Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1999
“Most of what I say in an interview isn’t true,” says acclaimed actor Roger Rees, who’s directing “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Old Globe (September 4-October 9).
So caveat lector; let the reader beware.
What is true is that Roger Rees was born May 5, 1944 in Aberystwyth, Wales. On his Internet fansite, you can also learn that he’s a Taurus Sun, Libra Moon. Both signs are ruled by Venus (hence, according to Roger groupies, the “Venus gap” between his teeth).
In theater circles, he’s probably best known and perhaps most loved for his tenderhearted portrayal of the title character in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (which originated at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 and won him a Best Actor Tony Award on Broadway). He’s also instantly recognizable as the icy, wealthy, ruthless Robin Colcord on “Cheers.”
More recently, he appeared onscreen with Calista Flockhart in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and onstage with Uma Thurman in “The Misanthrope” and opposite former “Cheers” cohort Bebe Neuwirth in “The Taming of the Shrew” (a show he also adapted and directed, at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts).
But Rees was originally trained as a fine artist and lithographer. During his art school days, he took odd jobs painting scenery and studied stage design. Then he realized he had the acting urge, and one day his fantasies came true; on a moment’s notice, he was asked to fill in and go on.
In 1966, he joined the RSC for a lengthy apprenticeship, which he once described as “playing huntsmen and lords, standing at the back with some 20 other guys.” He left on a year-long tour of Canada with the Cambridge Theatre Company, but soon returned to Stratford and moved up the ranks at the RSC, tackling roles in Shakespeare and Chekhov plays, as well as his own (“Double Double,” co-written with Eric Elice).
Rees is also an accomplished director. He served as co-artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic for two seasons. This year, he adapted and directed Sheridan’s “The Rivals” at Williamstown and he directed last year’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Film Society.” In New York, he took on Lynn Nottage’s “Mud, River Stone” and Seth Greenland’s “Red Memories.”
He currently calls New York home, and he periodically lectures at Columbia University, but he also manages to be an adjunct professor at UCLA, and has held the Hoffman Chair of Drama at Florida State University.
Getting an interview means catching him on the fly and on the phone. His spare, sometimes smug, no-nonsense output comes in spurts, with long silences punctuated by sarcastic asides and salvos of opinion.
Why “The Merry Wives”?
“It’s a really great play.”
He’d acted in it several times in the Old Country. He’s especially fond of the 1601 comedy because of why it was written: Queen Elizabeth asked for a play about Falstaff in love. “I like it that she had a hand in it,” he says.
Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comical creations — a braggart soldier, a cynical realist, a fantastic liar, a persuasive rascal, an incorrigible lecher– had already appeared in the historical drama “Henry IV.”
In “Merry Wives,” Falstaff runs afoul of Mistresses Page and Ford, two married women said to control the purse-strings in their households. Seeking fortune as well as amorous adventure, he tries to seduce them both, writing them identical love letters, never imagining that they’ll compare notes. When they do, they vow to make a fool of him. In a climactic scene, he appears in a silly costume, expecting an assignation, but the women and their husbands have arranged for a group of friends, in disguise, to frighten and tease him to bits. All identities are revealed at the end, and in an atmosphere of good humor, Falstaff is forgiven.
“I think it’s a beautifully made farce,” Rees says. “One of Shakespeare’s great celebratory plays. It’s poignant, interesting, even educative. It’s about human foibles and people’s imaginations gone awry. And it’s too rarely seen. Quite difficult textually. Very dense. The characters speak colloquially in Elizabethan vernacular. It’s Shakespeare’s only play about the bourgeois people, the shopkeeping class, the ordinary man on the street.”
Rees has simplified some of the multiple subplots and set the piece in Windsor, Ontario. “I once spent two nights in Windsor,” he says. “It’s a very nice Canadian town, ruined by the fact that it’s so near America. It gets sucked into the American way of life.”
In Rees’ Windsor (designed by Ralph Funicello), much of the action takes place on a set that will be “like the back of a supermarket.” Falstaff, “kind of a scam artist,” is at the Garter Motel, a casino next to the airport.
Rees isn’t giving away much about the production, but he has gathered some fine talent for it: Ron Campbell as Dr. Caius, Jordan Baker as Mistress Ford, Jane Carr as Mistress Page, Peter Clendenin as Nym and Globe Associate Artists Dakin Matthers as Sir John Falstaff and Jonathan McMurtry as Justice Shallow.
He very much enjoys doing Shakespeare with American actors. “Some of the best Shakespeare I’ve seen in my life has been in this country.” So much for the disaffection of the Colonies.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.