What You Will: Roger Rees at the Edison Theatre | 11.20.09 (one night only)

rogerrees.jpgRees moves from character to character, dialect to dialect with amazing ease and rapidity. I’m not sure how patient I can be with an actor who needs time to "get in the right place" after seeing this canny old pro.




As you might expect, noted actor Roger Rees’ title is a pun because his 90-minute, one-actor show centers on Shakespeare: Bits that "Will" himself wrote, things said about the Bard, and anecdotes from Rees’ life in the theatre. He romps through the material and manages to give the impression—as only the great ones can—that this is the very first time he’s said these words. It’s possible to feel as if you’re sitting in the back of the pub after a show swapping stories with one of your theatre friends and having such a marvelous time, you hate it when you hear "last call, gentlemen and ladies."

The first of many amazing things about Roger Rees is his boyish manner. He runs his fingers through his thick hair while running about the stage as if he just found out he was going to play Romeo. (And, as Judi Dench told him about Juliet, the greatest moment of the whole experience was being told she had the part.) It is nearly impossible to believe that he’s 65 years old. Unfortunately, he’s aged out of all the Shakespearean tragic heroes except Lear, which he has yet to play except on audio book. But he began as a nonspeaking extra with his good friend Ben Kingsley, and one feels like he loves the stage so much, if it were necessary, he’d go back and do that again. In fact, he is still a successful actor and director, though he is charmingly self-deprecating when he notes that Kingsley has been knighted and has an Academy Award, while he (Rees) played a surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy two seasons ago, "a three-episode arc," he exclaims.

After 150 performances as Hamlet (an Old Vic record, by the way), he’s well-acquainted with the Prince of Denmark and he talks at some length about the interpretation of the character, about historical Hamlets, and performs a couple of the soliloquys. He goes at warp speed on "To be or not to be. . . ," but is more contemplative in "What a rogue and peasant slave am I. . . ." Also his snippets are not all "Will’s Greatest Hits." Yes, he does Romeo under the balcony, but he also performs a bit of Berowne from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Instead of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, he gives us the stammering young king trying to woo the French-speaking Princess Katherine. It is sweet and comic. He is a melancholy Richard II in the "Let us sit on the ground and tell sad stories. . . " speech, and a pensive Macbeth. He does a bit of Lear, but the best of that is an anecdote about the 18-year-old Eric Porter playing the 80-year-old quixotic monarch and the disaster that reportedly accompanied his first lines on opening night. He recites a couple of sonnets too.

Rees is aided by a few props; in fact, he carries a bust of Shakespeare onstage with him when he enters, and Will presides over the evening’s revels. At one point, he slaps a wig on the statue and it becomes Juliet. He proceeds to give a hilarious reading of Juliet’s nurse. He is surrounded by books from which he does not read, but tosses them about as he tells us what’s in them. He has a small throne where he sits occasionally, but mostly he gracefully prowls the stage, variously stalking, prancing, striding—whatever mood is required. The visual highlight is the dagger soliloquy from Macbeth (which, following theatrical superstition, he refers to as "The Scottish Play," saying the name only when speaking of the character). The spot casts a shadow on a red drape behind him that is almost as high as the ceiling. Mesmerizing. There are bits of music—one sequence forming the basis for a good joke as he segues into talking about the history plays.

Rees punctuates the primary bits with secondary commentary by diverse voices. There’s a generous helping of Dickens, an actor himself; a funny, if overlong bit from James Thurber on a detective-story loving lady who doesn’t believe the Macbeths "did it"; a snippet of Stevie Wonder and George Harrison to lead into "Juliet is the sun"; and observations from other authors, students, bloggers and the London Sunday Times. Some of the anecdotes may be apocryphal, but that doesn’t matter.

Earlier in the day, Rees taught a master class at Washington University attended by many professional actors and students from various theatre programs at local colleges. They’d be hard put to find a better teacher. Rees moves from character to character, dialect to dialect with amazing ease and rapidity. I’m not sure how patient I can be with an actor who needs time to "get in the right place" after seeing this canny old pro. At the end, we are all his students when he tells us Shakespeare has done the work for us. He refers to Hamlet but the advice encompasses playing any character in the canon: (To paraphrase) You will find that your Hamlet is your height, and (as he spreads his arms) extends out to here (your own physical space). The character is alive on the stage and waiting and the actor must only be open, and he will find him.

In his entertaining and informative program notes, Rees says that Shakespeare is "just a guy" who "wrote about guys like us." And throughout his show, Rees comes across as just a guy like us too, though of course, he is not like us unless we, too, are one of the most renowned interpreters of the classics of our generation. A big part of his aim as an actor and teacher seems to be to demystify Shakespeare because the plays tend to scare both actors and audiences and certainly students of English literature. Mission accomplished. | Andrea Braun

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