BACK STAGE WEST

 

June 24, 1999

Actors We Love

 

 

             

Firing the Canon

There's no star system in Ashland's peerless acting company, but there are stars.

 

by Rob Kendt

                          

Forget, if you will, our culture's purported current love affair with Shakespeare, and also the ongoing discussion about the American vs. the English approach to the Bard's timeless verse. And please, please set aside the rancorous debate about "non-traditional" casting in classical roles, and the claptrap pronounced on the subject by everyone from John Simon to August Wilson.

 

All these fleeting sideshows fade in the face of a stunning and inspiring, and too little known, matter of fact: that the leading actor at the leading Shakespeare company in the United States is a statuesque African-American man of extraordinary prowess and sensitivity who is, with his seasoned company mates, doing some of the best classical theatre anywhere at the moment.

 

Hyperbole? On the contrary, Derrick Lee Weeden and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland have raised the artistic bar for themselves, and the past few seasons have represented a creative peak for both: In last year's sweeping mainstage production of Lorraine Hansberry's seldom-performed Les Blancs, Weeden nailed the meaty role of Tshembe Matoshe, a brilliant, Western-educated African with a Hamlet-like calling to return to his homeland and avenge colonial wrongs.

 

And this year he is playing the role: Shakespeare's earnest military fool, Othello, whom Weeden steeps in a warrior's pride and a lover's anguish and renders with a voice like a cello in Tony Taccone's spare, heartrending production.

 

"I've worked on this play for 20 years," said Weeden, off-stage a tall but not overbearing man with a Greek mask of a face and huge, sad eyes; he played Othello once years before, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. "Othello is basically the hardest role in the canon to make work. It's overclimaxed; his arc is so long. There's a reason that Stanislavski focused his book Building a Character on Othello, for arcing and modulation and restraint. For me, it's really about how to stay it, how not to blow it, how to keep it going in different forms."

 

For Weeden, it's not a play about jealousy per se. Echoing the insights of James Earl Jones, who called Othello's plight not jealousy but "tragic confusion," Weeden said, "The key for me is in the lines, 'Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee! and when I love thee not/Chaos is come again.' Again—all the early stuff in the play is about how Othello has been a soldier since he was seven years old, he's been in slavery, he's had all these horrific things happen, he has all this scarring, so that's the life he knows-and then he has this light in his life, Desdemona. Then to have it turn, as he believes, means he's going back to all that stuff, and he can't go back. In killing her, he's killing himself."

 

Such a psychologized reading belies Weeden's training in Southern Methodist University's M.F.A. acting program under Jack Clay, where the stress was on voice and body work and the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Shepard. And while I've seen few actors onstage upon whom a character's inner life registers as richly and spontaneously as on Weeden, he is clearly an actor versed to his marrow in speech, text, and movement.

 

In repertory with Othello, he's also playing Hedley, a crazed, pathetic old street vendor in 1940s Pittsburgh, in August Wilson's Seven Guitars—a boldly unlikely casting move by director Kenny Leon. Costume and makeup aside, Hedley is played by a physically different actor altogether; articulate arms and a noble if unclear head seem to be the centers of Weeden's Othello, the broken-down Hedley's center is in his clogged, tubercular chest, as he hunches intently stocking his cart or furrowing a small garden.

 

But all these roles—Othello, Hedley, last year's virile Matoshe—have something in common. While he's played his share of classic urban or Southern-inflected African-American roles, and more than his share of Shakespearean parts of all kinds, Weeden brings a unique onstage power, rooted in his voice and physiognomy, to larger-than-life Mediterranean, Caribbean, and African characters, and this quality is nowhere more unexpectedly resonant than in Shakespeare. Weeden seems to tap some ancient stream in which the classics are not merely European or American or Greek, and in which the voice of the African Diaspora clearly and deeply belongs.

 

No Fluke

"For years, as a younger actor, I read reviews by people like John Simon that we, African-Americans, shouldn't be doing Shakespeare," recalled Weeden, a military brat born in Panama and raised all over the world by his African-American/Cherokee father and West Indian/Irish mother. "My sense of dealing with that is to say, Hey, we have a tradition. My mother speaks English in a wonderful way; you hear phrases that are directly Shakespearean phrases, the semantics and everything. That's what my ear hears.

 

"And I think of all the great African-American Shakespeare actors—James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, James Marshall, Ira Aldridge. I look to those people as much as I do to the thrill of hearing Paul Scofield speak. It's as if to say that these plays are from one country and one time, and we weren't there. But in 1600, Elizabeth banned all Negroes, Negresses, octaroons, etc., because there were so many in England. All the first black people in America came from Spain and England and Portugal before they came from Africa. We were there.

 

"The more I've worked on this play, the more I believe one thing: Shakespeare knew Africans. Also, that Othello is Shakespeare; it's so close to the bone. You read the sonnets—his jealousy, the dark lady. It's him. And I never saw it until a few months ago."

 

Company Man

Theatre and its practitioners often seem starved for self-worth. Even among much good theatre I see, there is an indefinable quality of it not being enough somehow-not for the people onstage, and certainly not enough for us in the audience. In L.A., it's easy to spot the culprit in actors' need for a showcase to the local industry; in New York, it is the feeling of high-volume trade, and in regional theatre, there is often the attenuated air of politically correct controlled experiments. The only place I've consistently felt that theatre was an end in itself, both aesthetically and professionally, was in my two visits to Ashland.

 

As much credit as I should give artistic director Libby Appel and her associates, Tim Bond and Penny Metropulos, and the vigorous artistic staff there, I get this feeling of belonging in the festival's large and loyal audience most viscerally from the actors, who look like they belong on the stage. Maybe that's because they do: A company of more than 60 actors, they're on Equity LORT contracts almost year-round, working in as many as three plays apiece-many of them for many years now. Weeden estimated he's averaged between 200 and 250 performances a year for the last 12 years (nine of those at OSF), so one believes him when he says, "I've gotten to grow here."

 

And if Weeden exemplifies the stage-worthiness of the OSF actor, there are so many others in whose work I've experienced as much awe, delight, intellectual pleasure, and pure entertainment value as I've ever gotten from any so-called movie stars. There are the comic powerhouses: the impossibly gleeful Catherine Lynn Davis, whose hyperventilating giggle makes her Roxie Hart, in this year's Chicago, seem somehow diabolically innocent; the snappily droll Tony DeBruno, who even when he uses broad strokes—as the cynical reporter in Chicago, as a befuddled vendor in The Comedy of Errors—remains a study in comic delicacy; the remarkably malleable G. Valmont Thomas, a meek, clumsy Flute in last year's Midsummer and a show-stealing Red in this year's Seven Guitars, and tall, preposterous David Kelly, last year's daffy Bottom in Midsummer and one of the officious gods in this year's The Good Person of Setzuan.

 

And there are dramatic masters, starting at the top with Weeden, and including Anthony Heald, whose plays a fiesty, feral Iago to Weeden's Othello and a hollowed-out, melancholy John Rosmer in Rosmersholm, and Robynn Rodriguez, a rueful Emilia in Othello and a tart landlady in Good Person.

 

Of course, such distinctions melt away with these versatile actors. Was Ray Porter's scruffy, effrontive Puck in Midsummer entirely a comic creation? Not if you count his moving closing speech. And how to classify a performance as full yet human-scaled as BW Gonzalez's achingly beatific Shen Te/Shui Ta in Good Person? How to bottle the infinite variety of an actor like Dan Donohue, who gave us a glam Prince Hal, a comically impatient Ezra Pound, and a simpering Restoration fop, all last year?

Weeden himself is the first to attribute his own onstage power to the collective bonding of the company.

 

"What you're seeing here is a company for real," Weeden said. "It's not about a performance, it's not about how I can make the audience laugh. The aesthetic is about the script-how do we tell the story? At our best, that's what we go for; otherwise, I'd rather be doing something else. If I can't take this great script by this great playwright and try to tell it fully with 20 other people-if it's just about me showing off or getting my laughs or trying to get an agent-it makes no sense.

 

"What I love is when people leave talking about the play."