Behold the King.
He is standing in front of a boiling, roiling thunderstorm (“Blow, wind! And crack your cheeks!”), beard laced with iron, wild hair crowned with an even wilder laurel (or perhaps it is a crown of thorns). Also, he is in his undershirt. (“An epic parent-child drama and then some,” the WSC Avant Bard website calls it.)
This is Lear, the mighty King, self-disposessed, who now wanders his former Kingdom like a beggar. This is also the formidable actor who will play him three weeks from our meeting. He is sitting across from me at the Red Apron Butcher in Penn Quarter, eating a classic burger with an arugula salad, set off with a nice white.
“He’s old and tired and he says, to [his] sons-in-law, I leave all the trappings of majesty,” Foucheux explains. “You can have the power, you can have the sway, you can have the revenue, you can have the execution of the rest. All I want is the name and all the additions to a King. I guess that means, I still want my limousine, I still want my staff, and he expects to get it.”
Foucheux is talking about Lear, who opens the play by surrendering his Kingdom to his daughters and spends the rest of the play regretting it. But he could be talking about himself, too.
After he completes his run in the most difficult role in the Shakespearean canon, Rick Foucheux will retire. He knows it will be hard.
“Believe me, I know what [Lear’s] talking about when he says I don’t want to be king anymore,” he says. “But by the way, I still want to be king.”
But he means it when he says he’s retiring (although he may do some Equity daytime shows in children’s theater for insurance purposes). “I am tired and I do have other things on my docket. I do want to spend more time with my family.” Foucheux is a three-time grandfather, with a fourth on the way.
He took a trial retirement last year, to see how it might go. “I was off for the last six months of last year, after the Anna Zeigler play [Another Way Home] at Theater J. I didn’t do anything at all from July on and didn’t miss it a bit. Went out to dinner with my wife and my friends, sat on the couch, caught up on TV shows, and reading.” He did some traveling, too, including the Galapagos Islands.
It went well.
Foucheux’ retirement will mark the end of a storied career; the Helen Hayes Award he won on Monday for playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Round House was the fifth he’s earned as lead or supporting actor; he has been nominated thirteen times since 2000, and four times in the last four years. Did he ever imagine he’d make such a mark? Foucheux shakes his head.
“I was eaten up with it [when he was a young actor]. I didn’t feel I was getting my due. I didn’t feel like I was getting the roles I deserved, I wasn’t landed. I didn’t know who I was. Not only as an actor but pretty much as a person as well. I had a lot of growing up to do. When I turned 30 and onward. And if I could have been sitting in my living room chair crying, as I often did, and have myself now appear to me, I wouldn’t believe it.”
He had an unusual challenge as a young actor. He had begun his career in television, and eventually he came to host a morning show. They put him up against Phil Donohue, with predictable results. He decided to try something new. He could have taken on an easy profession, such as brain surgeon, but decided to try acting instead.
“Sitting there, back in those dark days, thinking, oh my God, this is so hard, this will never happen, I don’t know, I’m doing everything I know how, I’m working hard, I’m trying to be the best I can, I’m being introspective, I’m trying to put it into — and I still wasn’t getting ahead…I wish I would have heard those people who said, Rick, calm down, brother, calm down. Believe me, it’s going to work out, it’s going to work out.”
So, from that perspective, I ask, what would you say to a young actor, starting out in the work?
He looks me dead in the eyes. “Not to take it so seriously,” he says.
* * *
Conceiving a back story for King Lear
So if we are truly going to lose the talents of one of Washington’s best actors, it behooves us to learn how he works, for the instruction of others. He has formulated a preliminary estimate of Lear’s character: a good King, well loved, but prone to errors of judgment flowing from ego.
“I think he was a good King,” Foucheux says. “I envision Lear in a Thursday night poker game with Kent and Gloucester and the Fool for years and years and years. And during the day he managed the Kingdom perfectly fine and he was a wonderful King. And everybody loved him. And he took great advice from these people. And he held them close, as intimates. And at night they would party, and have a fun time. They were very close.”
At the same time, though, Lear has had thoughts about himself which lead him to calamity. “He was always destined to be King. I think he was King from a very early age. And he really considered himself a divine King. So he is King because he’s great, not great because he’s King…coming up, I think that not only was he narcissistically fond of the notion that he was born to be King, but that he has managed that well. He’s been a responsible caretaker of the Kingdom.”
Foucheux sympathizes with Lear, but does not sentimentalize him. He knows that the King has made terrible mistakes, all flowing from ego. And the things he demands in retirement make him obnoxious.
“I just want to be called King.” Foucheux is paraphrasing Lear’s demands to his two successors, Regan and Goneril. “And I want to have all the money and I want to be able to stay at your house and have a hundred of my best friends over for drinks every night.”
Foucheux has identified this demanding retiree with a figure from his own life. “You know, my mother was a bookkeeper in a plumbing supply joint way down in Houma, Louisiana. And it was a family-owned business, and the head of the family retired. He was bad enough when he was running the place, but he was even worse when he retired. And still came back…he just walked around with his cigar, looking over everybody’s shoulders. Drove her nuts. So I think that’s very much what you’re talking about.”
This is the actor’s process, of course; to identify elements in the play from their own experiences. Or from other works: “I didn’t know this play very well before [Director] Tom [Prewitt] nailed me to the wall on it…I started my initial homework and I could see immediately why everybody said this is the great play, this is the great work of the English language. And I think some of that is because so many other works filter out of it.” He observes that “there are similarities with Willie Loman. There are similarities with Big Daddy. Dividing up the Kingdom; being disappointed by the children; look at everything I set you up to have, and now you don’t want it, or now you’re screwing it up.” He also found similarities with Matthew Harrison Brady, the doomed prosecutor in Inherit the Wind, who was based on the real-life Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.
May 25 – June 25, 2017
Details and tickets
Not everything is resolved yet. For example, consider Lear’s rejection of his youngest daughter, Cordelia:
“One of the hardest things I’ve had, Tim, is to figure out how he makes that switch, in the very first moment when he says ‘Cordelia’s my favorite. My joy.’ Then, with only a simple negative answer that he doesn’t like, he turns, and rips completely. So I’ve wrestled with how does that happen. I’ve even thought about maybe he’s already had an argument with Cordelia, and he comes into the first scene at the beginning of the play knowing full well that she’s going to disrespect him. And that will give him reason to banish her. I investigated that; doesn’t seem to work.”
He’s still working on that one. He’s had more success exploring another mysterious aspect of the play: Lear’s seemingly insane mutterings when he is on the cliffs of Dover with Gloucester.
“There is that moment with he and Gloucester…he’s babbling, and there seems to be non sequiturs everywhere…Interestingly, last night…we talked about the Fool’s influence on Lear and how some of these non sequiturs and some of these things that might appear to be babbling from the King are in fact echoes of things that the Fool has said…Who is this character, the fool? Is he already a voice in Lear’s head? And nothing more?”
That moment of jittering intimacy between Lear and Gloucester will be made more intense because not only will the character of Gloucester be played by a woman, Cam Magee, but the character of Gloucester will be a woman. (The character of Edgar will also be played by a female actor, Sara Barker, but she will play him as a young man.)
Foucheux understands what that means to the production. “We are going to go there, I think. I think there’s some past romantic intrigue in our production between Lear and Gloucester. And when they meet on the cliffs of Dover, and Gloucester’s eyes are gone, and Lear is babbling, I think their ability to hang on to each other and have an intimate physical moment is a bit of an anchor for them both. Even though — and we have to be careful with that, because it brings questions up about what the professional relationship is like…she’s a trusted confidante and a trusted member of the staff, maybe even a trusted chief of staff. Maybe when they were experimenting with their intimacy early on, they said, this ain’t gonna work, it’s better for us to be friends and associates than it is for us to be lovers. And this now is a chance to go back and revisit that question. Not to be coy or cagey.”
* * *
Foucheux’ opportunity to work with Magee gives us a peek at why this highly sought-after actor is ending his career with an appearance at WSC Avant Bard, a small company with an impeccable reputation but a modest budget. “It’s really, absolutely thrilling for Cam and myself to do that. To be sitting there and crying and holding each other and thinking of all the years since Cam and I were in a play together in 1983 — it was our first production for both of us in Washington. It was R.U.R.” — Rossum’s Universal Robots — “at Woolly… I played a robot, and she played the nanny of the human, and in an attempt to rid this world of these evil robots, lured me into a sandbox and set me on fire.” You tend to remember the ones who set you on fire, Foucheux allowed.
WSC Avant Bard “was the only theater I had not worked in. In almost 35 years here. I always missed it before my Equity days, and once I signed with Equity” they couldn’t afford him.
“I really like Tom Prewitt. He and I worked together in the past, and he’s a good friend. And I like the people of that company, many of whom never went Equity, and so I stopped being able to act with them…The likes of Ian Armstrong, Cam Magee — although Cam was Equity for a while, and chose to leave it. And I had worked with Christopher Henley. But Ian, and Christopher, and Cam, and Tom, I thought, you know, if all this noise about my retiring, if that’s really going to happen, what could be better than to grab one more chance with those guys. Who I think are terrific, wonderful actors.”
He likes the company’s ethos, too. “I’ve seen their shows…and they’ve always embraced this notion that theater can be done in a broom closet. And sometimes it’s better that way…you’ll be thrilled to see the set, an egg-shaped wing that we’ll be performing in…It’s…maybe twenty feet across, thirty feet long, it’s in the shape of an egg, and it’s bordered by a low wall; it looks like an old Roman ruin. It’s going to be the height of — you know how you went to the circus, when you were a boy, and there were three rings, divided by these low circular walls that they would have to move out to bring things in and out of? That sort of a set. The center is this granular reconditioned rubber that they put on playgrounds these days. So that it’s almost the consistency of sand, but it’s not messy like sand. It’s not dusty and dirty. And it’s going to be thick.”
I asked him about the concept which gave rise to the set. “In addition to the low Roman ruins there’s a plinth in the middle that looks like a powerful Roman ruin or something. Suspended overhead are exploded pieces of a geodesic dome. So we have a feeling that some sort of apocalypse has occurred, and all the ages have been destroyed. That said, ]Prewitt] hasn’t told us that ‘we’re doing this in the year 3037’ or whatever. This is not a futuristic look at the play, or something. But it is an anywhere, anytime kind of a feeling.”
So: the greatest role in the canon, as part of the greatest play in the canon, done with old friends and admired colleagues in a theater known for the way it challenges the imagination; with one of his character’s most important relationships changed in a significant way: a feast for his skill and creativity. Is he sure he wants to retire?
“My poor long-suffering wife has spent enough weekends, you know, not being able to go to dinner parties because she didn’t want to be a single — not that she’s ever complained. She’s been perfect. But…I spent enough nights in the theater. I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve loved every moment of it, and I’ve loved the great opportunities I’ve had, I’ve been blessed… [I] have a lot of travel lined up.”
But then he warns me: “Well, be careful, because, a year and a half from now, two years from now…I might say, oh my God, I can’t believe I said that, I want my kingdom back!”
We can only hope.