What determines a Shakespearean actor's greatness? Is it the will to uphold established practice while embracing the avant-garde? Does it depend on how ingeniously a performer wrests humanity from every role, whether central or subordinate? And when the dangers of rote and creative stagnation creep into an actor's great room, does his mettle hinge on defying augury or forging new magic out of old?
For the thirty or so classical performers chronicled in Give 'em a Bit of Mystery: Shakespeare and the Old Tradition, the Bard's works have served as exacting touchstones for lifelong careers, including the 47-year (and counting) stint of former Royal Shakespeare Company actor Tony Church, who is performing the one-man show at the Ricketson Theatre. The two-hour piece, which Church researched and wrote, combines historical accounts and personal recollections to trace the legacy that was handed down from Shakespeare's leading man, Richard Burbage, to America's nineteenth-century legend, Edwin Booth, to contemporary notables such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and even Shakespeare in Love darling Judi Dench.
The entire show is performed on a marvelously realized backstage setting that's framed by a gilded proscenium arch and dotted with several swords and costumes, a makeup table (complete with dog-eared photos), an old trunk, an iron-gated stone wall and nine clamshell-shaped footlights arranged in a semi-circle. (Credit Andrew V. Yelusich with transforming the modest stage into a stunning theatrical jewel box.) To the occasional accompaniment of perfectly modulated effects such as distant drums, musket volleys and light flashes, Church imitates each actor's voice as he heard it on archived sound recordings (which are referred to but never played for the audience); other scenes, including one that recounts an inter-actor feud that culminated in the deadly Astor Place riots, are based on period descriptions and/or Church's imagined idea of how a particular actor might have behaved or spoken. While a couple of episodes labor under the weight of theoretical discourse, Church reawakens the ghosts of the past with wondrous immediacy. In fact, the esteemed Denver Center Theatre Company performer, who nine years ago emigrated from his native England to head the DCTC's National Theatre Conservatory (he previously ran his own drama school, The Guildhall, in London), re-creates each actor's ancient glories as though they were moments from his own life. Which, in a way, they are.
When he was a young actor starting out in 1953, Church tells us, he learned a trick of the trade known as The Ladder. Perfected by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who originated the role of Professor Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion, the technique consists of rising one-half of a musical step on each line of a set speech. As Church explains, Tree typically began Mark Antony's lament in Julius Caesar by intoning the line "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth" in his lowest vocal register. Then, as the lights shift, Church, as Tree, kneels over an imaginary corpse and delivers the speech with mounting intensity, eventually rising to his full height (and highest pitch) on the feverish phrase "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war." Far from being a dusty backward glance, Church's playing of the moment reveals how Tree's pyrotechnics might have contributed to, rather than substituted for, a sublime interpretation of character.
That memorable scene, along with several similarly staged incarnations, are what separate Church's homage from, say, the Stratford Festival of Canada's Rogues and Vagabonds, which examines the history of acting, and He That Plays the King, a virtuoso evening of Shakespeare scenes toured by a quartet of Church's RSC colleagues (including David Suchet of PBS's Poirot) some twenty years ago. Whether he's demonstrating David Garrick's balletic "start" upon seeing the specter of Hamlet's father, the pigeon-toed gait and nasal delivery that marked John Barrymore's arresting portrait of Richard III, or Edith Evans's hilariously rarefied demeanor, Church's superb command of dramatic poetry illuminates the ways in which performers have ennobled Shakespearean tradition by reverently subverting it. The result is a vibrant, if sometimes meandering, performance in which the giants of the past are, by force of Church's persona and Shakespeare's genius, wedded to present-day icons.
Although the cracks in Church's mighty armor are slightly more evident now than when he arrived in Denver nearly a decade ago, underneath, his lion's heart and peerless professionalism are as compelling as ever. In much the same way that he describes his colleague, Ralph Richardson, as having "the soul of a poet and the finesse of a magician," Church's tour de force fixes his place in a proud tradition of consummate -- and always gracious -- skill.
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