Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Role of A Lifetime at Henley Street Theatre.

"I can add colors to the chameleon,
change shape with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it further off, I'll pluck it down."

I remember November of 1997. I was working as a day laborer for my cousin's construction business in Leesburg, VA. I toiled from sunup to sundown, laying bricks and doing spot-work with a group of migrant workers who didn't speak much English. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare at the time, and I kept practicing the above speech of Richard's from Henry VI, Part 3, Act III Scene ii. Over and over again. The guys I worked with just kind of stared at me. Either it was the language barrier, or I must have really sucked.

At the time, I had just finished a run as 'Northrup' at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and I was staying with my cousin to plot my next move and make (very little) money. I was also sending out headshots and resumes all over the place, but no one was hiring me, much less inviting me to audition for anything. It was truly 'The Winter of my discontent.' I felt like I couldn't get arrested if I tried. Things weren't going my way. A production of Cabaret-- that I was almost involved with-- became extended as a tour, and eventually moved from Sheffield MA to Boston, netting the non-union cast members their AEA Memberships, while I looked on enviously from a construction site in Virginia. Bad times.

Desperate to do some good work, I sent a headshot/resume to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA, one town over from my hometown of Pittsfield. I placed a follow-up call to see if they got my materials, only to be told by someone there:

"I'm sorry, but we don't hire any actors who haven't completed our training course."

"Well, excuse ME!" I thought. I felt stonewalled at every turn, frustrated, and eager to prove myself. I was renting Shakespeare movies at night-- Olivier's 'Hamlet,' all the Kenneth Branaugh films, from Henry V to Hamlet to Much Ado-- and digging ditches and moving equipment by day. I bought a book of all of Shakespeare's plays and immersed myself in them, chewing up speeches and dreaming of playing everything in the canon while I cleaned up during walk-thrus of overpriced houses made for rich people I would never meet. I was very unhappy. All I wanted was to be taken seriously as an actor. I wanted to do good work in an environment where I felt comfortable and welcome. And I wanted to play many roles in Shakespeare's works, and I wanted to do them justice.

Eventually, I landed in Richmond, VA. I soon began a great working relationship with many theatres in town, including The Richmond Shakespeare Festival. Before I knew it, I had a job playing 'Malvolio' in a tour of Twelfth Night where I started dating my 'Olivia,' a sweet gal by the name of Jennifer Meharg, who is now my wife. As I write this almost 11 years later, I have added to my Shakespeare credits: Don Pedro in Much Ado, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, The Gravedigger in Hamlet, Stephano in The Tempest, Bottom in Midsummer (Twice!!) and Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

Quite a lineup for a guy who just a few short years prior was told he'd have to take classes in order to play with the other kids, no? Looking back, it is quite a mix. I played the statesman, the warrior, the jester, the death-dealer, the villain, the Ass (TWICE!!) and the Clown. Of course, all along, there was still one role I was dying to play. The character whose speeches I muttered under my breath as I carried a wheelbarrow full of bricks beside a tired old Guatemalan man who was probably wishing I would just shut up. One role that I always felt would combine aspects of all of the ones listed above. One role of which I always said, "I've got to do this someday, and do it WELL."

The role I wanted to do most of all?

Richard III.

It has often been called 'The Character Actor's Hamlet.' A tour-de force role that puts enormous physical, vocal and emotional demands on anyone who attempts it. Some of the best actors in the world have thrown themselves into it. Burbage. Olivier. Barrymore. Ian Holm. Ron Cook. Anthony Sher. Al Pacino. Robert Lindsay. Ian McKellan. Plus countless others who aren't household names, but whose artistic lives have surely been made more frustratingly wonderful by their time spent hacking through the 'Thorny Wood' of Richard's 'Inductions Dangerous.' Here in Richmond, the fantastic actor Rick Brandt danced with the crooked-backed 'Ultimate Bad Guy' in a 2003 Richmond Shakespeare Production, to sparkling notices.

Now, thanks to James Ricks, Alex Previtera and The Henley Street Theatre Company, I'll finally get my chance. I just hope I'm up to the task.

This fall, just in time for the 2008 Election cycle, I will attempt to bring Richard, Duke of Gloucester back to life under the direction of James Ricks at the brand new Henley Street Theatre Company. Director James Ricks and Artistic Director Alex Previtera, are really enthusiastic about bringing this production to the Richmond Theatre Audience.

James Ricks has perhaps the most tireless work ethic I have ever seen. His passion for this project has been unbelievable. James has spent almost a year and a half laying the groundwork and honing in on just what he wants this production to say, while finding a suitable home for it to grow. Well, after a lengthy search, Henley Street Theatre Company is the place. And we couldn't be happier about that.

I've known James Ricks for about two years now, since we worked together on SCAPINO! He is one of the most intelligent, intuitive, talented and passionate actors I know. His Hotspur in last year's production of Henry IV, Part One was the performance of the year in Richmond. James is a real gentleman-- an incredibly fun and funny guy to be around-- and, for real, my boy is Wicked Smahhht. He also likes my Mac N' Cheese. At least I think he does. He seemed to... He ate it all, I think.

Oh, yeah, he also likes hockey. Just not the Boston Bruins. The Bastid.

Anyway, I was able to see the fantastic Richmond Shakespeare Company production of Richard The Second that James directed last October, and I was blown away by his incredibly clear and passionate storytelling. The urgency and electricity of Shakespeare's language came to life with vitality and clarity. I look forward to working with him, and one thing is for certain: If I want to do well, I'd better do my freaking homework.

James' vision for communicating this classic story is fresh, original, first-rate, and above all TIMELY. The conversation this production should spark-- a lively discussion about power and media manipulation-- is going to be reeeeeally interesting.

I look forward to the challenge of finally playing Richard III, and I thank Alex Previtera and the Henley Street Theatre Company for their continuing mission to bring vibrant reinterpretations of classic plays to Richmond audiences. I think that Richard III will be something very special.

"I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die!!"
-R III, Act V Scene v

Richard III opens September 26th, 2008 and runs through October 18th, 2008 at Henley Street Theatre Company. Details will be available soon at

Monday, February 04, 2008

Superbowl XLII: A Family Affair.

Somewhere, Ben Bates is grinning ear-to-ear.

It's difficult to write about the events of last night's Super Bowl. The months leading up to it, for me as a diehard New England Patriots fan, had been a non-stop whirlwind of emotion. This has been a football season like no other; A very special and memorable one. It is easy to overlook that right now. In the aftermath of what is surely one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets of all time, a lot of Pats fans have thrown up their hands as if to say "Aww Crap!! The entire season is a waste."

Not me.

Ever watch your favorite baseball team's pitcher try and throw a no-hitter? It's an intense, harrowing experience. You realize something special is happening, and you agonize over every pitch, every two-strike count, every ball put in play. You're literally on the edge of your seat, taking special care not to alter or veer from your game-watching routine. Maybe you have a favorite seat (I do) a favorite hat (I do) and a favorite beverage (I do) which accompanies the game-watching experience. It's exhausting. But when your team comes through-- like the Red Sox did in preserving rookie Clay Bucholz's no-hitter this past summer-- (Not to mention that little World Series They WON!!) the emotional payoff is indescribable. It's weird; You almost feel as though you affected the outcome in some small way because you concentrated so hard, maybe you wore your lucky unwashed-in-two-months jersey, or text messaged the same people during the game... Maybe a legion of Sox fans affected the 'Quantum field' or something. OR, maybe a talented bunch of professional athletes achieved something through hard work and dedication... Whatever. Semantics. The point is, when you're a fan, a TRUE fan-- you pour your heart and soul out for your team. You live and die with every pitch, every bounce of the ball. Especially when something special, like the aforementioned no-hitter, is unfolding.

For me, this past Patriots season was like watching a Five-month no-hitter develop. Along the way, my Pats set new records for scoring; Caused a media firestorm when they got busted for spying on the New York Jest-- err, Jets-- with video cameras (even though a Jets employee was removed from the second deck of Gilette Stadium in Foxboro last season for almost the exact same offense. whatever. I'm not in the least bit bitter at the total disinterest the media showed that wrinkle in the story); They pissed off every other fan base with their horrifying penchant for playing sixty minutes of football; Pulled off a steal of a deal with the hated Raiders for the rights to malcontent wideout Randy Moss, who had a career year AND finally became a solid citizen until being accused of assaulting a woman in Florida during the playoffs. Oops.; And I drank the Kool Aid as the Pats basically became the galactic Empire (Complete with Hooded Sith Lord Head Coach!! FULLY POSEABLE!), while turning the opposition's escalating verbal jabs into what Bobby Boucher from the movie 'The WaterBoy' would call "Tacklin' Fuel."

And for nearly five months, they didn't lose a game. FIVE MONTHS. They took all comers, defending Super Bowl Champs, playoff teams, also-rans, and yes, even the lowly Jets and their no-good-rat-fink-head-coach-Eric Mangini.

In the wake of the Red Sox' World Series Championship, It became an obsession for me to see the Patriots go for a perfect 19-0 Championship season. The run of good fortune bestowed on us New England Fans-- in all sports-- seemed so unreal, so absolutely fantastic. I'm still really excited about all of it, despite the Super Bowl defeat. The New England Revolution Soccer team went to the finals of the MLS cup. Boston College was ranked Number Two for like two weeks and beat VA Tech with an amazing comeback in the final two minutes. The Celtics rattled off nine straight wins, and as we speak, they're tops in the NBA. Just last week, the Sox played keep-away with the Yankees in trade talks with the Twins and effectively muscled Johan Santana out of the AL altogether.

It is still a freakin' sweet time to be a New England sports fan.

It's a cool phenomenon. During the Pats streak, My friends would see me coming, wearing my Pats hat or my Red Sox jacket and start shaking their heads as if to say "You smug Bastid." I was really digging it. I still am, although the Pats bubble got burst and the chant of "18 & ONE!!" has probably supplanted "1918" in the New York Sport Derision Lexicon. (An actual document, I'm told. I should check B& I digress) That's okay. New Yorkers needed something like this to happen... desperately, trust me.

But here's where the Patriots' Road to Glory differed from all other sports teams, at least for me: The Pats roll not only got me fired up as a fan-- It inspired me to try new things and test myself. As I write this, I'm almost five weeks away from my very first Marathon, and I've pushed myself really hard during workouts and long runs --three, in particular, of 18, 20 and 22 miles-- simply by imagining the effort being expended by guys like Linebacker Tedy Bruschi (who came back to play at age 32 after a terrifying heart episode left him almost paralyzed a few years back) Linebacker Junior Seau, Fullback Kevin Faulk, and Tough-as-nails QB Tom Brady. Whenever I got weary, I told myself, "I can go one more mile-- because so can the Pats." It sounds really lame and cheesy, but I found some mental toughness developing on those 6am Saturday long runs, while wearing my Navy blue winter hat with the Patriot logo and what my wife Jennie calls the "Racing Stripe." I kept hearing Brady as he implored his team on the sidelines:

"Be Sharp! Rise Up, all right? Take it to another level!!"

That's what I'm trying to do, in all areas of my life.

So, I was along for the ride with this bunch, and I took every slight against them personally, adopting Coach Bill Belichick's 'us-against-the-world Bunker Mentality' and firing salvos right back at those who dared disparage the Pats. I got into it with Diehard 'Skins Fan Andrew Hamm over 'runupthescoregate.' I parsed the 'SpyGate' defense arguments better than Johnny Cochran ever could, and I interrupted two employees in a Kroger Parking lot to tell them "Sorry guys, but Dallas is Toast, baby." That is so unlike me. Heck, I even called Senator Arlen Spector's office to harangue some poor intern about the Eagles-fan-extraordinaire Spector's move to make NFL Czar Roger Goodell testify on Capitol Hill about the league's disposal of the Pats' seized Death Star Plans-- Err, Spy Videotape.

So yeah, I was a bit 'INTO IT.'

But when I saw that the Patriots would be playing the New York Giants in Super Bowl Forty-Two, I said, "Oh, shit," and did a double-take.

See, the New York Football Giants are Ben Bates' team.

Ben Bates is my Grandfather. He was the biggest Giants fan of them all.

Ben Bates loved the Giants with his heart and soul, ever since he was a kid growing up in Pittsfield Mass. New England had no NFL Frachise when Ben was growing up, so in 1959 the upstart American Football League gave birth to the Boston Patriots, who played their games in Fenway Park for awhile before ending up in Foxboro, Mass in 1971. But Ben's heart always belonged to the New York Football Giants. Every Christmas it was easy to pick out something for him. (I think I bough him three Giants hats in my lifetime on different holidays.)

Ben Bates was in his glory when, in 1986, the NY Giant beat John Elway's Denver Broncos 39-20 to end their long NFL Title drought. I think I still have the videotape he made of the game. He loved Lawrence Taylor and that badass in-your-face defense. (He was a badass, in-your-face guy, so it was a good fit.) Those teams had a great pass rush; A stellar game-manager at QB (Phil Simms); and a great receiving corps, headlined by Tight End Mark Bavaro, another of Gramp's favorites, of whom he said "Bavaro is one tough sonofabitch." (The highest form of praise from Mr Bates.)

He gloated mightily when the 'Jints' survived to win Super Bowl Twenty-five over the favored Buffalo Bills, 20-19. ("Norwood's kick is Wide Right!! Wide Right!!") And through it all, Ben Bates absolutely WORSHIPPED the ground Giants Head Coach Bill Parcells walked on. I can hear him now: "Parcells is the best coach in the Goddamn LEAGUE!! You can't run on the Giants, no sir!! That's New York GIANT Football!"

Now for those of you who don't know, Bill Parcells eventually left the Giants to work in the NBC broadcast booth. But, as luck would have it, "the best coach in the Goddamn League" wound up as head Coach of my team, the New England Patriots, in 1993. His first move was to draft Quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and the team actually started to show promise. They began to play like the Giants played. Strong defense, Solid Running Game, strong secondary, good special teams play.

Over Christmas break in 1993, I took a video camera over to my aunt's house and caught him on camera briefly. In hindsight, Something amazing happened. Ben Bates says, prophetically, as he looks right into the camera "I give New England TEN YEARS. They'll win it all in TEN YEARS, after Parcells steals all the Giants players."

After four years, Big Ben was half-right. Parcells stole D-back Otis Smith, 'all-everything' Dave Meggett, and a host of other players and coaches from the Giants, including assistant Coach and Defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, who, in 1997, helped the Pats reach Super Bowl Thirty One, which they lost to the Green Bay Packers, 35-21. They may have lost the big one, but by then the Pats had undergone a startling transformation, and they began to play championship-caliber football, or as Grampy called it "New York Giant Football."

The Giants made it to the Big Dance again in the year 2001, eventually losing Super Bowl Thirty-Five to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-7. I rooted for the Giants in that one (My Patriots went 5-11 that year) but by that time I was living in Virginia while Grampy was back in Pittsfield, slowly suffering from the degenerative effects of a stroke which he suffered in 1994 after a routine procedure to clear a blockage in an artery in his neck. That Super Bowl in 2001 was the last one he would ever see. The Giants lost the game, and four months later, they lost their biggest fan when Ben Bates passed away on May 29th, 2001.

Later that year, something amazing happened. The Patriots, who had finished the previous season a woeful 5-11, started to play with a familiar style. They developed a strong pass rush, a ball-hawking defensive secondary, and late in the season, they caught fire. In a late November game, they played the St Louis Rams, the explosive 'Greatest Show on Turf' and almost came away with a win. It was the kind of game that boosts a team's confidence, and they rode that momentum into the playoffs, where they won an overtime game in a howling snowstorm, bested another heavily-favored team in a pivotal road playoff game, and advanced to take on the heavily-favored Rams again, in Super Bowl Thirty-Six on February 2nd, 2002. This time the Pats newfound confidence served them well. They pressured the Quarterback, Kurt Warner ('Knocked the shit out of him,' to be precise) got a few turnovers, hung in there, withstood a late surge from the Rams, and engineered a last-second drive for the ages.

As Adam Vinatieri sent his potential game-winning field-goal skyward as time expired six years ago, my first thought was of my Grandfather, of his video prediction that the Pats would "win it all in ten years." I also thought how amazing it was that the fortunes of our favorite teams teams had been so intertwined through the years. Seconds later, as the kick split the uprights, the Patriots had won Super Bowl Thirty-Six. The main reason: Because they had learned how to play "New York Giant Football."

Over the years, my beloved Patriots would become something of a min-dynasty in the NFL, winning two more championships and setting a really high level of excellence for themselves. This past year, however, they changed to become a more offensive-minded bunch, and blew every scoring record in the books out of the water. They won eighteen straight games. The sky was the limit for this bunch. Boston Globe Columnist Dan Shaughnessy took to calling them "The History Boys."

The Giants were coached by Tom Coughlin, a Parcells disciple and the receivers coach on the '86 and '90 Giants' Super Bowl teams that my Grandfather loved so much. Coughlin's job-security had been wondered about publicly. There was dissention in the Giants' clubhouse. The Quarterback, Eli Manning, was perceived as aloof and mistake-prone. Their star running back, Tiki Barber, retired abruptly before the season started. The prognosis for a winning season in New York did not look good.

Then, this year, something amazing happened. The Giants-- who had finished the previous season 8-8 and losing a wild-card playoff game-- started to play with a familiar style. They developed a strong pass rush, a three-headed running game, and late in the season, they caught fire. In a late December game, they played the New England Patriots, the explosive 'Greatest Team of All-Time' and almost came away with a win. It was the kind of game that boosts a team's confidence, and they rode that momentum into the playoffs, where they won an overtime game in a howling snowstorm, bested another heavily-favored team in a pivotal road playoff game, and advanced to take on the heavily-favored Pats again, in Super Bowl Forty-Two on February 3rd, 2008. This time the 'Jints' newfound confidence served them well. They pressured the Quarterback, Tom Brady ('Knocked the shit out of him,' to be precise) got a few bounces, hung in there, withstood a late surge from the Pats, and engineered a last-second drive for the ages.

As Eli Manning hit wideout Plaxico Burress who juked Pats' CB Ellis Hobbes on a fade route with :39 seconds left, I thought of my Grandfather, and how much fun he would be having, even as my stomach fell through the floor.

So last night, Super Bowl Forty-Two was something of a family affair. My Aunt and my Mother both rooted for the Giants, and I, of course, rooted for the Patriots. Even my wife Jennie was into it, yelling at Pats receiver Wes Welker to "Go! Go!! Run!!"

And I wanted it. I wanted it so badly, one can hardly believe it. I could taste it when Brady hit Randy Moss for the go-ahead score with 2:45 left in the Fourth Quarter. The Patriots were going to be 19-0.

It was an amazing game.

The Pats were on the verge of perfection, but Eli and he Giants stole it from them by playing hard for sixty full minutes. The Giants won by Playing 'New England Patriots Football.' If it were anybody else-- any other team-- I'd probably be angry or upset about the loss, But somehow this loss doesn't sting quite as as badly as it should. It's really odd. Especially since so much was at stake; The perfect record, etc. I've never had this feeling about a sporting event before-- I'm holding two opposite emotions in my heart at he same time. I'm emotionally 'crushed' but I'm somehow reassured that something absolutely wonderful happened for lots of people who love the Giants just as much as my Grandfather did.

So today, I talked with my Mom on the phone. She was in such a good mood that it put me in one, too... Even as I wandered around with the "What the hell just happened?" face all day. I told her that I though it would be a good idea if someone could place a NY GIANTS SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS Pennant by my Grandfather's headstone in Hinsdale, Mass. She liked that idea. So do I.

So, I'm happy. Even though we lost everything. The whole season, the 19-0 dream. All of it. I'm not sure exactly why...I'm happy.

Perhaps because I know that somewhere out there, my Grandfather, Ben Bates, is watching all of this and loving every minute of it. And what can I say? I love my Grandfather more than any football team... Even the Patriots.

I can hear Tom Brady now, saying "Be Sharp! Rise Up, all right? Take it to another level!!"

I think I finally know what that really means.