Mid-autumn night's dreams are visiting Larry O'Dwyer. Characters in novels are speaking to him. He's experiencing what it's like to be winged and omnipresent.
In his youthful exuberance, the 65-year-old actor is considering getting a tattoo, if only he could settle on a design. It would complement the two earrings in his left ear.
He owes these woozy distractions to Shakespeare, who is bringing O'Dwyer's inner imp to life. His animated eyes suggest behavior that could turn from sinister to freewheeling in seconds.
The 65-year-old actor is, in a word, puckish.
So his casting as the fairy Puck in Center Stage's production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" seems natural, though research hasn't revealed an actor near his age having ever played the guileless magician.
"I think wanting to be magic is at the bottom of many neuroses," says O'Dwyer. "By the time I was 50, I still wanted to be magic."
Puck, a k a Robin Goodfellow, is the complex pixie responsible for all the pranks in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," from sprinkling love juice in unsuspecting teen paramours' eyes to orchestrating an affair between a donkey and Puck's fairy mistress, Titania.
He's commonly associated with green tights, lithe young bodies and acrobatic feats, even flying. But director Irene Lewis was looking to get away from cutesy stereotypes in this production.
"There's not much that's cute about this Puck," says O'Dwyer. "You have to avoid that sprightliness."
As Puck, O'Dwyer is taking on a role with a rich history, in gender and age. Puck was played predominantly by female children, sometimes as young as 8, from the late 17th to 19th centuries. Male Pucks started to become popular in the early 20th century.
A different brand of Puck
And O'Dwyer is hardly the first alternative Puck (the irritable bike messenger from MTV's "The Real World" comes to mind). Ian Holm played Puck as a joyfully sadistic urchin in 1959. Tony Richardson's 1962 Puck sported a Cockney accent, wore a mud-colored bodysuit and challenged the idea of the graceful, fleet-footed fairy.
So what if O'Dwyer is 65? In his eyes you see the potential for more mischief than legions of preadolescent fairies could wreak.
"I'm not looking to deconstruct or distort; he's just more Puckular than any actor I could think of," director Lewis says. "There are some people who are ageless in terms of certain qualities."
O'Dwyer is a one-man show. His words, spoken in a resonant voice, thick with character, provide the music for the spectacle of his movement. His entire face becomes involved in every anecdote, gesturing hands conducting, while the lines on his forehead synchronize into a dance of expressions.
Just watching Larry O'Dwyer play himself is entertaining. Add to that wings and supernatural powers, and you've got something extraordinary on your hands.
"He's really a beguiling anarchist, and that's what Puck is all about," Lewis says. "You are drawn to the anarchy."
Puck in history
Anarchy and Puck go hand in hand. The legendary fairy, who was a mainstay of folklore long before Shakespeare utilized him around 1594, is a descendant of the devil. His dark side is just as important as his penchant for trickery.
An established actor in the role is much more capable of bringing out this depth, according to O'Dwyer's colleagues, who say the ability both to honor the language and capture Puck's spirit is theatrical gold.
"You're not getting packaged fairy 'Midsummer Night's' escapades from this Puck," says Charlotte Stoudt, the production's dramaturg. "He plays all levels. He draws on a lot of emotional ages."
Despite his ideal mix of talent and experience, O'Dwyer was initially reluctant to take the part.
Lewis used a picture from a book on the films of Italian director Federico Fellini to persuade him to accept. She sent the image of a whimsical W. C. Fields-esque man in a suit, with round BTC glasses, to O'Dwyer's adopted home in Texas (he's from Hyattsville).
"I was hedging on it. Not until that picture arrived did I open up," O'Dwyer says. "It was like a tiny little miracle happened."
It was from that image that O'Dwyer's costume was conceived (( and designed by Constance Hoffman, a New York-based designer. The costume is complete with little wings and red, high-top sneakers. The high-tops represent Mercury, according to Hoffman, as well as a device for audience identification.
"I'm used to seeing Puck in leotards," says Hoffman, who divides her time between designing for Shakespeare and for opera productions. "I don't find that a very interesting choice."
Red high-tops and a gray-haired Puck may not quite fit into traditional Shakespearean expectations. But when talking about "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the word "traditional" is inapplicable.
Shakespeare's 12th play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is one of his most elusive. It blends disparate elements, from Shakespeare's Athens to the world of the fairies to a motley crew of bumbling mechanicals attempting to launch a play.