Floyd and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with the Bard
Actors Floyd King and Ted van Griethuysen are mad about the Bard. They have nothing but good things to say about Shakespeare and not just because they are long-time members of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and teach at its Academy for Classical Acting.
To them, studying and acting Shakespeare is a most excellent adventure. Currently, the duo appears as the malaprop-spouting man of the law Dogberry (van Griethuysen) and his sidekick Verges (King) in the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing, playing at the Sidney Harmon Hall through January 1.
“We’ve been a couple—onstage, mind you—for 25 years,” said Mr. King, displaying the drollery and drop-dead timing that has secured him a berth as one of Washington’s most beloved comedic actors. “We walk into rehearsal and the first two weeks of work are done since our relationship is already established.”
They are no strangers to Much Ado, having performed in the play during the inaugural 1992 season of the Lansburgh Theatre, with Mr. King wearing the oversized buffoonish haberdashery that distinguishes Dogberry and Mr. van Griethuysen as Leonato, the governor of Messina.
“It was the first production at the Lansburgh and one of Michael’s [Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company] best,” said Mr. King during an interview at the theater during previews for Shakespeare’s romantic comedy that pits two older, but not wiser, lovers in a battle of wits and will. “We were so happy to be there. The Folger is pretty, but it was an acoustical nightmare.”
Mr. van Griethuysen’s waggles his distinguished profile enthusiastically at this comment about the acting company’s former digs. “An actor controls his volume by the sound that comes back to him,” he said. “That was nearly impossible because of the Folger’s very high ceilings and the architecture of the place. It was dusty too—layers of dust.”
“We think about this sort of thing so you don’t have to,” chimes in Mr. King.
The back-and-forth repartee between the two veteran actors reveals an ease in their relationship—Mr. King played the Fool to Mr. van Griethuysen’s Lear in a memorable 1999 production—and an affinity for both the nuts and bolts and more ephemeral aspects of acting.
“Dogberry has to be fat,” Mr. King said. “One cannot imagine a thin Dogberry. “ He likens the role, and that of the partner Verges, as a Laurel and Hardy study of contrasts—one strong, one weak; one tall and portly, one short and slight.
They are also gung-ho about director Ethan McSweeny’s approach to the play, swapping the Mediterranean heat of 16thcentury Italy for the tropical sultriness of 1930s Cuba. “There’s lots of music and Spanish and an Afro-Cuban feel to the production,” said Mr. King. “There is a fairytale ambiance that works well within the context of a Catholic family, whether they are Cuban or Italian.”
The two are also luxuriating in the show’s preview period—11 previews to the usual 5 or 6. “I always say that I learn my lines three times—the first time at home by myself, the second time in rehearsal, and the third time with the audience,” Mr. van Griethuysen noted. “Longer preview times make you more secure in what you’re doing—once you are onstage you can’t go around yelling ‘Line!’”
Well, never say never. The actor got to do just that during a recent staging of The Habit of Art at Studio Theatre. “I played an actor who had trouble remembering his lines,” he said. “I blew them myself from time to time and nobody knew. It was very relaxing to have a prompter right at hand.”
Although both Mr. van Griethuysen and Mr. King are regulars at Studio and other theaters, they are fond of being part of a company, especially ones who do plays in repertory. “With repertory companies, you are forced to grow – both comedically and dramatically because otherwise audiences would get tired of you,” Mr. King said.”
According to Mr. van Griethuysen, you stretch in other ways as well. “If you can really do Shakespeare, you can do anything. Shakespeare is the best training ground. Take Hamlet—my favorite role. It is the greatest test you will have as an actor and as a human being.”
“What you learn about people, it is a training ground in human nature. Shakespeare’s knowledge about human nature far exceeded others of his time and even today,” Mr. King commented. “My fantasy is that he’d be astonished his plays are still being done since he may have written them just to entertain audiences—it is that Jungian idea that genius does not have to know itself.”
However, Mr. van Griethuysen interjected, “if you have done these plays enough, you know the man, that he was able to see things in a way no one else did and never has. And you have to really know him—not just the plays, but the sonnets, The Rape of Lucrece and the relationships between the plays and the verse.”
“He is a complicated human being—you like some aspects of him and don’t like other aspects,” he continued. “Again, look at his Hamlet, another complicated human being. If you don’t know how to play the part, you get angry at Shakespeare and at yourself. And the world has seen quite enough angry Hamlets.”
A common mistake young actors make playing Hamlet is portraying him as a sarcastic pup. “Sarcasm doesn’t work with Shakespeare,” said Mr. King. “Ironic, yes, but not sarcastic.”
The difference, he feels, is in intention. “Irony is used to reveal, to teach. Sarcasm just hurts.”
This philosophy informs the work of both actors. “Shakespeare never used the humor of contempt. It was always the human kind and the comics I admire today—people like Billy Crystal—have that sense of love and lack of meanness,” Mr. King said.
Mr. van Griethuysen noted that his friend displays this same sense of comedy. “Floyd and I go through the same day and we never have the same experience. All of these funny things happen to him, but never to me.”
To Mr. King, comedy is a matter of perspective. “It’s how I look at things. When you are being funny or find something humorous you inadvertently reveal something about yourself.”
This remark makes Mr. van Griethuysen smile. “Someone once said to me, ‘Tell me what you think is funny and I’ll tell you what you fear the most’.”
DCTS review of Much Ado About Nothing.