Michael Cerveris 'Gabs' About HEDDA GABLER
The works of Henrik Ibsen provide unique challenges for modern theater companies. This may be because of the complexities of his characters or the difficulties of getting an appealing translation of the playwright's original Norwegian prose.
Happily the Roundabout Theater has faced both of these challenges and is currently presenting a compelling production of HEDDA GABLER at their elegant American Airlines Theater.
Audiences realize they are about to witness something special when they see Hildegard Bechtler's atmospheric set bathed in the subtle and effective lighting of Natasha Katz. However, it is when Michael Cerveris makes his initial entrance that the audience realizes what an exceptional evening this HEDDA GABLER will be. Playing the intellectual writer Jorgen Tesman, Cerveris eschews a dour portrayal of an academic in favor of a character who is robust and certainly in love with his new bride, Hedda, who is stunningly portrayed in this version by Mary-Louise Parker. Cerveris' personal energy is immediately sensed by the audience and throughout the performance they could be detected sitting up or leaning forward whenever he was on stage.
It is a masterful performance in every way and is met point-for-point by Ms. Parker. When these two actors are together on stage, the electricity is almost palpable.
Meeting Michael Cerveris in his dressing room on the afternoon of Inauguration Day found him to be an incredibly amiable man. This comes as something of a surprise because he's made a career out of playing such brooding characters as Sweeney Todd and Richard II and won the 2004 Tony Award as "Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth (in Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS)".
The actor has spent the earlier part of the afternoon watching the television coverage of the Inauguration and is casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with Barack Obama's visage. On his dressing table sat the autobiography of the new president. There's no doubting where Cerveris' political affiliations lie.
Sipping a cup of freshly brewed tea, the actor settled into a comfortable chair and spoke freely about his career and the rehearsal process for HEDDA GABLER, which was still in previews but scheduled for January 25th opening.
Born in the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, Cerveris is the offspring of parents who met at Juilliard. His mother is a trained dancer and his father played in the Navy band.
In fact, his father marched in the parade for John F. Kennedy's Inauguration. "He was a pianist and obviously couldn't drag his piano down the street, so they gave all the guys who played instruments like that clarinets with no reeds so they could (just) march in the freezing cold and just fake it," the actor explains with a laugh. His father earned his BA, MA and PhD before attaining his first teaching job in St. Louis, MO and later taking a position at Huntington's Marshall University and becoming the chair of the piano faculty. "He was always involved in the arts and interested in the theater.
My very first stage experience was either in the first or second grade when I was cast as one of the Little Prince's friends in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, so I began my theatrical career with Brecht. It was a non-speaking role; I was just one of the little friends. When the kid who was playing the Little Prince left the production they asked if I would want to take over. I turned them down because it meant I would have to learn lines and I didn't want the additional burden. I was just enjoying the communal atmosphere of ensemble playing. It may have been the last time I passed on a bigger role," he adds with a smile. "I think that whole episode was a blueprint in many ways for many of the forms my career has taken." Cerveris has a sister who's a ballerina and a brother who's an actor and currently on touring with Spring Awakening.
Cerveris attended the Phillips Exeter Academy but didn't actually make the decision to have a career in the theater until his last years at Yale, from which he was graduated cum laude in 1983. He had his choice of attending several different colleges but picked Yale because it was a Liberal Arts program and not a conservatory program. "I wanted access to other possible careers," he explains, " I also thought that if I did become an actor portraying people from different walks of life, I ought to be surrounded by them and not by people who wanted a career in the arts."
It was in THE WHO'S TOMMY that Michael Cerveris first came to the attention of many theater-goers. It's a memory that is fresh in the actor's mind because he had only recently done a reunion concert of the show to mark its 15th anniversary. "We all assembled again, which was remarkable in itself. People made journeys from all over the country to be part of that day. Many are still very involved in performing careers, but others had put that to the side and were raising families. Among the many things that were wonderful about the reunion concert was the realization that what we had thought was an extraordinary, unique and singular experience was everything we'd suspected it was. "
Cerveris recalls how he was cast in the original stage production of TOMMY. "I was in rehearsals for RICHARD II at the Mark Taper Forum and I got a call from agent saying that he had an audition for me for this stage version of THE WHO'S TOMMY which was going to happen at the regional theater in La Jolla. It was a matter of going in, singing a rock song and seeing what happens. I brought my guitar and played a David Bowie song for my audition. I figured if it was a rock musical I wasn't going to trust the accompanist to necessarily know the kind of stuff I would want to do. It was a couple of auditions into the process before I realized I was actually auditioning for the part of Tommy.
Once I was hired, I wasn't shown a script until the first day of rehearsal. Watching the movie didn't give me any indication of what we might be doing. I couldn't figure out where all the baked beans were going to go!"
The first read-thru of TOMMY was conducted as though it was any traditional script. There was no music; the cast just read the text. "It was a little strange when we got to ‘Fiddle About' because that was the entire lyric for a minute or two. However, I remember closing the script at the end of the rehearsal and wrote on the front cover of it, ‘This is the real thing' or ‘This is it', not because it was going to be my ticket to notoriety but because I knew it would be a historic and meaningful piece of theater and I was glad to be a part of it. The whole experience was fantastic and every step of it was a delightful surprise."
It seems terrible incongruous that an actor who made his debut on Broadway in a rock opera would go on to be closely associated with the works of composer Stephen Sondheim, but such was the case for Michael Cerveris. In addition to his Broadway appearances in ASSASSINS and SWEENEY TODD, he did a concert version of PASSION at the Kennedy Center, as well as regional productions of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.
Is Stephen Sondheim the opposite side of the spectrum of The Who? "To me, they're part of the same thing. I've described Steve-to his confusion and possible dismay-- as a rock and roll composer in my mind. I mean that he has a singular vision and fearlessness in writing what he wants to write as well as breaking formulas and rules to tell stories the way he wants to. Also there's a kind of muscularity and savagery even though the form is more contained and prescribed. I don't think Steve is as interested in ‘the voice beautiful' as he is in the character being expressed through the music that he writes. So I think the way I approach performing, especially through song, suits the way he writes because I think of songs as monologues and scenes that happen to be on pitches. The heart of it, though, is in the word and the idea. In the same way, I feel that genuine rock and roll writing and performing is about making a visceral connection with the listener. I think that Steve's work is best expressed by that style of performing and can have a similar kind of real, personal connection on the part of the listener and the author through the medium of the performer."
After TOMMY, Cerveris' next appearance on Broadway was in Maury Yeston's Tony Award-winning production of TITANIC and the wonderful score allowed him to exercise his ‘legimate' singing voice. He left that show to replace John Cameron Mitchell in Off Broadway's HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH-a show he felt was "the perfect marriage of rock and roll music and theater". He also did a tour where he played guitar for Bob Mould which really brought him into the rock world. Cerveris ended up that tour in the UK when he called his agents to tell them he didn't want any more musical bookings until people could "recalibrate" the way they perceived him. The one exception would be if a Stephen Sondheim vehicle came about.
This was around the year 2000 when Sondheim musicals weren't done that frequently and they didn't revive them on Broadway very often. "The chances of me getting cast were pretty slim," the actor comments, "and that was a nice concession to my agents so I wouldn't seem completely unreasonable."
The Kennedy Center's Sondheim celebration found Cerveris cast in PASSION "...and that just set me on this track of doing Sondheim musicals that I couldn't be more grateful for or proud of.," he happily states. "It's not the sum total of what I have to offer but it's a really significant part of what I've done so far. It really is this great combination in my mind of so many disparate things that I've been interested in. Steve's works are so intelligent and literate on one hand but passionate and scrappy emotionally. It has classical forms and classical demands but it has a roughness and excitement that appeals to me. You really have to be an actor first and foremost but you need musical ability. It seems to be the ideal setting for me and I hope to continue having chances to collaborate in that way."
The actor was appearing in the New York Shakespeare Theater's revised version of Sondheim's BOUNCE, that is now called ROAD SHOW, when he began rehearsals for his current project: HEDDA GABLER.
"I didn't prepare for HEDDA in the way that I sometimes prepare in terms of doing a lot of research and reading or filling my head with a knowledge about the time that the piece was written. I simply didn't have the time to do that. Every moment that I wasn't in rehearsal for this, I was downtown performing. Also, I had just finished a rehearsal process with John Doyle (who had directed ROAD SHOW as well as SWEENEY TODD) and his whole way of working is very unique and I really take to it. He, for example, admonished us not to do homework. He said, ‘I don't want you to go home and learn lines ahead of time and come in with things prepared because I want to discover everything here together. You'll have time to learn everything. I repeat things so much in rehearsal that you'll just come to know stuff. If you need to sit down and learn it later, fine, but I'm happy for it to be a shambles and a mess until it finds what it wants to be! I really felt freed by that way of working.
I thought I'd apply that to the rehearsal process with HEDDA GABLER as well. It might have been a bit frustrating because we weren't all working that way and some people really wanted to have things nailed down. As a result, I didn't do as much preparatory work and instead just tried really discovering it in the moment here with Hedda. Once we got into tech and previews things suddenly took big leaps quickly because the groundwork really was happening but it wasn't showing itself until we got into run-throughs and performance."
"I feel that this was a good way for me to approach this," Cerveris continues, "because this isn't a traditional production of HEDDA. From Chris Shinn's adaptation on down, it's not what we're accustomed to seeing in HEDDA GABLER but I do think that it's perhaps more faithful to Ibsen's original intent. In many of the adaptations, particularly in the British theatrical tradition, there has been a formality. I think our version is very American and modern without being ‘contemporary'. Our set and costumes are evocative of a period and a place-not here and now-but it's a place that audiences can find quick access to. The same is hopefully true of the text. It's a fascinating ragtag bunch of people on that stage. There's a combination of classicism and downtown art and our director (Ian Rickson) has been determined to have us preserve our own idiosyncrasies while finding a commonality so it doesn't look like seven people in seven different plays.
Hopefully it'll feel like a multi-faceted world of strange creatures," he mentions with a chuckle.
Cervaris takes a sip of his still-steaming tea before beginning his praise for the cast of HEDDA GABLER. "Paul Sparks is somebody I've admired for a long time. I've seen him in lots of plays and I've known him just a bit socially. I was really thrilled when I found out he was playing Lovborg in this production." When it comes to Peter Stormare, he mentions that he's seen the actor in the movie FARGO and "I remember seeing him in a film he did with Keanu Reeves called CONTSANTINE where he played Satan. I didn't recognize that I knew him from other things but I think it's one of the most brilliant portrayals of evil in an entertaining and chilling way that I've ever seen. When I learned he's be playing Judge Brack I was very happy."
"I'd done a couple of readings with Ana Reeder and I think she's fantastic. I love her to bits. I'd worked with Helen Carey before in a television series I'd done in London called "American Embassy" and she's really terrific. I didn't know Lois Markle before but she has such a fascinating history and Ian encourages all of that to come on stage so you really do see full human beings even if get only a little bit of them. You don't get to see her character all that much but you do get a sense of who she is."
Understandably, Cerveris' greatest praise is for his leading lady. " Mary-Louise Parker is really an extraordinary artist and actress. I have the best seat in the house for her performance every night. It's been a real thrill and a challenge in the best way to work with her. To her credit as an actress, she didn't want to be surrounded by lackeys who were simply there so she'd look great. I think she wanted a bunch of really interesting, challenging and dynamic people around her." When it is commented that there is an exceptional amount of chemistry between Hedda and Tesman in this production, Cerveris adds, " I think it makes the play as complex as it ought to be for there to be no easy answers as to whether Tesman loves Hedda or she hates him.
People don't always entirely mean what they say in life and in classical plays we sometimes think that if a character says ‘Oh yeah, I never really loved him that much' that that's all there is to it. Of course, there never is. Every character in the play is trapped by various circumstances and most of them are able to make compromises with themselves and society so they can survive. Characters like Hedda and Lovborg can't. There's no easy answer as to who was right by the end of the play."
Perhaps the hallmark of good theater is that the audience leaves the performance pondering the performance they've just witnessed. Such is the case with this version of HEDDA GABLER. It surmounts the difficulties normally encountered when the works of Ibsen are presented in today's world with a comfortable translation of the text and entrusts it to a director who has an exceptional cast of actors to work with.
Hedda Gabler Production Shots by Nigel Parry/CPi
Micheal Cerveris at TOMMY Meet & Greet by Peter James Zielinski
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.