Two's a crowd !

When does 2 equal 14? When the equation refers to actors in 'King Lear,' now at Center Stage

October 02, 2005|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN REPORTER

Jay Edwards has just two sentences of dialogue -- two sentences! -- to transform himself from a knife-wielding torturer into a bent old man. And just slightly more time to become, in turn, the King of France, a servant, a courtier, a military officer, and a doctor.

Rod Brogan has no more than 30 seconds -- 30 seconds! -- to metamorphose from a soldier to a servant. And barely longer to become, in turn, the Duke of Burgundy, a riotous knight, yet another torturer, a peasant wandering the storm-tossed moors and a rifle-toting soldier.

Oh, and did we mention that the actors also double as stagehands, move furniture between scenes, and play in the on-stage band?

In the production of King Lear currently running at Center Stage, Edwards and Brogan play 14 different roles and perform myriad other tasks, from opening and closing an on-stage curtain to mopping up blood to playing pipes and a percussion instrument. "My blocking sheet looks like a Super Bowl playbook," Brogan says of the pages that tell the actors where they're supposed to be on stage at any given moment.

"There are lines and arrows all over the place."

Brogan, is big and robust, with a baby face and biceps like bowling balls. And at 31, he is just beginning his career.

Edwards, a generation older, is short, bearded and slight, with direct, quizzical eyes. Not only is he a veteran actor, he also is a well-respected playwright whose newest work is about to have its world premiere in Washington.

Wearing an extra's many hats (literally) is perhaps not what Brogan was dreaming of last fall, when he was completing his graduate studies in California. Nor was it the opportunity to portray a servant that inspired Edwards to be a founder of the Washington Shakespeare Company.

Forget memorizing soliloquies. An extra's job can be more about mastering wind sprints.

"Of course, I'd much rather be playing Hamlet," Edwards jokes. "But we're professionals. Once you've done 100 productions that are all the same, you're glad to be part of something really creative."

Besides, if Edwards were playing Hamlet, he'd have less stage time.

"It's exhausting," Edwards says. "One of us literally is in every scene. Other actors can step off the stage for a breather. Not us."

Admit it: you've watched extras before and have thought: "The job's a breeze, a piece of cake, a stroll in the park. Who can't walk across a stage carrying a quiver full of arrows?"

But have you ever meandered into the wings (so as not to appear hurried); thundered down a backstage flight of stairs (while stepping as quietly as possible); dashed 70 feet down a hallway (while trying not to run over fellow cast members); lunged up another stairway, (where you were stripped of one costume and stuffed into another); and then shuffled back on stage (without visibly gasping) while saying, "Madam, sleeps still," loud enough to be heard in the back rows?

And have you done it in under a minute flat?

Brogan and Edwards do it at every performance. Twice on weekends.

With so many split-second character changes, costumes have been kept simple. A flip of a collar, a twist of a head scarf, a different beret -- sometimes that's all that's needed to transform the actors from a peasant into a soldier. Sometimes, they even make the changes in full view of theatergoers, albeit on a dimly-lit part of the stage.

It's a technique that lets theater patrons in on the secret by exposing the mechanics of how a production is put together. "We're not trying to fool the audience," Edwards says.

Nonetheless, the transformations are speedy, and that has required some clever accommodations.

A side zipper (traditionally used in women's slacks) was sewn into a pair of men's Perry Ellis pants because it took Brogan too long to button up the fly. For the same reason, a buckle was snapped off a pair of Donna Karan lace-up boots.

Talking through a hat

Some actors spend months, years even, probing every facet of their characters' backgrounds and psychology. Not Edwards and Brogan -- at least, not in these roles. The question makes the actors laugh and laugh.

Edwards simply deepens his voice, or shifts to a slightly stoop-shouldered stance. Brogan merely puts on a crown or picks up a gun. "You have to keep it simple," Brogan says. "Sometimes you let the costumes do the work for you."

Like all of Shakespeare's plays, King Lear has a famously vast cast. There are 30 speaking roles and an unspecified number of "knights of Lear's train, servants, soldiers, attendants, gentlemen." Few theater companies can support that kind of payroll.

But using just two actors to fill so many functions also fits director Irene Lewis' minimalist vision. She has dubbed Edwards and Brogan "facilitators" who advance the action.

"They basically help tell us the story," she says. "I use them not just as characters, but to clean up blood, to draw a curtain, to exchange a glance, to literally move the story forward. They are the only two people out there who move anything."

With so many roles to keep straight, it's a miracle that an occasional mix-up doesn't occur.

Edwards hasn't yet opened his mouth as the King of France and found himself speaking in his torturer's voice. Brogan has never put on the Duke of Burgundy's crown and found himself saying one of the riotous knight's lines.

But King Lear does have a way of seeping into the actors' everyday lives.

"The day that someone cut me off in traffic and I called him a cur," Brogan says, "I realized I had to go start seeing some Hollywood movies."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

KING LEAR / / Through Nov. 6 / / Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays / / $10-$65 / / Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore / / 410-332-0033 or www.centerstage.org

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