October 7, 2008
Connecting Seuss to Shakespeare Theater
By Stuart Miller
Last year, the director Doug Hughes took his nephew to see "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" on Broadway. Hughes was simply looking for some holiday fun, but he rediscovered, beneath the Grinch's furry green costume, a fondly remembered Shakespearean actor.Since coming to New York in 1993, Patrick Page has been known mostly for cartoonish roles, including more than three years as Lumiere in "Beauty and the Beast" and three more as Scar in "The Lion King." But in regional theater he is known as a Shakespearean leading man.
"I had met him years ago at Seattle Rep," Hughes said, "and seeing him as the Grinch helped me connect the dots and realize that this was that fantastic actor who had played Hamlet, Claudius, Iago, Brutus, Antony and the Scottish king."
So when time came to cast his revival of Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons," Hughes said, he knew exactly who he wanted to play Henry VIII opposite Frank Langella's Sir Thomas More. "It is just one big scene, but it is crucial to the play, so I asked Patrick," he said. "Whether it's the Grinch or Iago or Henry, he has the imagination and skill to portray a character of this size that becomes a living, breathing, walking metaphor, and he could absolutely match up with Langella."
Langella, by contrast, had never seen Page's work. But, he wrote in an e-mail: "The role of Henry was his four lines into his audition. Unmistakable gifts. The single most intelligent, beautifully prepared and excitingly acted audition I have ever seen an actor give."
Page, 46, agrees that there is a through line from Macbeth and Iago to Scar and the Grinch to Henry: "a long line of egotists." Whether it's committing murder to ascend to the throne (in Shakespeare or Disney), or stopping Christmas, or ditching one wife for another, "these characters all have very strong desires and a ruthlessness about achieving them," he said. "That, of course, is very fun to play."
Page's path was set at age 3, when he watched his father, Robert, play Encino in "Twelfth Night" and Antonio in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "I remember it vividly," he said. Page staged plays in his basement and tackled any children's roles in shows directed by his father (who also taught college-level acting). As a teenager he added magic to his repertory; he was even named the International Brotherhood of Magicians' "best teen illusionist" in 1979.
"Magic was really good practice because you have to learn to hold the stage by yourself," he said, "and there are a lot of parts I play that benefit from showmanship." However, he added, he then went to acting school "to learn to undo all that and act off the other person." His father provided reminders, too: "He'd bring me to the truth of a scene when I was just interested in flipping the cape around."
Robert Page had also given 9-year-old Patrick the complete works of Shakespeare with a note: "May you find much joy in these words." (Page still has it, along with his childhood copy of "The Grinch.") The gift took hold. "I became obsessed," he said. "If you're going to be pigeonholed as an actor, Shakespeare is not a bad place to be pigeonholed."
Off Broadway he appeared in "Richard II" at the Public Theater, and he won the Helen Hayes Award as Iago at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington. He spent six years as leading actor for the Utah Shakespeare Festival and was a founding associate artist of Shakespeare Sedona in Arizona. He has taught Shakespeare at graduate programs around the country and has written three Shakespeare- related plays, most notably "Swansong," about the relationship between Shakespeare and Ben Johnson.
But Page is also versatile, as his Broadway experiences show. He recently appeared in a workshop of Douglas Carter Beane's adaptation of the MGM musical "The Band Wagon." And with his long stretches of time backstage during "A Man for All Seasons," which opens Thursday at the American Airlines Theater, he plans to finish his latest work for the stage: "The Illusion of Chung Ling Soo," a musical about a white American who earned fame disguised as a Chinese magician before dying while performing "the bullet catch." Focusing on something utterly apart from his role clears his brain for when he goes onstage, Page said.
An enthusiastic researcher, he read Nietszche and Machiavelli to understand Iago, studied animals' movements for the physicality of the Grinch and pored over biographies of Henry VIII and Thomas More for his current role. "A Man for All Seasons" has something like Shakespearean scope yet despite Page's fascination with the history, what really attracted him to the role, he said, was the chance to work with Langella, another master of outsize characters. (Langella won the Tony last year for playing Richard Nixon in "Frost/ Nixon," a role he repeats in the film version, to be released in December.) Page said he places Langella alongside Laurence Olivier in his personal pantheon.
In fact, Page initially told Langella that he had long idolized him and that it might take a few days of rehearsal to get over his nerves. "But I said, 'Then I will have no trouble finding center stage. I will gravitate toward it,'" he said. And, drawing himself up and assuming Langella's authoritative persona, he added, in a dead-on impersonation, "And Frank said, 'You will find me there.'"
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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