Boys of a Certain Age entered my life.  
It was on that date that I ran across a casting notice on, a site I pay dearly for but rarely access.  
The show's description caught my eye, as did the description of one of the characters: "age 60, came out when he was 20; he is gay; playfully dramatic and vocally open about sex; a veteran of many movements, scenes, careers and love affairs; he is now mostly retired and has a cane."  Those last three words are in fact what encouraged me to submit for an audition: "...has a cane."  I was on occasion using a cane at the time, as back surgery was on the horizon, so performing the role WITH a cane would not be a problem.  I did wonder, though, why such a detail was included in a character description for a casting call.  Was anybody worried that an actor might be interested in playing a role UNTIL he discovered he would be carrying a cane, a detail which might cause him to up and quit?
I submitted myself, auditioned, and was cast in this brand new play. There were, at the time, to be only 3 performances, to be presented during one of NYC's thousands of summertime  creative arts festivals.  This particular festival celebrated gay theatre (and artwork and music and so on) and was rather preciously called the Fresh Fruit Festival.  Yes, we get it: for two weeks in July, it was all gay, all day.
Playwright Dan Fingerman created four
interesting and dynamic characters and
placed them in a fairly traditional setting,
a beach cabin during a weekend. Think
Love!Valour!Compassion! without the
pond, or Lips Together, Teeth Apart without
the straight people, or Boys in the Band
without the self-hatred. That was us.

Though we rehearsed for weeks, I have to confess that it was not until our first public performance that I learned that the play had something substantial to reveal, and moreover, that I had been given a very showy part.  (Full disclosure: I have NEVER been any good at reading plays, even established classics. I just do not have the skill to picture the action onstage while reading. The lack of this skill has always hindered my career). 

I learned, during those three performances at the Festival, that I had been very lucky to play Ira in Boys of a Certain Age.  Director Dan Dinero had cast me into my strengths, as the role carried a lot of the comedy of the piece, but it also displayed an emotional depth which I don't often get a chance to play. Ira's quick wit was on display throughout the play, but in the second half, it was sprinkled among his heartfelt (and sometimes harrowing) memories of the past. 
Ira's loss of so many during the early AIDS crisis thickened his skin but did not harden his heart, which remained compassionate and loving.  He was a very rich character to play.
Our brief run at the Fresh Fruit Festival was sold out, and was a hit with the audiences (largely gay men.  Our production won the Audience Choice Award, voted on by the public at large, and we were told our show was also the biggest box office draw of anything ever presented in the history of this festival).  The company held out hope that perhaps a full run of the show might follow; I know all four actors were eager to explore these characters in a fuller way.  Playwright Dan began the task of putting together an actual run of the show.
I don't even want to know how expensive it is to produce small theater in NYC, but our playwright did it. We had a fundraiser at a local watering hole to announce the run.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016. The Boys team booked a theatre in the Village, one usually occupied by Soho Rep, one of the more venerable of the smaller professional theaters in Manhattan.  
Brian Gligor played my nephew Christopher, a gay
Republican. He had the toughest job, I think, making a
Trump supporter likable.  Even back in Feb, it was hard to
accept anyone with a brain defending Trump.
Brian made it work. One of my favorite BOCA memories
is the night I enticed him to my place after rehearsal, where
I plied him with martinis and forced him to build my website. is proof that booze works.
We were to perform during one of the host theatre's dormant periods. We were all excited about this chance to revisit the material, and the dates dovetailed nicely for me, as I had committed to do A Christmas Carol for Titan Theatre for the holidays. 

The best laid plans, right? Soho Rep abruptly shut down all operations at their theatre, there were apparently certain building codes which they had been ignoring (and violating) for many years. Our contract to sublet was yanked.
Joe Menino played Larry, my first love who remained in the
closet for most of his life. His arrival triggered memories of
love and loss and regret and lots of recrimination. Joe was
the only hetero in the cast, and needed footnotes
to decode the script.

This disappointment became a blessing in disguise. Another space was found, and our remount was rescheduled for February, 2017.  This gave the playwright time to rewrite a sizable chunk of the script, a chunk which dealt specifically with the 2016 presidential election.  During our summer run, the campaign had been in full swing, and it seemed assured that Clinton would win.  
Every gay play needs a shirtless scene, Marc Sinoway
provided it, as snarky metro-sexual Brian. His was
a thoroughly unpleasant character; Marc deserves kudos
for grabbing this role by the balls and not letting go.
In the end, we like the guy, as did the critics,
one of which mentioned his thighs!

It was logical, and even necessary, to include current politics in the text of Boys of a Certain Age; four educated gay men could never spend an entire weekend together without ever mentioning the current state of affairs.  But with the play now taking place after the election, this dialogue had to be rewritten.

We went back into rehearsal; we were a lively bunch.  We embraced the theme of the play: the clashing perspectives gay men have with different generations of their own tribe:

We now knew we had something special to which audiences would respond, and we were eager to improve the piece. Both Dans (director and playwright) were open to collaboration, and the actors took full advantage of the fact. 
Here is the "black box theatre" in which we
performed. Notice anything? Yep, it's all white. Not
a problem, but the permanent pole in the center of
the playing space was <ahem>challenging. 

Moving into the theater was particularly challenging, as it always is in such situations. Because the space was being rented, the only rehearsals we had there were technical. Actors hate tech rehearsals, as we always feel we are in the home stretch before the audience shows up, and we want the time to polish.  But there is no time for such fine tuning, and in our case, our tech rehearsals were commandeered by a set which arrived more complex than anticipated. 
I loved our modular set, which strongly suggested the feel of a beach house, but it became the most controversial aspect of our production.  The railings were movable, so they were adjusted between scenes to reflect the living room, deck, beach, even a local bar.  Some folks loved the way the cast swept around the set rearranging things, while others wondered why all the fuss. These transitions had only been marginally rehearsed beforehand, so tech rehearsals were swallowed up by choreographing this Banister Ballet.
Further consternation was felt when, after several preview performances, edits to the script were delivered which were more substantial than expected. Tempers flared, and our opening weekend had lots and lots of <ahem> adrenaline.
We opened to lovely houses and nice notices from the critics (shows such as ours do not attract the attention of the larger main stream media in New York, there are simply too many of us). Neighborhood papers and online sites all delivered glowing critiques, and we had a great three week run.
Our audience included a few distinguished
folks, including this guy in the middle: Jack
Wetherall played a large role in Queer As
. We were also visited by Broadway
director Jeff Calhoun and actor John Benjamin
Hickey, an original player from Love!Valour!
, to which we had been compared
All good things end, so I sadly said goodbye to Boys of a Certain Age on closing night in February.

The show was to reenter my life a few months later, quite unexpectedly.  Our show had been submitted to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, which celebrate Off-Off-Broadway productions.  There must be hundreds of such productions in NYC every year, so I was stunned when this happened: 

Playwright Dan Fingerman and I represented our show at the
NYIT awards. I did not win the award, but it's true what they
say: it's an honor to be nominated. Our show did not have the
support of a large producing organization, our 3 week run was
under the radar for most, but somehow, the judges concluded
that my performance as Ira was worthy of notice.
The NYIT awards cover a large swath of art, including solo shows, performance art pieces, as well as traditional plays and musicals, but there were only six of us nominated in the Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role category.  This nomination was a very nice cap to put on the experience of Boys of a Certain Age; by the time the awards were given, all of us had moved on to other things. But I will remember Ira very fondly;  his belief that there are things in the world worth fighting for was admirable.  

Ira's sass was infectious, his compassion was humbling, his humanity was undeniable.  I will always be grateful for the part he played in a year of my life.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Crown's Jewel

I haven't written an obit/tribute in these pages since last year (when Patty Duke died, go here to read that one), but when this gent died last Friday, attention had to be paid.  
Tim Pigott-Smith
Our hero had a career spanning six decades with success on stage, screen, and television.  He never stopped working, though his career had a couple of high points.  One of those was very recent, as he introduced the world to one of the most admired new plays of the past few years, King Charles III.  
Truth be told, there's not much physical resemblance between Pigott-Smith and the royal he portrayed in King Charles III, but everyone thought he nailed the role. He was nominated for both the Olivier (he lost to Mark Strong in View From the Bridge) and the Tony (he lost to Frank Langella in The Father).
Written by Mike Bartlett in iambic pentameter, the piece takes place in the very near future: upon the death of Elizabeth II, the Prince of Wales finally assumes the British throne, after 70 years waiting in the wings.  
It was great fun to watch this fictionalized
portrait of the royal family with struggles
right out of Shakespeare and O'Neill. And
there was some great Hat Acting being
done by the actress playing Camilla.
I saw the play in its regional theatre debut at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, but I wish I had caught the original West End cast when it transferred to Broadway last year.  Pigott-Smith (let's call him P-S for convenience from here on out, no disrespect intended) received rave reviews and a Tony nod for his work.  He received an Olivier nomination for the performance as well, he lost them both.  But his career was continuing non-stop;  he has several films in the can, including a TV version of Chuck 3 scheduled to be shown on PBS in May.
P-S's contemporary work included this production of Albee's A Delicate Balance; do you recognize the woman he's playing opposite? That's Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey's Cousin Isabelle, though I knew her work decades earlier, beginning with the PBS taping of The Norman Conquests back in the mists of time.
No, it's not Equus as directed by Bob Fosse. It's our hero as
Prospero in The Tempest. I'm guessing his co-star is playing
Ariel, though I suppose it could be Caliban by way of Bowie.
Standing over six feet and with a booming, majestic voice, our Tim excelled at playing authoritarian characters.  His Shakespearean roles included two crowned heads, Polixines in The Winter's Tale, and King Lear himself (as well as the pseudo-Shakespearean Charles III). 
Tim made a splashy West End debut in the early 70s in this Hamlet. He played Laertes (here dead) opposite the Hamlet of a very young Ian McKellen.
American classics were fair game to P-S. He was scheduled for
Death of a Salesman before he died, and here, he tangled with
Dame Helen Mirren in O'Neill's monster Mourning Becomes
Tim's Broadway debut in a Sherlock Holmes play (he played Watson) was well received.  His stage resume includes Shaw, Albee, and lots of playwrights in between;  he was due to begin rehearsals as Willy Loman, if you can believe it, a few days after he died.
Tim Pigott-Smith is not in this picture, but fans of Downton Abbey will know why this particular screen grab is displayed in a tribute to P-S. If you need a further clue, the person in bed is Lady Sybil. The episode in which the youngest daughter at Downton gives birth, then acquires a disease which ultimately kills her, is one of the pivotal moments of the series. Our hero guested on this episode, as the pompous London doctor who misdiagnosed Sybil, over-ruled the family doc, and caused her death. Not surprisingly, P-S's character never returned.
I mentioned his career had a couple of high points, one of which was his recent success with King Charles III. Decades ago, he achieved an even bigger high point as a central character in one of the most respected television programs in the history of the medium.  

P-S spent some time on Doctor Who, I'm told (don't watch the thing myself), as well as several other British programs which did not jump the pond to the US. But everyone agrees his greatest fame came from his pivotal role in The Jewel in the Crown, the 1984 mini-series which is regularly included on lists of the best television programs of all time.
This love/hate triangle dominated the first episodes of Jewel in the Crown, and affected the later episodes in more subtle ways.
It was this series which first brought Tim Pigott-Smith to my attention.  I tuned in every Sunday night as this huge story of the last years of the British rule in India was broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre (I still miss Alistair Cooke's urbane commentary, don't you?).  
The plot of Jewel in the Crown hinged on the brutality which
policeman Merrick inflicted on the Indian who dared love a
British woman. There was a hint of homo-eroticism in this
interrogation scene which I bet many viewers missed.
I knew almost nothing about the British Raj (that's Hindi for "rule") and was fascinated by the Indian struggles for Independence while World War II raged. Sounds pretty, ahem, "educational," but the series itself brimmed with life. The show was based on a quartet of novels by Paul Scott, which explains the somewhat jarring shift of prospective the program underwent. 
Peggy Ashcroft and Tim Pigott-Smith did not work
much together on the sprawling series, but they
walked off with the biggest kudos, well-deserved.
The first three episodes concerned the forbidden love affair between a British girl and an Indian expat, who had been educated in a British public school before returning to the subcontinent. A love triangle (of sorts) developed when the British lass caught the attention of a brutishly ambitious police officer, played by our P-S. Ronald Merrick was perceived to be the villain of The Jewel in the Crown, and I wouldn't argue that point, but P-S's performance was never one-note.  
Early in the series, Merrick had a soul and a
conscience, just look at those eyes. They
reflect a longing to be accepted and a
deadening of the soul, simultaneously.
His role was actually an illustration (or perhaps symptom) of the actual theme of the show, the violent animosity between the Hindu and Muslim religions as India struggled to become independent from Britain. Mix in the animosity between all Indians and their British rulers, and you've got a real pot-boiler, and our P-S's Merrick was in the thick of it.
Susan Wooldridge as Daphne Manners, who had the bad luck to
fall for an Indian, then get gang raped, get pregnant, give birth to
a baby of uncertain paternity, then die. And in only 3 episodes!

The defining moment of the series (spoiler alert: it's a rape) occurred in the second episode, and by the fourth episode, this romantic triangle dissolved, and the focus of the series shifted to the Layton family, Brits who left England's middle class to settle in India and become part of the ruling elite.  
These star-crossed lovers gave way to another ill-fated couple.
This storytelling shift was pretty abrupt;  the characters we had met in the first 3 episodes, characters the viewing audience assumed were the stars of the series, receded into the background of the story, with the exception of our anti-hero Merrick. The remainder of the series centered on the Layton sisters: compassionate, level-headed Sarah, and Susan, whose sanity becomes more and more suspect as the series progresses.  
Turns out THIS was the central romance of the series.
Geraldine James and Charles Dance received big career boosts
from Jewel... Their roles were understated and a bit subdued
compared to the flamboyant performances surrounding them.
Judy Parfitt played their chilly mother (in what I think is the best performance in a series full of them), and Charles Dance played a young military man, whose life becomes entangled with Pigot-Smith's Merrick.
Judy Parfitt's gin-fueled Mildred
was brittle,tense, and unlikable
(I loved her)
Everyone on the show did yeoman's work, there are no shortages of stellar performances in this epic, and a few true greats wander through. 

Dame Peggy Ashcroft as lesbian missionary Barbie Bachelor was a series highlight. After a prestigious stage career spanning decades, Jewel in the Crown catapulted her to international stardom at age 77.  She won the BAFTA for her performance (everyone in the category that year was her co-star from the series, she beat them all).  The same year, she won the Oscar for another trip to the subcontinent, A Passage to India.
Rachel Kempson's serene Lady Manners
sailed through several episodes. She is better
known to American audiences as mother to
Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave.
But in my mind, the series belongs to Tim Pigott-Smith's performance as Merrick. His journey was a violent one, and though he evolved into a pretty nasty degenerate, at the beginning of the series he was a devoted friend and hardworking officer of the law who, regrettably, allowed his personal bigotry to affect his character.  
Merrick performs an act of heroism which disfigures him
for life, and begins his descent into degeneracy.
Ah, those Brits really know how to put on a show with performances such as these. Pigott-Smith is one of those British actors who bursts on the scene with a pivotal performance for which they will be primarily remembered.  He had a thriving career both before and after Jewel in the Crown, but his renown has always been linked to this performance. 
P-S as Prof. Higgins brags to his housekeeper, while his creation looks on.  It's Pygmalion, of course, but take a look at the gal playing Eliza.  It's Michelle Dockery, star of Downton Abbey.
There are a handful or more British thespians who never quite escaped their breakout performances, like Derek Jacoby in I, Claudius , David Suchet in the Poirot series, and  Keith Michell's Henry VIII.  Even including his recent international success as Charles III, Tim Pigott-Smith's Ronald Merrick was one of these career-defining performances.  

He died last week at the age of 70.