All Hail the King: Walter White as Tragic Hero

"This is the first day of the rest of your life, but what kind of life will it be, huh? Will it be a life of fear, of 'Oh, no no no I can't do this'? Of never once believing in yourself?"
-Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 1, Episode 7: A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal

For as long as I can remember,


has been my favorite classical play. At times, it has been my favorite all-around play. I have a personal theory (which I have absolutely no interest in proving) that a significant factor in


's continuing popularity is that it hits so many young men at just the right time in their lives for identifying with angst, indecision, patricide, and so much else. It is a truly great work of literature, and it's a great play - though that latter is as much for flaunting the rules as for any decent playcraft.

What I find extremely interesting about people's responses to the play, however, is something that I believe they tend to neglect in their interpretation of it. That is, the concept of divine order (or justice) that permeated Shakespeare's life at the time he wrote it. Very few people question the morality of Hamlet's actions in the course of avenging his father's death, apart from perhaps having some qualms about how it all works out for poor Ophelia. Yet the play is mercilessly just. In his pursuit of a murderer, Hamlet becomes a murderer, and is thus killed himself.


Breaking Bad

first premiered, the concept was so bizarre I and Wife Megan felt we had to give it a shot. AMC was just transitioning into its phase of incredible original programming, and that as much as the critical buzz and series conceit was so strange we just had to see what it was all about. Embarrassingly, I don't believe we made it through the first episode. I found it too bleak by half. Maybe if I had lasted the 45 minutes or so, I would've clued in to what makes the show so amazing but - as it is - I chose to leave it to the critics and cynics.

I'll admit I was wrong. I enjoy knowing when I'm wrong, even when admitting it is difficult. In this case, the admission is easy as pie.

Breaking Bad

is an exceptional example of drama and cinema, even outside of its television milieu, and I was a fool to wait as long as I have to catch up on its four seasons available to me. I'm now contemplating renting the first half of season 5, just to get caught up and experience the final episodes in real time - something I have never been compelled to do before.

I have another theory, one specific to

Breaking Bad

and its writers, and one that I've been debating a bit with a few people lately. This theory represents my personal hook into the series, which means I have a ready bias about it. If I'm wrong, I lose interest in the series or - worse yet - whenever the series finale rolls its way around I am bound for horrific disappointment in its story-telling. My bias is of course what leads me into debate about it. I need to test my theory against others' perceptions, to learn if I'm fooling myself.

It is so easy to fool oneself. You need only pay attention to yourself above all others.

My theory is this: Walter White is a character cast in the mould of the classic tragic hero. Furthermore, the writers know it, and use tragedy as their guiding principle for their tremendous, unified story arcs.

Boring as it may be for a way to begin, I feel the urge (rising, UNSTOPPABLE) to define some terms. Many of the disagreements I have had with people on this theory have I believe sprung from one word: Villain. People seem very invested in the idea of Walter as a gradually developing villain, and when I call him a "hero," they take umbrage. They take it all the way to Mexico and back.

My use of the term "hero" in this sense is not strictly speaking the inverse of "villain." I mean a hero in the sense of a "protagonist." I'm not sure why the term "tragic protagonist" has never caught on - it has lovely consonance. Perhaps it's a preference for the inferred irony of some of literature's most villainous tragic heroes. And therein is the crux of the semantic difficulty - a tragic hero can be a real dickhead.

(Perhaps it's for another post, but I take umbrage [all the way to Umbria and back] with the misuse of the term "anti-hero." People seem to think they understand what an anti-hero is based on the concept of a hero as a swell, stand-up guy. Ergo, to them an "anti-hero" is someone imperfect or not nice. But that's rather missing the point, or at least beside it. Grrr. Anyway...)

So why is the definition of hero-protagonist (

Snow Crash

fans, amirite? Hello? Is this thing on...?) so critical? Well, to begin with, the dramaturgical definition of a hero is simply more useful than "a righteous dude." And to conclude: That definition supports my argument.

According to literature both literate and dramatic, a hero is:

  • Chosen, rather than choosing of his fate.
  • Reactionary, usually reacting to antagonist characters, but sometimes just to such forces.
  • On a journey, in which he will learn and gain things and eventually apply these winnings to the world from which he comes.

And that's about it, as far as commonalities go. Mythological heroes may be transformed, comicbook heroes may operate from super-natural abilities, and Scoob and the gang may always catch their criminal, but none of those factors define them as heroes. Heroes are our connection to a story of learning and change, our guides, and there are no promises either the story or the hero will end happily.

Enter tragedy. It's another much-maligned term, in that people tend to take the colloquial usage and apply it to fiction. It is of course tragic when six nuns die in a horrific and sudden bus accident, and still more tragic when sixteen newly ordained nuns on their way to give cookies to quadriplegic blind orphans die in a horrific and sudden bus accident, one that could've been prevented by the driver simply using Google Maps instead of Apple ones. But it is a travesty rather than a tragedy, in the dramaturgical sense.

In fiction, a tragedy has a specific form. It is not enough for things to end badly for all involved. If it were, you could have a hysterically funny play that in its last ten minutes kills every character you care for (Paging Martin McDonagh [Just kidding! {Really kidding - you don't care for his characters one bit!}]). Much as we might enjoy such a play or movie now, it doesn't qualify as a tragedy, because a tragedy has to do with inevitability. In a tragedy, we feel the end coming, and know 1) nothing will ever be the same afterward, and 2) there is


we can do about it.

So when I call Walter White a tragic hero, here's what I'm saying:

He is on a journey through strange territory, from which he is returning with things he applies to his origins.

Hardly anyone would argue with this, I think. A good portion of the humor in the show has to do with Walter applying skills associated with his hard-earned "street cred" to his increasingly shaky suburban life. Whether it's carrying a second cell phone or learning how to get the drop on a thug, Mr. White has been on one darkly heroic cycle.

He reacts to antagonists.

This is an easy one to get tripped up on. After all, Walt expends so much of his effort in maintaining or regaining control, and in the long run (to date) he's been very successful. He adopts little pretense by the end of season 4 - he is IN CHARGE, and "the one who knocks." It's also difficult to cite an antagonist to Walt when we first meet him. Who's got it out for him when he's a mild-mannered chemistry teacher? Certainly not his overbearing boss at the car wash? Nope.

No, it's cancer.

An antagonist isn't defined solely by being in opposition to the protagonist. Something very important is accomplished by the antagonist - the inciting action. The thing that gets the ball rolling on the plot, for the hero to react off of. It can seem counter-intuitive at first; we'd like to believe that we are good, and that good is active, but consider for a moment some incredibly heroic story (in the "heroism" sense). Odds are you'll see Superman doesn't appear until some schmuck falls off a skyscraper, and Beowulf can't get decisive until Grendel rends a few limbs himself.

Cancer incites Walter to his new lifestyle, and is what threatens to prevent him from achieving his aim of providing enough support for his family once he's gone. It does so directly, by occasionally crippling him when he has to cook meth or kill a dealer, and indirectly, by threatening to end his life before he can pull through enough business to make his gamble worthwhile. The antagonism passes hands (not to Tuco - that's a period during which the plot frankly frays) to Gus just about as systematically as possible. In the beginning, Gus is literally impelling Walt to return to cooking, and Walt's cancer even abates in conjunction with his increasing fear for his life under the threat of Gus's rule.

He has a fatal flaw that will prove his downfall.

This is some of that inevitability I referred to earlier. Beyond the vague sense that this series of events can't possibly work out in Walter's favor, he has to evince some seed of failure or lack of insight that will eventually destroy him. Oedipus had his figurative (eventually literal) blindness about his parents, Macbeth his ambition, Lear his prideful vanity. Pride is a classic.

Hubris - overbearing pride or presumption. Mr. White has it in spades. It could be argued to be his characteristic trait. It prevents him from getting out of his dangerous business, from accepting financial help from an old colleague and flame, and drives him to improve and protect his product. So prideful is he, in fact, that Walt may have allowed Hank to find him out as "Heisenberg" rather than allow someone otherwise uninvolved in his affairs to believe he


responsible for that magically pure meth. It remains to be seen if that moment of pure hubris will prove his tragic flaw. Walt's ever-shifting momentum and position make for some taut suspense on that count.

He is a noble/every-man, brought low for the gratification of the masses.


Death of a Salesman

, Arthur Miller very specifically made a tragedy of someone who was


a king, thereby implanting the idea of a tragic everyman as something of a contemporary American take on tragedy. We can certainly argue for Walter being an everyman like Willy Loman - an imperfect working man simultaneously sacrificing all for, yet undermining his family - but I'd also argue he can be perceived as something of the knighted class. He represents white, middle-class America, and though he's hardly well-off he also stands in stark contrast of benefit to the meth addicts and pushers with whom he comes to consort.

For a time, at least.

Walter White is chosen.

This may be the toughest point to argue, and brings us back around to the beginning of the story of

Breaking Bad

. Walt proving a predominantly reactive character does not of itself indicate that he is chosen, merely that he is subject to much circumstance (which is of itself a rather Shakespearean tragic-hero trait; but never mind). No amount of strange conjunction (like the grief-addled father of his partner's deceased girlfriend crashing a couple of planes over his house at just the right time) or unique portents (such as a roving stuffed bear's eye) or elaborate subsurface camera angles proves W.W. to be the chosen one. The question to answer is, "Why must it be him?"

This is where kings have it all worked out. They are ordained by God, generally speaking, and the land suffers as they do. It's hard to get more chosen than that. It's difficult to say whether or not there is a God in the world in which

Breaking Bad

's story is told (and here again we have a whole other dissertation) but if there is, he or she seems to be pretty far from the crime scene, so to speak. Still, there's another divine factor that we contemporary audiences are somehow less reticent to accept as a part of our stories. I'm speaking of course of fate.

If you rewatch the first episode of

Breaking Bad

, it's hard not to feel as though forces are aligning to send Walt down his eventual path. Every incident gives a subtle, necessary nudge to him, from how his diagnosis is delivered to his being along for a scouting mission on a meth lab a former student happens to be involved in. In the hands of lesser talent, this would read simply as weak writing, but the trend of

Breaking Bad

 has been to continue to make excellent use of far-reaching and interwoven influences. In fact, the structure of whole episodes and even seasons involves setting up a quixotic moment ahead of the story, in the future, making the action of the story a steady march to that inevitable conclusion. As though it's delivered to us by a soothsayer - we don't know what to make of the brief portent of what's to come when we receive it and once it becomes clear ... it's too late.

Walter White was destined to his fate, and it could be none other than him. All that remains is to see where that fate ultimately lands him.

How I Will Know That I'm Right:

  • There will be an antagonist in season 5.
  • Walt will die - preferably as a direct result of his hubris.
  • There is a God. Or at least a sense of divine order.
  • You'll tell me.

I have plans (SECRET WAYS) to see what's been aired of season 5 soon enough, though I frankly expect it to seem to refute my argument. At least, if I were the writers breaking (har har) a fresh season at the midway point, I would probably raise my protagonist up pretty high. All in preparation for one very tragic fall.

New York, NY

Hurricanes are threatening to become passé. Last year we had one, plus an earthquake. Of course, we're now hearing that Hurricane Sandy may be followed up by a nor'easter (which, in my head, is already named Annie - as in, lil' orphan). Just imagine if that proves to be a repeat of "Snowpocalypse," the storm that rocked the whole of the east coast not that long ago. At this rate, weather systems seem increasingly likely to cause another enormous blackout, like the one we had back in 2003. And even if they don't, with the pressure they've been under lately I suppose it's also possible we just might have another transit workers' strike before the end of 2013. But I don't mean to be pessimistic! Over the past decade or so, our police force has successfully foiled under a dozen proven terrorism attempts. Sure, they also clashed with our own citizenry over the Occupy Wall Street protests, but.... Hey! At least no one's flown any planes into any buildings here, lately!

I'm not aiming to make light of any of this. I'm just tired.

I used to consider it a cliché, the way that movies concerned with monumental American events (including, of course, disasters) so frequently feature New York as a landscape. After living here for over a dozen years myself, it seems more apt than anything else. Even when we set aside the iconography so necessary in film, wherein a subset represents the larger culture, the fact is that a lot befalls our fine 'burgh. Manhattan is set on some ley line intersection of fortune and desperate fate.

This event-riddled lifestyle of living amongst "the five boroughs" used to be a way of life I relished. As a kid, I used to run outside when it was windy. I wanted the world to be an exciting place, dramatic and narrative, swirling and swift. I still do. I still entertain survivalist fantasies and pursue the occasional unnecessary speed. It's just that last Monday night, as I prepared to huddle up for the night with Darling Wife and Tempestuous Twelve-Week-Old on an air mattress in the most central room of our railroad apartment, bags packed and boots by the makeshift bedside in case of a sudden evacuation, it all seemed suddenly a bit too ... well: disastrous.

And not a moment later, it seemed too familiar. I'm tired.

We've fared among the best of all the locations where Sandy laid down her land legs. We're in central Astoria, and though not five miles hence our friends in Long Island City have a quasi-war-zone on their hands when they step outside, here plenty of people are having food delivered and getting far more drunk than they generally would on a weekday. Personally, the storm has had the following effects:

  • A paid week off from work, for the most part (OK: I have worked, but from home, and as the email server went down so did the list of tasks I could reasonably accomplish);
  • Hours upon hours of more time with my family than I could've otherwise expected;
  • Clean laundry and apartment; and
  • More Facebook, Google Reader and Tumblr than any one man ought to have thrust upon him.

There are people whose lives are at risk, and those who've lost their lives already over this latest storm. I have nothing to complain about. The spookiest thing about our Halloween was that we're hardly exercising enough these days to justify some peanut-butter cups. Instead of power failures or looting, we've had to confront the fact that we were just too baby-encumbered to do anything adventurous for our four-year anniversary last night. We're incredibly fortunate, and I'm very grateful.

And I'm tired. Tired of the risk, the threat, the struggle of living here. I'll always love New York, and always miss it once we've had enough and moved on. I'm sad even now, with no special deadline for leaving, at the thought of no longer living here. I have been sad for years - when I happen to think of it - years over which the option of leaving NYC for greener (but NOT by definition more lovely) pastures has grown increasingly practical. I've been subliminally preparing myself for the day, because in the midst of the uncertainty involved in calling this city my home I've had complete certainty about how I will look back on it: with little else but longing.

But just maybe we should get going before the Mayan calendar ends. After all, we've already got our "go bags" packed.

Bang! Pow! Zwounds!: Richard III as "Graphic Novel"

Editor's Note: Once again, I'm adapting personal email into 'blog posts. I shall mutlti-task, and you shall dig it. This comes out of a discussion with a director friend of mine who was tasked with considering a production of Richard III based on a graphic-novel approach.

So: "a pre-1700's graphic novel story," eh? First of all: Do we mean a graphic novel written and drawn in the "pre-1700s"? A graphic novel setin the "pre-1700s"? And why the "pre-1700s"? Do we set Richard the Three in 1699, or Roman-occupied Ireland, or dare we make it 1485? {Ed.: I've since learned that the particular audience in discussion rejects any Shakespeare set later than that as being too much a departure from historical accuracy. Hilarious.} But my greater confusion here is what on earth we mean by "graphic novel." That's a little bit like saying, "Let's produce a Richard the Third like a pre-1700s movie story." Graphic novels are a medium about as varied as cinema.

But not everyone knows that, and were I to assume (thereby making an ass out of you and ume) a thing or two, I might assume we mean a sort of highbrow comicbook approach. Somehow. Which is still about as clear as the mud from which one might need a horse in order to extricate oneself.

My assumption however is based on the following facts:

  • The most commercially viable and well-known printed graphical storytelling of the prior and current centuries has been "comic books"; and
  • "Graphic novels" is a popular term for comic books when you're trying to lend them prestige, or raise people's opinions of them from out of the pulp.

The term "graphic novels" also frequently refers to works that have a little more length or over-arcing story to them than some, but that usage is a little reductive as it implies all "graphic novels" were written in one go (like a novel) when in fact the majority were originally published in a serial manner. Comic books, in other words, then collected into the so-called graphic novel.

So what are we to do with a concept based on highbrow comicbooks? In short (HA HA HA) there are too many different kinds of graphic novels to know what we mean when we use that ill-defined term, and the differences traverse everything from art to layout to content. A few varietals:

  • Maus - seminal in raising the reputation of comicbooks; it casts mice as Jews and cats as Nazis in a true story of one family's experience of the Holocaust
  • The Dark Knight Returnsand Watchmen - in a fit of zeitgeist, Frank Miller and Alan Moore both eschew/satirize the bubblegum aesthetic of superhero comics; Miller by taking a classic hero and giving him hard-boiled moral ambiguity, and Moore by taking superhero archetypes and subjecting them to a dystopian environment and socio-political realities
  • From Hell - Alan Moore here again, this time writing an exhaustively long "graphic novel" that delves into one possible explanation for the identity of Jack the Ripper
  • Sandman - what began as a pitch by Neil Gaiman to revitalize some of DC Comics' forgotten characters evolved into an epic story with a beginning, middle and end that chronicles the king of dreams (and his family: Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Destruction and Delirium [formerly Delight]) whilst tying in extensive details from the world's mythology, literature and religion

And those are fairly conventional examples, as far as just form goes.

I suppose the thing I can't quite wrap my mind around yet is why exactly to apply this concept to this particular work of Shakespeare's. As I see it, there are other plays of his - even other Histories - that might be better fits.

Henry V is a pretty good Superman/superhero analogue. Hell, the Henry VIs have those constant turn-overs that would make pretty interesting structure for exploring "serialized" storytelling on stage. Richard III may be episodic enough for serialized storytelling, if that's the angle, but I can't quite make it work without adding layers.

Recently it has been tremendously popular to adapt graphic novels into movies and, even more recently, television. The Walking Dead, for example, is an on-going serialized story that's perfect for television. But they also adapted Watchmen into a film, which tried to do too much and with so much flash that the vital humanity of the story was lost. Even Ang Lee made a superhero movie with the first Hulk Hollywood blockbuster, which in my opinion is practically a lesson in what elements NOT to take from graphic storytelling when adapting from it.

When they go wrong, what many adaptions have done is adhered too closely either to the content or the form of graphic storytelling (or both). When a graphic-novel story is transported cross-media, it's an injustice not to re-conceive at least a little. Two Frank Miller comics have been adapted into what most consider to be quite successful movies - his Sin City and 300 - and both with a keen eye on staying loyal to the aesthetic of the source material. I would argue, however, that as graphically similar as these movies are to the artwork from which they came, they are in fact very thoroughly re-imagined into a cinematic landscape. Miller went on to direct his version of The Spirit, which copped Sin City's look and failed miserably, lacking the originality of the other two adaptations.

Graphic novels, or comicbooks, work because of the spaces between the panels and how our minds fill those in. They give you some of the interpretive freedom of books or radio, with more of the visual fireworks of TV or film. It takes a certain amount of mental coding to read them, but that can be learned intuitively, and when a good unity between the words, layout and illustrations can be achieved, the story-telling is enhanced.

Simply sliding that on top of a film, the languages do not converse. Movies are all about seeing change, seeing it very closely. Just because one of the steps to creating them involves story-boarding doesn't mean that a medium that utilizes frames and composition will automatically translate. You're still filling in the white spaces. You're still animating the iconic.

When it comes to adapting a live show into a "graphic novel" context, there are a few examples from which to pull, but most of them take a fairly satirical (or lightly tongue-in-cheek) slant and have more to do with traditional superhero comics than more varied graphic storytelling. I was in a production of Stand-Up Tragedy in college for which the director brought the main character's comicbook imagination somewhat to life on stage with enormous puppet cut-outs, but that was for one sequence only and functioned rather more as a simple staging element than as anything functional.

Vampire Cowboys here in New York have done many a popular show using comicbook tropes, but these are largely original productions and focus on the combat elements (not a bad notion at least by the end of Richard III). I don't know of any examples specific to only the medium itself - not the characters within them, for example.

So anyway: why Richard III in this context? Perhaps we are thinking of him as a character similar to superheroes like Marvel's X-Men mutants, who are ostracized and persecuted for being different, said difference being what makes them special and powerful? Perhaps Richard's story is episodic enough to remind of serialized story-telling - there is a strong procession of scenes of mounting ambition and stakes. Perhaps we're thinking aesthetically of something that utilizes iconography, or stained-glass windows, both of which comic books owe something to.

Yet in discussing all this, what I'm struck by is a very different idea. Richard III reminds me of nothing so much as the trend in television over the last five years or so for highly successful, critically acclaimed shows to feature a main character who is morally flawed. Don Draper of Mad Men is a philanderer, Walter White of Breaking Bad is someone we've watched become (or simply come into being) a ruthless criminal, Dexter is a fracking serial killer, and a host of other shows have followed suit - Damages, Boss, etc. In other words, tragedy makes for great television. In terms of a contemporary hook for RIII, that's where my mind goes. Those shows are incredibly effective, and we root for some of the worst characters in them the hardest. Did this begin with Tony Soprano, or Richard the III?

I have no ideas, however, about how to invite those influences on a production. That's an entirely other conversation. One we should have soon!

In Defense of the Small Theatre

A popular phrase in the theatre addresses the generally accepted philosophy of a regularly working actor:

There are no small parts; merely small actors.

I confess to you now -- I have not even a small idea what this is supposed to mean. It has been quoted at me my entire life, and I have gone from bafflement to frustration and back again pondering the ambiguity of the saying. (Most theatre traditions seem intentionally ambiguous; the Freemasons have nothing on us.) Does it mean the actor that worries over the size of his or her part is a small-minded individual? Does it mean a part comes across as small only when the actor lacks sufficient panache with which to fulfill it? Does it in fact mean, "Listen kid: Ya' gotta start somewheres..."? (My theatre-authority inner-voice always sounds like a cigar-chomping box-office manager from the '40s Bronx.) I smile, and accept, and usually think,

Well, at least so-and-so's using theatre terms, so the form can't quite be on its dying gasp...

This weekend past I had the opportunity to see two shows, which inevitably invites comparison. One was rather modest in scale, the other a hugely financed Broadway play, transplanted from London. Now, these are not forces I consider to be in any sort of opposition to one another. Are Broadway shows a threat to regional theatre? God, no. Does regional theatre stand for some kind of principle against big-budget shows? Nope. So why am I writing about them together? What on earth could the Electric Theatre Company's production of

The Dining Room

have to do with Donmar Warehouse's of



Apart from both plays dealing with the passing of a way of life in some larger sense, very little. My comparison comes from a feeling of renewed appreciation for more intimate theatrical settings. It's very convenient, of course, for me to favor smaller theatres. ETC is where I do most of my work, after all, with its 99ish seats and relatively low-ceilinged performance space. Amor fati, as they say. Yet my appreciation of the venue in general goes beyond that, to much more objective criteria. I have to admit that the budgets are paper thin, the productions can be rocky and unrewarding as often as they are surprisingly professional and transportive -- this is the smaller theatre. Nothing is tried and true, not even the occasional Neil Simon imperative. I even love circus, and would like nothing more than to rig up ETC with trapezes and silks and slides, and it ain't gonna happen any time soon. Broadway can do that. I've seen it. Broadway can spend thousands of dollars on textured paint alone.

My biggest complaint about the production of


is one I would normally quickly let go of: to wit, the set. Who cares, right? Hardly the focus of any serious lover of Shakespeare. Yet it especially bothered me for its grandiose melancholy. The set was essentially very minimal: Virtually no furniture, except for moments when modest thrones were brought out on a small platform, and all was on stage level, except when a few panels were removed to accommodate the grave-digging scene. Huge, granite-looking castle walls ascend on all three sides of the playing area, with a similarly grandiose door at the back. The trouble with all this, as I saw it, was that it felt to me like the play was being dwarfed by gloomy nothingness. They achieved some very nice visual moments with snowfall outside the door, and shafts of light or the odd curtain, but for the most part the minimalism and darkness served not to aid the story but to point up how out of place such a human drama felt as it took place in a giant theatre. I would have loved to see the exact same show...only closer.


The Dining Room

, A.R. Gurney winds his exceedingly clever, heartfelt and economical way through various stages of dining room culture in America. The play is a standard, really, of theatre departments and regional theatres -- very accessible and good for a small cast. I performed in a shortened version myself in high school, one of the first shows I did there. The ETC production was very good, honoring all the humor notes and serious moments with equitable specificity without losing touch with the audience, nor playing it too out. What struck me the most about the show, however, was how inviting it felt.


worked rather hard at making us feel that we were involved in the action -- starting off with an image of a mourning Hamlet alone (or with us) in the middle of that huge stage, keeping him close to the proscenium throughout and even going so far as to put us on Polonius' side of the curtain for his eventual murder.


wanted us involved, but had to fight for it.

Dining Room

had us involved simply because we felt we were in the same room.

I am not saying that a theatre being small in scale or structure is a virtue unto itself. The theatre created there still needs to be and do good for its community, and certainly Broadway has to power to influence a far greater (in size, that is) community than any regional outfit. However, comparing these close experiences have allowed me to formulate a theory of which I'm fond. It's widely proposed that live theatre is dead or dying, and I can see many an example to support this belief. I don't believe it, personally, because I believe live theatre will always exist for humanity in some form or other as a part of what defines it. (That, and because I remain unmoved by the argument that "fiscally nonviable" equates to death.) However, there's little use in denying that theatre is rather unappreciated by the majority, at least as compared to its former glories. It is sad, for those of us who love and respect it, to see that our love is rare, but rare it is. We'll always be engaged in some degree of uphill battle to let theatre live. I acknowledge that struggle, the Sisyphean CPR, if you will.

Here is my theory: In this state of affairs -- and I doubt very much this is the first time theatre has had to widely fight for its right to party -- what matters most, what makes the most difference and does the best things for people, is so-called small theatre. There is where you'll feel your life changed. There is where a show fulfills its full potential, and where the dialogue really matters to all involved. Yes, there's every possibility that you'll be bored out of your mind or not believe in a moment of it, and that horrible risk is not levied at all by spectacular effects or the relative proximity of movie stars. But if you remember what it feels like to be opened up by a story, if you weigh the risk against the possibility, small theatre is the best bet. The possibilities in a space of a hundred or so are thousands of times greater than in a space of thousands. There is no small act of theatre, only small responses to it. In short (har har), small theatre is really, really damn important.

I'm thrilled to realize that.

Wrapping Up Romeo

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!


The actor is silent, twitching his fingers as if to draw something out, then upping the gesture until it is a furious, full-arm coaxing.


Arise, fair sun! And, and and...


The actor looks around himself frantically, finally spotting something in the distant horizon.


KILL the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she!


The actor gives a take to the audience as if to say, "

Wow, did you hear me come up with that?

" The actor is never sure if this take is going to land as he intends it {that is, as a gleeful sharing of enthusiasm rather than giving the sense that he's impressed with himself} and so, sometimes, he skips it. Sometimes.


I'll miss my clown Romeo. Though potentially not for long, as the Italians are very encouraging about getting some part (if not all) of the production to Italy to perform, either this summer or next. Still, the curtain has fallen on this particular outing, and it's unlikely that another will be quite the same. So. To review:

The key to my take on Romeo lay in a late note from our clown director, Mark McKenna. He compared Romeo to a puppy -- all loyalty and enthusiasm, no strategy or subtext. This worked great, though I'm sure another performer could have done it better. One of the greater challenges for me in this exploration was to let go of my calculation and crispness in favor of an instinctive openness. I've never done so well at this before, yet I'm certain I didn't take it as far as it could have successfully gone. (So I'll be thankful for another chance, or two.) Romeo had big, ungainly paws and an ear-flapping energy. Part of the beauty of this puppy imagery was that it gave permission to be angry as well as cuddly, which helped me figure out how a clown Romeo could slay a commedia dell'arte Tybalt. It's funny: I used to attribute an animal to every character I played, a technique I've gotten away from in my adult career. Of course playing such a young lover would end up being nested in that work!

Prior to that image, there was a lot of struggle on my part to succeed as a clown in the role and, as I said, my success was mitigated by me just being me. I remember in college my TV/film acting teacher told the class that I shouldn't be going after non-brainy roles, that my "look" or "type" was too focused for that. I thought,

thank goodness I'll be doing theatre, where I can more easily transform

, but the personality traits she was picking up on were perfectly valid. I'm a thinker. That's not to say I'm especially intelligent, just that I work from my head first whenever I can. Bad habit for an actor, generally speaking, which is part of what I like about trying to do this amazing craft. I like the work involved in getting instinctive, getting into my heart. That didn't save me from some fury-inducing frustration during this rehearsal process (natch'), but even that was reminiscent of my teenage years, and so wasn't entirely an obstacle.

I have come to a new appreciation of the axiom that "there is no subtext in Shakespeare." This is a saying so often said that it is starting to lose letters, holes appearing like new constellations in the firmament of phraseology. (And yes, I do miss the language already.) In the little roles I've previously filled, it was apparent to me that every character says what is on his or her mind, and nothing less, but it wasn't until trying to fill out a role like Romeo that I felt how essential that no-subtext rule is. You don't just say everything as you feel it, you express it, wholly, and the whole thing is in motion the whole time. There is no stop to your internal life, there is no censorship or, ultimately, room for grand interpretation. Take, for example, the following:

"This gentleman, the Prince's near ally, my very friend, hath got this mortal hurt in my behalf. My reputation stain'd with Tybalt's slander -- Tybalt, that an hour hath been my kinsman! Ah Juliet; thy beauty hath made me effeminate, and in my temper softened valor's steel."

This ended up being the text I most had to mess with, interpretation-wise. Somehow in the clown world and with our vasty cutting of the text, it needed to be an upbeat bit, in order to more dramatically drop in the moment when Benvolio came back with Mercutio's mask in hand to tell of his demise. It's right there: mortal hurt. Romeo's upset and knows that Mercutio's at death's door, yet I felt I had to play it lightly, as though Romeo were oblivious right up to the last second. It never felt right, and it never would, because there's only so much room for interpretation. The conditions are all right there in the text, and honesty lives in living them out in their time and measure.

Apart from a few other little alterations, I feel strongly that our show was very true to the story and the characters. There was some doubt of this to begin -- we didn't know if a clown & commedia world would work at all, much less whether it could be convincingly applied to


. (Note: Next time, Jeff, read through the play a couple of times before you get super excited about your concept....) We were lucky in discovering, in my opinion, that this concept was in fact well-suited to the material. Romeo and Juliet are just as innocent and moment-to-moment as clowns, and they are surrounded by a world of connivers, and scarred fighters, and hypocrites. And all these people are lovable, even the worst of them, which makes the tragedy truly, uh, tragic. You feel bad for


. It will be a while before I'll be able to see the play as anything other than how we conceived it. Indeed, watching film versions of it I'm compelled to laugh, especially during the back-to-back "banished" scenes. You can't expect me to believe that he wrote those without some sense of the comic irrationality of teenagers.

One criticism of the show lingers for me: That it was too manic, that the tragedy was ultimately undermined by all the broad comedy preceding it, and came off as too abrupt. This sticks with me because I feel quite the opposite. To me, life is like that. Tragedy is abrupt, and I meant every emotion prior to our characters' deaths, regardless of how comic the effect was, so I feel that there was plenty of room there to believe that something truly sad was happening. This critique is also interesting to me because, technically speaking,

Romeo & Juliet

is not exactly a tragedy. The deaths are quite accidental and unnecessary, rather than inevitable. There is no return to the status quo, true (the hallmark of classical comedy), but neither are the main characters of especially high status. Furthermore, it seems to me that Shakespeare


this, and spent some effort to counteract it. Of all the lines we cut, a great many were (I believe coincidentally) of a foreboding nature. Hardly a scene goes by without Romeo and/or Juliet saying something about a bad dream or sudden image of death. Methinks the playwright doth protest too much, in other words.

What we made, ultimately, was a very broad, structured comedy that aspired to inspire tragic catharsis at the end. I know we reached this aspiration for some, and not for others. Such is theatre, such is life. I feel very fulfilled, now all is said and done. It was not as I imagined it, but that's collaboration, and the show was probably better for it. I learned much, and kept learning, which I take as a sign that we were doing something right in terms of story and character. The audiences enjoyed themselves, and we achieved some measure of delight, surprise, and grief. It was funny, and it was beautiful, and if I never get to play another leading Shakespeare role again, I can happily hang my hat on this.

That's not my plan, though. I've got a taste for it now.