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The Falstaff Prophecy

I took an Introduction to Directing class during my sophomore year in college, back in another century. The instructor was effectively a relic of the century prior to that – an aged British gentleman, an exemplar of the old rep system. As a result, his advice and instruction, while sensible enough, tended to be extremely old-fashioned. And furthermore, he wasn’t particularly diplomatic when he gave it.

One day, the classroom discussion turned to the topic of casting against type. Not cross-gender or gender-blind casting or anything fraught with social and political baggage; no, we were simply talking about casting actors in roles for which they might otherwise not be an obvious choice. A Juliet who’s not a willowy ingénue, a Hamlet who’s not blonde and brooding, that sort of thing. Not an especially controversial notion, and something that usually has to happen in academic theater, where there’s a limited pool of actors and you’re trying to find ways for all of them to stretch their acting muscles. But our professor was having none of it. He thought that some actors were blatantly wrong for some parts, and that’s the end of it, and not to acknowledge that in casting could only lead to failure. “There’s no point in being ridiculous,” he said, in that plummy British accent of his.

And then he pointed at me.

“It would be like Michael playing Falstaff,” he said.

Now, to my knowledge, I had done nothing to offend this gentleman. I was a good and conscientious student. I was also rail-thin in those halcyon days, and quite the nerd, and that’s a far cry from the boisterous fat knight of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. So he might simply have been using me as the most obvious physical example in the room to make his point that an actor trying to “stretch” still needs to stay within the bounds of credulity. It still stung; it came out of nowhere, after all, and the titters of laughter I heard around me didn’t do much for my self-esteem (though most of my friends pointed out, safely after class, that the remarks were wildly inappropriate).

I didn’t particularly care, though, because I’d never harbored much of a desire to play Falstaff. He’s not, as was pointed out, my “type,” but he’s also not a character I’ve ever identified with. He’s a deeply disreputable character – a belligerent drunkard, a thief, a compulsive liar – who still somehow has such a natural charisma that audiences insist on viewing him as the plays’ hero. Problematic, to be sure. And his humor is extremely difficult – somehow cynical and fanciful at once, his language both coarse and high-flown often in the same sentence, with no verse to help untangle the contradictions – the part is mostly in prose. In any event, my own Shakespearean bucket list (for you casting directors who might be reading) consists of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Iago in Othello, Angelo in Measure for Measure, and, at last, when I’m sufficiently old and grey, Polonius in Hamlet. Falstaff’s never been on my radar, and I never saw much of a reason why he should be.

Recently, the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia a multi-year playwriting competition entitled “Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries,” in which they’re soliciting modern plays written as responses to the works in the Shakespearean canon. For the inaugural year, they’re looking for plays written in response to Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part I. As a whopping $25,000 prize is being offered, we playwrights are scrambling like mad to come up with entries. One such playwright, my friend Erik Ransom (his show Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions was something of a sister show at the Fringe Festival to my own Dragon’s Breath, and we cross-promoted each other’s work like mad), decided to put together a series of staged readings of the entire four-play Henriad, in order to prepare for writing his own entry. I was glad to help out; for June’s initial installment of Richard II, I read a smattering of tiny parts. I’m not sure whether it was my command of the verse in those small parts, or the experience of going out drinking with me after the reading, but Erik messaged me on Facebook the next day. After verifying my availability and schedule through the rest of the summer, he made me an offer:

Would I be interested in reading Falstaff?

Well, that’s not the sort of thing you say no to. And I had over a month to look over my old Signet anthology from college, to pore through the Arden edition, to really figure out Falstaff and Henry IV. A month to figure out a suitable voice, to make sense of his epic speeches, to pace his obscure jokes, to arrive at a characterization. A month in which to discover that, at least in theory, I could play Falstaff.

Our reading finally took place yesterday, and I’m happy to report that I did indeed play Falstaff. Not that there was any particular judgment riding on this – we were all there to help Erik and have fun. But the folks around the table laughed heartily and encouraged me to play Falstaff for real some day. Considering the talent around that table, and my history with this role, this was immensely gratifying to hear.  And having gotten the reading under my (not yet as large as Falstaff's, thankfully) belt, I've discovered that I've gotten rather fond of the part, and want to give the fat night a go.

Of course, this assumes that a future “some day” comes at all. During the month in which I’ve been preparing the part, our government has been engaged in a desperate effort to trash our health care system, tensions with foreign powers has escalated, and there have been no signs that we’re willing or able to avert looming climate catastrophe. The rapidly escalating Russian scandal threatens to plunge the nation into a second Watergate-style constitutional crisis. And I wonder – was that long-ago Intro to Directing professor really telling me I couldn’t play Falstaff? Or was he trying to warn us all of the terrors that awaited us in a world where, even if just for one day, I actually did play Falstaff?

Hard to say. Prophesy’s a tricky thing.

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