When Robert Dorfman was cast as Feste, the clown in Cente Stage's production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," the director asked if he could walk on a 4-foot rubber ball.
To any other actor, this might have seemed an unlikely request. But Mr. Dorfman, 40, spent the early part of his career as a clown with the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus.
When other aspiring actors were study- ing in conservatories or struggling through auditions, he was wearing a patched tuxedo and performing a flea circus act.
So, walk on a ball? He's walked on elephants! But, Mr. Dorfman recalled with a laugh, "I said, 'Not for these prices I can't.' "
A fortnight ago, the question was not yet resolved. With no apologies for a bad pun, he said, "The ball's still in the play. Whether I'll be walking on it re- mains to be seen. We'll do something with it. I'm also wearing big clown shoes, so it would be difficult."
But Mr. Dorfman did promise that his Feste will engage in a number of untraditional activities in Center Stage's production of this popular comedy, which has its official opening Wednesday.
One bit of license that he and director Irene Lewis have taken is to have the clown on stage more often than strictly required by the script, which tells a tale of mistaken identities and misdirected romances.
"The great irony of it is, everybody in the play seems to be foolish, and he's the one fool, and he seems to have the most wit and awareness of what's going on around him," Mr. Dorfman continued. "He's going to mingle in and out of the scenes. He's going to do a little warm-up in the beginning of the play, some sort of Elizabethan warm-up as if you were at Cafe Feste."
A stand-up Shakespearean comic? "We're going to walk the line," Mr. Dorfman said, acknowledging that he also has some stand-up comedy in his background. "I've done a bunch of nightclubs, and when I was starting out I did the Poconos circuit, entertainment director -- cha-cha lessons in the morning, club at the night. . . . I have done a little of everything."
A little of everything ranges from Broadway ("Social Security") to television ("Legwork") to movies (he just filmed a bit part as Danny DeVito's tailor in "Other People's Money"). But the bulk of his career has been spent off-Broadway and in regional theater, including two previous appearances at Center Stage, beginning with "The School for Wives" in 1986.
Although Mr. Dorfman said he's not always cast because of his Ringling Bros. pedigree, he admitted that "in the classics, I think a lot of people appreciate the fact that I have clown skills. But I can also do fairly complicated verse."
As it happens, Feste is the third clown he's played in a row. Last spring Center Stage patrons saw him as Parolles, Bertram's duplicitous follower in "All's Well That Ends Well," and over the summer he played Sancho Panza in Eric Overmyer's "Don Quixote de La Jolla," directed by Center Stage Artistic Director Stan Wojewodski Jr. at California's La Jolla Playhouse.
In that production he appeared opposite another clown with theatrical credentials, Geoff Hoyle. He has also acted with Avner the Eccentric and the Flying Karamazov Brothers -- all in classical comedies. "What I like about my clown career is the type of clown parts I get," he said. "It's about wit and language. There's a great history and tradition about playing these roles."
Even when he was with Ringling Bros., the Brooklyn native created a clown he describes as "sort of Chaplinesque. He was (( more sophisticated. I did fewer pratfalls and unicycling."
Mr. Dorfman still favors more melancholy clowns, and that melancholy strain has carried over to several of his more important serious modern dramatic roles, in plays such as Terrence McNally's "The Lisbon Traviata" and Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart." In both cases, he described the characters he portrayed as undergoing "an emotional and psychological unraveling."
A trained method actor, Mr. Dorfman finds comedy as challenging as tragedy. "It's hard to do anything well," he said. "It's really difficult building a clown, particularly these Elizabethan clowns, because a lot of their dialogue is based on Elizabethan wit, and a lot of the references are things that modern audiences have no frame of reference for.
"You don't want to be show-and-telly about it, nor do you want to give them program notes. You have to find some contemporary equivalent in the language and in the interpretation of it. That's why we're choosing to do ['Twelfth Night'] in a kind of cabaret style. If you give them an accessible, but not cliched, image, then at least they have a point of reference."
One tool to aid accessibility in Center Stage's production is the use of the back wall of the stage as a chalkboard on which Feste can elucidate some of the textual obscurities. And, just in case Feste isn't busy enough, Mr. Dorfman said he also plays the clarinet in this multiperiod-influenced production.
Does he ever miss Ringling Bros.? "No, no," he said without hesitation. "It's a very hard life. You're traveling all the time. You do something like 12 shows a week. But as a young man -- I was 21 -- the wealth of experience I accumulated! How to play to a large audience, how to build a gag and how to work with an ensemble troupe."
These days Mr. Dorfman usually plays to considerably smaller crowds. Even when he goes to the circus -- which he still does on occasion -- he prefers smaller, more intimate troupes. He isn't tempted to join in, however.
Instead of baggy pants and floppy hats, Mr. Dorfman would like to wear a crown for a change. "I would like to play a king," the former clown admitted. "I would like to do a Shakespearean tragedy."
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees on some Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through May 12.
Tickets: $8 to $29.