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The Folger Spotlight

One of the fundamental building blocks with which an actor works is an awareness of the relationships into which his character enters. For the actor playing Roderigo in any production of Othello, at a certain moment he must confront the fact that Roderigo does not and can not exist without Iago. They are twinned—a sort of dark Bert and Ernie pairing, if Ernie did all the talking and stabbed Bert to death while on vacation in Cyprus.

Of course, nothing is as simple as that. Roderigo and Iago are a complex pair, but there is no doubt that they sit on the long continuum of “master and servant” relationships that have appeared in stories from the dawn of storytelling. While these relationships are more frequently a component of comic tales (Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Antipholus and Dromio, etc.), they also appear in tragedies (Lear and his Fool, Hamlet and the Gravedigger, Single White Female). It is of note that, Single White Female notwithstanding, there seems to be an intrinsic comic requirement to those sorts of relationships, even when they appear in tragedies.

All that said, rehearsing to play Roderigo in Folger’s upcoming Othello means spending quite a lot of time with Ian Merrill Peakes, who plays Iago.

Ian Merrill Peakes

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Othello represents the fourth time I have played servant to Ian’s master. We did Petruchio and Grumio in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Free For All” production of The Taming of the Shrew. We played Don Felipe and Pastrana in a recent reading of Marta the Divine, also at STC. Finally, and most memorably (perhaps) to Folger patrons, we played King Henry and Will Sommers in Henry VIII directed, as is Othello, by Robert Richmond. I hope it won’t seem immodest to point out here that the Henry VIII team pulled in a pretty stunning 10 Helen Hayes Award nominations for that production. So, you know, no pressure.

What this means for rehearsing, primarily, is that Ian and I have managed to develop a kind of shorthand for approaching scenes together. What this also means, more prosaically, is that Ian has absolutely no problem putting me into headlocks, moving me around by the scruff of my neck, and grabbing my nether regions. Yes, you read that correctly. No, this isn’t that kind of blog.

When any actor comes to develop an on-stage relationship, he is basically starting with a raw block of marble, the text, and then using clues from the text and the physical energy of the actors in the scene as tools. In the case of Othello, Ian and I then started to chip away anything that didn’t look to us like Iago and Roderigo.

Director Robert Richmond presented us with his edit of Shakespeare’s text, and Ian and I took a look at what was on the page (or, more to the point, what was not on the page) and started to imagine who the people saying those words are, and why they say those things to each other. Of course, quite a lot of this process has involved Ian asking for lines to be put back in—and every once in a while, the lines he asks to have back are actually mine!

Seriously, though, if there is one word that encapsulates what I love so much about working with Ian as an actor it is this: play. We try to be open to each other’s impulses and will try the same scene six different ways. Very often, some of the iterations we try have no hope of actually making it into the show—we did one pass at a scene where Roderigo had a nonfunctioning leg which kept collapsing. We did another where Iago carried Roderigo around on his shoulders. We tried swapping the characters’ relative status, making Roderigo the Alpha in the relationship. That didn’t work.

But, again, that it works the first time is not the point. The point is, there really isn’t any such thing as “right” or “wrong,” so we’ve just got to keep tinkering until the best choice “reveals itself.” In other words, Ian, Robert, and I just kind of know it and feel it when it happens. And we’re getting there! Already we’ve started to build In some moments that, if not actually funny, are sort of amusing and touching. And not the kind of touching I mentioned earlier.

I’ll do a subsequent post on the language of our scenes and how we’re working with that. But for now I just wanted to assure you that all is well, and these little baby versions of the Iago and Roderigo you’ll ultimately see on stage at the Folger have begun to kick and scream. And we’re having a blast doing it. We spend a fair amount of time in rehearsal giggling like schoolboys when the headmaster’s away.

That’s it for this dispatch. Please feel free to comment and make suggestions for content below. More soon…