26 January 2012

Orsino’s Dream

The author as Orsino, with Tom Diggs as Feste.
Production Workshop, Brown University, 1982
Staging by Robin Saex Garbose.

You have been cast as Count Orsino, Duke of Illyria, twice-titled ruler of William Shakespeare’s boffo rom-com, Twelfth Night. You have rehearsed for weeks, until the Bard’s language is your own, and you speak each speech trippingly on the tongue. You do not saw the air too much with your hand, but use all gently. Discretion has been your tutor, and you suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

You take your part seriously. For you are conscious that to act Shakespeare is a gift, offered to few — and seldom if ever again offered to you. This is your big chance. Yours is the privilege to start Twelfth Night in action, and to do so with the play’s most famous line:

“If music be the food of love, play on!”

And so on opening night, you stand in the wings while a musician (a lutenist, ideally, but possibly a guitarist instead) serenades you with the only cue you will get. Bedecked in your ducal finery, you stride toward your mark, and hit it, radiant in the spotlight. You can sense the perfumed Illyrian breeze; you are “in the moment”: majestic, rare and fine.

And then you speak.

“If food — ”

You wake screaming.

Christina Haag as Viola, WVM as Orsino

Orsino is a deceptively difficult role, because in only a few scenes, the actor playing him has to establish a character who’s worthy of Viola’s love. Otherwise, the audience will lose sympathy for her.

Granted, he does almost nothing to warrant sympathy for himself: he’s in love with an idea of love, and he spends all his time mooning over a woman who a) doesn’t like him, and b) isn’t Viola. The principal difference between Orsino and a stalker is that he sends out Viola in his stead to stalk Lady Olivia. Clearly, there were no restraining orders in 17th-century Illyria.

What’s more, virtually all your interaction is with Viola, a character whom you’re not treating all that nicely, and who is actually a girl, though you don’t even notice this. Nevertheless, once your audience starts thinking, “What on earth does Viola see in him? Malvolio is much more fun,” then there is no point in pursuing the play any further. She’s the heroine, after all.

Thus Orsino a part that should be offered only to skilled — or extremely handsome — actors. For some reason, Robin Saex cast me anyway.

Since that experience, I have surveyed (informally) dozens of other actors who have played Orsino. Without a single exception, all of us suffered the same nightmare, which is to start off the play with that most famous line — backwards. Exactly as I have described it to you.

Plenty of actors have nightmares that they haven’t learned their lines, or put on the wrong costume, or showed up in the wrong scene, or met John Simon at a party. But Orsino’s dream is specific, a nightmare unto itself.

When you’re Orsino, you have no build-up, no real cue, and no way out. Say the line wrong — the one line everyone knows — and you’ll be screwed. Hopelessly. Because there’s no way to recover, short of starting the play over.

No matter how often you tell yourself, “Don’t f*** this up,” the possibility is always there, swimming beside you, ready to attack.

And so, the next time you see Twelfth Night, I ask you to show a little mercy to the actor who plays the Duke: he’s had a rough time already, even before he got started.

NOTE: There’s a line in the play about Orsino’s beard, which Robin took quite literally (with Christina egging her on). Trouble is, even now, I can’t grow more than sparse whiskers; my cheeks in my youth were barely peaches. What you see in the pictures is the result of two weeks’ praying and straining and swearing — and a copious amount of eyebrow pencil.

Also, please note that Robin and the costume designer, Jamie Scott, found codpieces “distracting,” so I wasn’t given one to wear. I was, however, given a dance belt.

Years later, I think we can all agree that it is

not at all distracting

that my Orsino looks like a Ken doll here.

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