Archive for August, 2012

Scott Lange as Enobarbus and the Clown

As you (our regular readers) have most likely observed, our most recent production of Antony and Cleopatra employs quite a bit of doubling. In our eleven person cast, only two actors (the title characters) are undoubled in the show. I play three roles in this show: Enobarbus (Antony’s loyal friend), a servant that helps to carry a dying Antony to Cleopatra, and the clown who delivers a deadly snake to Cleopatra. I spend the majority of the play as Enobarbus, but it is my performance as the clown that has gotten the most comments.

The clown is only in one scene, doesn’t stick around for too long, and really does nothing to further the plot. There are a number of characters in Shakespeare’s plays that serve this same role. The jailer in Cymbeline, the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and the porter in Macbeth are a few of them. A few other Pigeon Creek actors and I have a running joke that they are actually all the same person at different points in his life.

In most cases, the character is there to provide a moment of levity before the play takes a swift plunge to death and tragedy. There are some productions that tend to perform these characters in a serious manner, as though comedy and laughter have no place in a Shakespearean tragedy. I believe, instead, that the moments of comedy help to intensify the drama in the play. The dichotomy of comedy and tragedy butted up the one against the other makes the play all the more moving for the audience. Sure, we as an audience enjoy nonsensical comedy or intense drama quite a bit. But often the most potent and popular types of entertainment contain both forms. It’s a theme that is consistent with real life. We go to funerals not only to mourn, but to share joyous moments from the life of our departed loved one. We laugh at slapstick, black comedies, and jokes that are “funny because they are true.” Anyway, I felt that despite the clown’s appearance was brief, it was an important one.

Truthfully, the character started out ridiculous. He had a stooped walk, and gravely voice, and was filled with sexual innuendo. I was playing him as old and crotchety, with only little respect for the queen. It got a lot of laughs from the cast, which I enjoyed, but didn’t exactly seem to fit. One day in rehearsal I decided to try something the complete opposite of what I had been doing. I stilled his movements, made him young, and afraid of the queen. This got a different reaction from the cast, but still wasn’t quite right. The right interpretation for me was, like my tragic-comedy ramblings earlier, somewhere in-between. It is supposed to be funny. But it should be because of the situation, not me being silly. He is nervous because he is delivering the queen’s chosen implement of death, a poisonous asp. He stumbles over his words, makes accidental jokes, and is generally awkward around a woman that he is helping commit suicide. I hope that people think he is funny, but that the humor in that moment deepens the audience’s compassion and care for Cleopatra. The brief moment of levity accents the tragedy of a relationship that can still move those that witness it.

Also, we’ve been referring to him as the “asp-clown.” Now that’s comedy!

Joseph Valente as the Soothsayer, Menas, Scarus, Thyreus and Dercetas

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.

Janna Rosenkranz as Varius/Octavia and Dolabella

One of the original practices that Pigeon Creek partakes in is doubling. In Antony and Cleopatra, I double six characters: a messenger, another messenger, Varius, Octavia, a soldier, and Dolabella. To make things a bit easier on myself I’ve made the first and second messenger and the soldier the same person, just during different time periods in his life. This works out for me because the play takes place over approximately ten years (the second Roman Triumvirate lasted from 43 BCE to 33 BCE). My named characters also change over time. I found this exercise particularly interesting as my characters are very rarely on stage and have only short speeches (as opposed to the last role I played with Pigeon Creeek – Boyet in Love’s Labours Lost, who doesn’t stop talking!).

What I decided to do is use Shakespeare’s treatment of the passage of time in the play as follows. Since we are looking at snapshots of events during that ten-year period, my characters have to age and change along the way and present that change in each scene they are in. For example, the first messenger in Act I, Scene i, is a young, middle-class Roman who came to Egypt with Antony. He does as he’s been taught. He had honor and duty to his betters and is slightly disgusted and disturbed by Antony’s behavior with Cleopatra. Egypt is like New York would be to a young man who grew up on a farm in Nebraska in the 1870s. (It helps that our Roman costumes are Victorian.) In the his second scene, he has become more confident, while remaining very loyal to Antony. As a solider, he has risen in the military ranks, and although he is in the midst of a very strange event, he shows maturity in the way he handles it.

We only see Varius twice and in one of his scenes he has no lines, but I also try to give him some more weight as a pirate in the second scene. Last in my male roster, Dolabella changes from his blind allegiance to Caesar to seeing how manipulative Caesar really is. At the end, he emotionally favors Cleopatra.

On the feminine side of my roster, Octavia is key to the action of the play and somebody who I could do real research on. In real life she lived with Antony for years and had two daughters with him. After he died she raised his children from his marriage with Fulvia and his relationship with Cleopatra along with her own children. My motivations for her are, as always, based on the text, but I’ve elaborated by giving her a more family-based loyalty. She is motivated by family honor. However, she has duties towards both her brother and husband and is truly torn between them. When Octavian tells her that Antony is with Cleopatra in Egypt instead of Athens, she is more upset because she, and therefore her family, has been humiliated, rather than because she has a great romantic love for Antony. Beforehand, she believes she can bring Antony and her brother together, as is her duty, but she is unsuccessful which is shameful to her.

I’m sure that a different actor would have a different way of managing these characters but as someone with a liner mind this works great for me and has given me a new insight into bringing Shakespeare to life!

This summer, PCSC has started a new means of gathering the inside scoop of our actors in their processes. In addition to the normal blog entries you read on here, there will also be a series of questions posed to our actors. Enjoy.

This week: Mary Bridget McCarthy (Iras/Maecenas) is on the docket for Antony and Cleopatra.

*****

1. How do you prepare a Shakespearean character?

After my ceremonial happy dance that I got a role, I usually dig right into the text. The awesome thing about Shakespeare is that he gives you so many clues with: the words you speak, the way you speak, the way you choose to speak to others, etc. I read the play a few times and then start to break down my character. I look into what the character says about him or herself, the dynamics that he or she plays with the other characters and so on. I then go about making each character as distinct as I can. This usually means a change in voice, posture, gait, assumed power, and anything else I can think of.

2. What thus far in rehearsal has been helpful?

I am going to start this off with some honesty: I am a newbie. Shakespeare is fairly uncharted territory to me. The idea of thrust staging, audience contact, doing live music, doubling, playing MALE characters, and having more than a line or two of Shakespeare had me more than a little anxious. And I was right! These things do take skill and require some technique. What I did not bank on, however, was the amazing group of people that would be around me. I would have been lost had it not been for our wonderful cast and the incredible director at our head. Working with this cast has been a huge blessing. They are wonderful acting partners and simply great people to create with. Whenever I have questions or have sought advice, they have been amazingly helpful. Our director, Katherine Mayberry, is incredible as well. She has been an invaluable resource. She has meet with several of the newer actors to help with text, voice and movement work, and some acting workshops. I feel that I have grown as an actor, even beyond Shakespeare, due to the people I am working with.

3. What do you do for fun outside of theatre?

I enjoy midnight swims in Lake Michigan, reading good books, having good conversations, being with good friends, drinking good tea, watching good movies, and staying up far past reasonable hours to have good times.

4. What is your day job? What do you want to be your day job?

I am currently a student at Hope College and work at Staples. I don’t know how theatre will be my day job in the future, but I would love it to be. Whether that be in acting, teaching, stage management, non-profit theatre, I will be happy and grateful.

5. What do you plan to do after this show?

Time to go back to school! After doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream up at the Rose at Blue Lake with PCSC (Come see it, by the way. You will see lots of faces you know from Antony and Cleopatra!), I will be returning to Hope to start my sophomore year. I have my fingers crossed and hope to be cast in the fall semester productions. Beyond that, I would treasure an opportunity to work with this company again some time in the near future. It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with everyone.

I hope you come see Antony and Cleopatra, and find as much joy in watching it as we have in bringing it to you!