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Henry VIII

On the Road

Posted by on in Henry VIII

Friday night finds me in Nevada City, having left Berkeley this morning. I'm staying with my old (non-theatre) friends Susan and Jerome,; it's pure coincidence that Nevada City also happens to be where Philip Sneed and several members of the CSF staff formerly worked-- at the Foothill Theatre Company, which had the franchise to produce Shakespeare at Tahoe for many years. Tomorrow's driving plan calls for me to have breakfast in Reno and make it as far as Salina or Green River, Utah tomorrow night.

Apleasant (but cold!) swim in the South Fork of the Yuba near Nevada City

Bracing (cold!) dip in the South Fork of the Yuba near Nevada City

I spent my last evening in the Bay Area seeing the final preview of California Shakespeare Theatre's Pericles, which opens tonight. This is a play to which I feel a strong connection, having directed it in Berkeley in 1979 and at American Players' Theatre in Wisconsin in 1999 (and acted in it in Colorado in 1973, my last season there, in a cast that included Anne and Sam Sandoe, both of whom are to be in Henry). I had mixed reactions to the Cal Shakes version: they got some things very right-- a charming, striking set, a Gower who was compelling and charismatic and had a lovely connection with the audience, a Cerimon scene (the reviving of Thaisa) that struck the right tone of mystery and magic. But I felt the show's success was marred by too many funny accents in the various ports of call, a giving in to the common temptation to play the management of the Mytilene brothel as twisted, unfunny grotesques, and a Pericles who I thought never rose to the stature that the play demands. Pericles is not a particularly strong character-- hence my own inclination to treat him as an Everyman figure, even to the point of dividing the role among three actors-- a man more acted on than acting; and if a single performer undertakes to play his decades-long arc, that actor has a difficult challenge to progress from the unformed callowness of the young prince to the mute despair of the aging king. I think it takes a pretty remarkable actor to bring it off. The production took the play seriously on its own terms, and I afford it respect for that. But it didn't touch for me that chord of deep joy that the Romances, at their best, can offer.

Getting closer

Posted by on in Henry VIII
My leaving for Boulder is less than a week away now, and I'll start rehearsals in ten days. Messages are flying back and forth between here and Boulder as we work out travel plans, make living arrangements and begin to construct rehearsal schedules. I think I'm going to drive via highway 50 across Nevada, famed as "the loneliest road in America"-- I've driven it a couple of times before, most recently in April of 2005 en route to Kansas City for ACT's co-production of The Voysey Inheritance. Driving cross-country has always been one of my favorite aspects of working out of town; I prefer to have my car with me where I'm working, but maybe the real reason I drive is to take scenic routes across the West and see things I've never seen before. If there's time on this trip, I'd like to take a swing through Aspen, a town I've never seen. But with gas prices up over $4.00 a gallon, it's going to be an expensive proposition. I know it will take me at least four tanks of gas to get there, by even the most direct route; I'll be lucky if I can make the drive for under $200 in gas alone, which will eat up a big hunk of my travel allowance. But my wife Jannie will be flying out at the beginning of August to see the shows, and having the car will let us take a bit of a vacation after the season ends. We hope to drive back via Wyoming, and maybe spend two or three days in the Grand Tetons before heading home.

Mark Collins, a feature writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, called a couple of days ago to conduct a phone interview for the paper. I'm somewhat surprised myself how vivid my memories are of my first summer in Boulder, in 1966; it doesn't hurt that I recently rediscovered a journal I kept the first few weeks of that summer (in tiny, crabbed handwriting-- how insecure I must have been!) and had reread the wide-eyed, self-obsessed musings of the 19-year-old baby actor I was. The company in those days was all non-Equity and had no roles precast-- all three shows were cast in a three-day, almost round-the-clock, very intense series of auditions and callbacks, and by the third day I was a wreck. I'd come with a very inflated idea of my own talents and prospects, and had fantasized about taking the place by storm. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by a lot of older, better actors, who knew their way around a stage a lot better than I did, and I went in 48 hours from expecting to play leads to wondering if I was going to get any kind of speaking part at all. And the summer might have been a real washout, if Jim Sandoe, who was directing Merry Wives of Windsor, hadn't seen something in me and given me Dr. Caius, the French physician-- based probably more than anything else on my being able to do the accent (I was semifluent in French). Anyway, it saved my summer; I felt I could hold my head up among all these brilliant, talented people I'd somehow fallen in with-- and I started to learn. I sat in the Mary Rippon Theatre for hours on end that summer, drinking in rehearsal after rehearsal-- whether they were scenes I was in or not-- and by season's end I really was starting to understand something about performing Shakespeare.

The interview will appear in the Sunday paper on June 1-- the day I arrive in Boulder.

Colorado bound

Posted by on in Henry VIII
My good friend Ron Severdia has asked me to write a blog this summer to be posted from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, where I'll be playing Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII. It's a significant event for me for two reasons.

First, Colorado Shakespeare is where I cut my teeth as a Shakespeare actor, 42 years ago. I came to Boulder as a naive 19-year-old in June of 1966, fresh off my sophomore year at Swarthmore, and embarked on a steep learning curve that transformed my life; I was already aware of an active interest in the theatre and in Shakespeare's works in particular, but it was one among many other interests (classical music, Aegean archaeology, caving and rock-climbing) competing for space in my hyperactive young brain. But I came out of that summer with a new sense of acting as a vocation and a commitment to explore the fascinating world of these amazing plays and the actor-poet-entrepreneur who penned them. That summer led to a lifelong commitment to the Bard's works and many, many more summers of Shakespeare in Colorado, in Oregon, and finally in California, where an almost twenty-year association with the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival-- which is now doing business under its new title, California Shakespeare Theatre (Cal Shakes for short)-- as actor, director and Associate Artistic Director, eventually involved me in productions of all of the 38 plays-- all but one. Which brings me to the second reason this summer is special.

Last July, I found myself, uncharacteristically, with no Shakespeare festival in need of my services. I have passed Shakespeareless summers before over the past four decades, but it's been a rare occurrence; May or June usually finds me with an acting or directing gig coming up at any one of the half-dozen or so festivals that have found use for my professional skills. But summer 2007 found me with time on my hands, and I decided to use the unfamiliar down time to take a road trip and visit my friends around the West who were more fortunately employed. A two-week swing took me to see shows in Portland and Denver, as well as friends who were performing in the companies at Ashland, Oregon, and at CSF in Boulder.

I was in the latter city visiting my friend Julia Motyka when we met the new Artistic Director, Philip Sneed, walking across the CU campus. I had met Phil once or twice in recent years; he headed the Foothill Theatre Company, who in turn had operated Lake Tahoe's summer Shakespeare festival for several seasons. We had talked in general terms about my working at Tahoe sometime, but the conditions had never been just right. Now, in the course of a friendly conversation, here was Phil telling me of his plans for the 2008 season: he was going to produce Henry VIII, the one Shakespeare play in which I've never performed.

Needless to say, my interest was piqued. I had been looking for a production of Henry VIII since 1988, the year I had knocked off my last-play-but-one, Timon of Athens. (In fact, when I had appeared as a contestant on Jeopardy! in 1993, Alex Trebek had been kind enough to appeal on my behalf to anyone planning to produce the play!) I was pleased to find that the interest was mutual, and in due course an invitation arrived to join the CSF company for the 2008 summer season, to play Cardinal Wolsey in Henry and a small role, M. Bonacieux, in The Three Musketeers.

So this May finds me preparing to leave for Boulder, more than forty years after I began my Shakespeare apprenticeship there and thirty-five since my last appearance on that stage, as an actor in the 1973 season. Something more than nostalgia, I think, accounts for my excitement at this prospect. Very few actors are ever afforded the privilege of appearing in every single Shakespeare play in production. My old friend Barry Kraft, whom I first met in Boulder that same summer of 1966, is the only actor of my personal acquaintance to accomplish this feat, having polished off his canon with a production of The Two Noble Kinsmen in Ashland some ten or fifteen years ago-- and I have smarted all these years under the knowledge that he got there first! I would love to hear from readers who know any other members of our particular little fraternity, or who might themselves have achieved this unusual distinction.

I intend to write two or three times a week about my trip to Colorado, my experiences with the company there, and the fulfillment of what has been one of my lifetime goals. I hope you'll share the journey with me...