What Manner of Man is He?
Once upon a time I played Katurian K. Katurian in The Pillowman.
It was sort of an accident.
I was supposed to play Michael in that production and was moved to Katurian when the performer who was originally cast needed to exit the show. Katurian is the sort of role that can overwhelm because there are nothing but choices. The man “Katurian” exists on the page but he doesn’t exist as a known entity in the wider world.
Katurian is a melody line, a key, and a margin note to play him in a McDonaghian tempo. It’s jazz. Make it yours.
I wanted my Katurian to find himself as he lost his life.
Stammery-yammery bloke into the hero that his stories always lacked.
As the show wore on removing the fidgeting and hand-flapping and even sanding down the Irish accent to make him less other to an Austin audience.
He calmed as he faced his doom.
That was the song I wanted to sing and I sort of managed.
But it was mine. Love it or hate it.
For my final Austin show (as a full time resident) I was asked to play Falstaff in Henry IV Pt. 1 for Something for Nothing Theatre in Ramsey Park.
Falstaff is a whole other thing.
Falstaff is his own damned cottage industry. There are Falstaffs under every rock. There were three men in my production who had played Falstaff in some manner. There are thousands of videos and photos and books.
The man is his own damned archetype.
You can choose to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but everyone in the room is going to bring every other Ninth they’ve ever heard with them into the room.
You can’t own this role. All you can really do is shrug and start lining up your choices:
- At 40, even as overweight as I am, I’m not a particularly old-reading Falstaff. So play to that. I wanted my Falstaff to move well when he needed to.
- I began calling him Dirtbag Falstaff almost immediately. This was a man still in the midst of choosing havoc everyday.
- I wanted to highlight the layers of Falstaff.
- Performative for his Friends (LORD how given he is to lying)
- Performative for the Audience in Direct Address (Mostly true-er)
- Real to Hal (There are moments of actual sincerity peppered in there)
- Real (“Banish not him thy Harry’s company”/”I have much to say in defense of this Falstaff”, “a plague of sighing and grief it blows a man up like a bladder”, the honour monologue, and “there is honour for you”.)
The first and second are honestly very easy: make sure Falstaff swashes buckles when he can, keep the fat-acting locked into his strides being longer and more side-to-side than roll step unless there is sword play involved, and show him discovering and choosing badness wherever possible.
I think I did that as well as I could hope to do.
The third plus my secret game? Less well.
A secret game?
I decided early on to essentially play a one-sided game of tag with my Hal, Ben McLemore. I tried to get as many touches of him in as I could over the course of the show (I got in 58 closing night), invading his personal space, and sort of pushing him around stage creating literally orbit for Hal to be in…
What I didn’t bother telling my cast was why. Well, I told them a why, just not mine.
It feels a little cheesy and overly actor-y to admit to it even now.
I told the cast it was to make Ben uncomfortable and fidgety, but honestly there are very few times when making a character choice based on motivating another actor is acceptable to me and this wasn’t it. Early in the rehearsal process I stuck on the solitary out of place line, a seam between play and politics in the middle of II.iv that is the one true crack into viewing personal Falstaff:
“When I was about thy years Hal I was no eagle’s talon in the waist, I could have crept into any alderman’s thumb ring.
A plague of sighing and grief! It blows a man up like a bladder”
Some sadness drove Sir John to the bottle and he has achieved his near mystical girth since then. Given the inexplicable repetition of 22 years (and two and twenty years) in the text I decided of my own volition that 22 years ago Sir John lost his wife and son and abandoned god and goodness for a continual stupor.
Does it matter to the greater play? No, of course not. It’s an extra-textual bit of foolishness for talking about over gin, except…
Falstaff loves… attention. He loves being loved. He loves cleverness in himself and others. But for all his theft his greed is never (really) for things. So why latch on to Hal? The most obvious reason to latch on to Hal is his money and influence and I absolutely think Sir John is attracted to the ease of that life. But I think that it is Hal’s Falstavian cleverness and Sir John’s lack of a son that nails it home.
I decided that Hal is about the same age as Sir John’s boy and my Falstaff kept reaching out to make sure he was really there.
It’s a direct mirroring of Henry IV at the top of the show:
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
When Sir John would do anything to have this Harry be his son.
Did it play?
I got lost in the clown. I gave in to the acoustic minefield of our playing space. Unable to get quiet and force the audience to lean in, I went over the top and these levels all got washed out in favor of the bombast. There were levels in my performance but they lacked the separation that I wanted to give them. This was very much the song I wanted to play, but I relied too much on the brass and not enough on the winds…
I look forward to visiting with Falstaff again.
I don’t think you ever forget your first though and despite my disappointments with my own lack of nuance and my (honestly surprising) difficulty with the (deftly cut) text I wouldn’t want to. The joy of telling this story with this group of people outside in an Austin summer is something I hope to remember for a long time. The audiences were very kind and seeing how engaged the kids were…
I’m sorry more folks weren’t able to join us, and I’m sorry that no media in Austin chose to respond critically.
Very shortly this production will become a whisper, mostly forgotten by those not involved, but I will never forget this swansong.