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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 12, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Rethinking Classic Drama
Once again Tony Award-winning actor Blair Brown finds
herself communicating with the spirit world. Although it has been
quite a few years since she was able to talk to ghosts as the title
character in the TV series "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd"
(1987-’91), Brown is being asked to recall her sense of magic. This
time, not as Prospero, the wizard, but as Prospera the wizardress,
in Emily Mann’s groundbreaking production of Shakespeare’s "The
Tempest" at McCarter Theater.
Watch out for a determined woman with a wand. The all-powerful role
that has traditionally been the domain of male actors has now been
re-envisioned by Brown and director Mann as a woman. If Brown were
asked (and I restrained myself) if there is any possible connection
between Prospera and Molly Dodd, would she not say that both characters
are famous for making some interesting career choices while struggling
with strange and complex characters within a context of magical realism.
Opening night for "The Tempest" is Friday, February 14.
Two years ago, when Brown appeared at the McCarter in Athol Fugard’s
"Sorrows and Rejoicings," she raised the idea with Mann of
playing King Lear as a woman. Unlike many of the renowned actresses
of the past (she cites Sarah Bernhardt, in particular) who played
the great Shakespearean male roles, she recalls that only one of her
contemporaries — Diane Venora — has played Hamlet. "What
happened to us women actors? The male parts are so much richer,"
she said, making her pitch to Mann. Mann’s reply: "We’ll talk."
A few months later, it was Mann who was making the pitch to Brown.
This time, however, it was not Lear that Mann had in mind for Brown,
but Prospero. The result is the first American production of "The
Tempest" where the lead character is Prospera, not the traditional
"We only have to change a few pronouns," Brown recalls Mann
saying. As the project unfolded, the value of changing Prospero’s
sex (and changing the character’s title from the Duke to the Duchess
of Milan) became apparent.
"It was like watching ice crack and seeing the splits go off in
different directions," says Brown. "It’s interesting now to
see Prospera as the sole caretaker of her child Miranda, who is becoming
an adult and must be prepared for marriage and for leaving home. For
many women, this is the time when you re-think your life."
Playing a female who has learned to control nature, Brown concedes
that she sees the role as part of a natural alliance and chemistry
that exists between being a woman and Mother Nature.
"There are definitely poetic aspects in seeing Prospera as a Mother
Earth figure rather than simply a wizard," she says. Also changed
is the nature of Prospera’s relationship with Calaban; Brown finds
the switch casts light on the sensual aspect of a mother and son relationship.
Because "The Tempest" is a very abstract and malleable type
of play, in which what we see is often not there, I asked Brown if
she possibly thought of Prospero as a shape-shifter capable of changing
his sex at will. "It’s an interesting thought," she replies.
"Emily and I did make up a sort of wizard handbook with the things
that Prospera can and can’t do. We know there are things that Ariel
can do that Prospera can’t do."
Since Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed exclusively
by men and boys, Brown says all roles are now fair game. She says
that more than any major classical playwright — such as Ibsen
— "Shakespeare is one you can really be free with."
Brown says she has often questioned directors as to why a particular
character she wished to play had to be male. She was usually told
that the part would have to be re-written. "And I would answer
why? Even if it’s a romantic situation, men and women often say the
same things," she says.
"Although I asked to also play the Fool when I was playing Cordelia
in `Lear’ at the Guthrie Theater, I was turned down," says Brown.
Last summer, the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival did cast "Lear"
in just that way, with Alicia Goranson in the double roles of Cordelia
and the Fool.
Describing her role as Prospera, Brown says, "It’s very curious
to play a part written for a man without changing any of what is said
and done — seeing what recedes and what becomes important."
"Most parts for women in the classical repertory are all about
`Does he love me?’ `Why doesn’t he love me?’ or `I don’t love him.’
Male parts deal with power, knowledge, mortality, and love."
Brown admits that playing Prospera has given her a hunger
to play more of the juicier male roles in dramatic literature. She
also allows that playing Margrethe in "Copenhagen" in support
of Philip Bosco and Michael Cumpsty was an amazing experience. "I
wouldn’t have missed it for the world, despite that fact that I would
have preferred to play one of the men," she says with a laugh.
Earlier in her career, the Blair Brown who now welcomes the challenge
of such great dramatic literature was mostly lauded for her great
looks. She made her film debut in "The Choirboys" in 1977
and came into her own as a leading lady opposite William Hurt in "Altered
States" which included a nude scene. She subsequently appeared
with John Belushi in "Continental Divide" and "The Astronaut’s
Nevertheless, for this observer, it is on the stage that Brown shines
most brightly. Her New York stage roles include "The Comedy of
Errors" for the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park,
"The Threepenny Opera" on Broadway, Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia"
at Lincoln Center Theater, and as Frau Schneider in "Cabaret."
Interestingly, it was playing a role that playwright David Hare wrote
for her in the film "Strapless," that inspired him to write
his stage play "The Secret Rapture" specifically for her.
If Brown received accolades for her role in the musical version of
James Joyce’s "The Dead," she had the critics doing handsprings
over her performance in "Copenhagen," for which she won the
2000 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Most recently she played
Desiree Armfeldt in the acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim’s "A
Little Night Music," in Washington, D.C.
"An actor follows where the work takes him," says Brown, who
grew up in Washington, where her father worked for the CIA and her
mother was a schoolteacher. Her television credits include the NBC
miniseries "Captains and the Kings" (1976) and the award-winning
"Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years" in 1977. She
thinks perhaps it was having dressed up like Jackie Kennedy as a child
that helped her win the role of Jackie in the 1983 NBC miniseries
Instead of going to college ("I hated school") when she was
entertaining the idea of being a doctor, Brown whimsically applied
to the National Theatre School of Canada. A role in the revue "Love
and Maple Syrup" in Ottawa led to employment with the Stratford
Shakespeare Festival Company.
Brown’s son Robert Jordon (from her marriage to the late actor Richard
Jordon) is a student at Yale. When I ask if he is thinking about acting,
Brown replies, "It’s not unlikely. Lately he has been taking time
off from Yale to study Chinese anthropology and screenwriting at Columbia."
Brown says her mother will travel to Princeton to see her perform
in "The Tempest," even though she expects she will cry all
the way through, as mothers often do. No doubt the result of the magic.
— Simon Saltzman
night for production that runs to March 2. $40 to $47. Friday,
February 14, 8 p.m.
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