Theatre’s obsession with Shakespeare, coined ‘bardolotry’ by George Bernard Shaw, has always escaped me. While Voltaire called his work “an enormous dunghill”, my aversion to Sir Will is far less eloquent. Not knowing my First Folio from my “What ho Malvolio”, I’d quipped “I hate Shakespeare” in defense. “You don’t know what the hell he’s saying, he takes too long to say it and you know what’s going to happen in the end”. But truth is truth… it’s personal.
When I was a student at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York City, I was enrolled in the requisite Shakespeare class. Our teacher heaped praise upon the European students, fawned over the Renaissance Faire maids as they flitted twixt texts, winked at the tinfoil swords and paper crowns, taking delight in our dalliances. He found the good in everyone’s work… everyone but mine. It seemed that no matter what scene I chose or how long I’d rehearsed it, I’d leap “Once more unto the breach” to a tragic ending. I can’t tell you how many times I rushed out of the building to hail a taxi and hide my tears, or how much it cost in cab fare to sob my way home to Tribeca, but it felt like a pound of flesh. As this wasn’t the case with my other acting teachers, I was left to assume at Shakespeare I sucketh.
Being Stratford-upon-Avon challenged, I’ve managed to work around my shortcoming and carve out decades of work on stage, in film and on television without ever trodding the boards for the Bard. Until now.
I was at Water World when the call came in. It was the Denver Center Theatre Company with the offer of a role in “Romeo & Juliet”. I snorted my slushy out my nose, choking back surprise along with terror. “Me?” I asked. “Are you sure?” They were, revealing I’d be playing Lady Montague. “Is that Romeo’s mom?” I asked, trying to recall the Franco Zeffirelli film I saw at the drive-in lo these many years ago. “It is.” came the reply. Hmmmn. The play is’t called “Romeo’s Mother” so I can probably pull it off, I figured. Some rhyming verse, a ruffed collar and losing my metaphorical maidenhead beside men in pumpkin pants made it too saucy to resist. “Why not?!” I blurted out before they could catch their mistake.
There must be a million things we’ve held ourselves back from over some misconception of our youth, Brussels sprouts for example. Schoolyard taunts and misspoken remarks of friends and lovers twist the view we see in the mirror. I’m sure my teacher had no idea the lasting effect his critique would have on me, but I made the choice to break up with Billy Bardy, didn’t I? Shakespeare, like the bitter cultivar, may be an acquired taste but so is the taste of freedom from all that crap. Maybe, in spite of the Mayans, life goes on, stretching itself out to give us the time to circle back to find the sweetness in what was sour and to savor it.
Sitting at the rehearsal table with a talented group working through the script I find myself thinking… This guy’s pretty good. This guy’s badass, even if I do know how it ends.
Romeo & Juliet runs January 25-February 24, 2013 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.