Monday, March 12, 2012

Mark Rylance: Everyman in Extremis

Mark Rylance in Measure for Measure, at the Globe Theatre in 2004.

A friend who saw Christopher Walken play William Hurt’s roommate in the original Broadway production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly in the mid-eighties once told me that Walken was so utterly relaxed that he scarcely seemed to be acting at all. My friend described a moment when Walken, in the middle of listening to a conversation, looked down at his watch, conveyed that he was late for a meeting, and disappeared, his rhythm so natural and free of even the subtlest dramatic rigging that it looked as if he’d improvised it – decided at that moment, on that evening, to leave the stage. I’ve seen Walken on stage twice, and I can imagine what my friend was talking about. Both times he was playing Chekhov, whose brand of naturalism demands that performers throw off theatrical self-consciousness and bury themselves in their characters. When he played Astrov in Uncle Vanya at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late Nineties, he executed one of the two most sublime drunk scenes I’ve ever seen live (the other was by Alan Bates in another Russian work, Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool, on Broadway, the last play he appeared in before he died), and its special quality of improbably sustained distraction, the feeling of not just balancing on eggshells but pirouetting on them, was the result of an almost Zen intensity of relaxation.

Actors call this kind of spontaneity, which derives from a thorough and acute awareness of the dramatic situation and the energies of the other actors on the stage and a focus so complete that it seals out any other world – even in the presence of a live audience – acting in the moment. Mark Rylance possesses that ability in a greater degree than any other actor I’ve ever seen, even including Walken. Rylance is a Midwesterner but he’s spent so much of his career (which spans more than three decades) in London that audiences can be forgiven for thinking he’s a Brit: he was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for ten years, where he famously played Hamlet and Angelo in Measure for Measure, and his last Broadway role, as the alcoholic trailer dweller Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, is an English play that originated in London's Royal Court Theatre. His technique transcends national distinctions. It’s steeped in the kind of physical fluency that the British are far more deft at than Americans, yet when you see him in a comedy he seems to be continuing the legacy of the great silent movie clowns. Not so much Chaplin (who, of course, hailed from the English music hall) as Keaton, and even more the lesser-known but brilliant Harry Langdon – seen at his best in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and the two comedies he did for Frank Capra, The Strong Man and Long Pants – whose persona was the most debased and battered of them. In Matthew Warchus’s 2008 Broadway revival of Boeing-Boeing (also a transplant from the West End, with only Rylance repeating his performance), Rylance suggested some loopy hybrid of Langdon and a maddened Alec Guinness from his Ealing Studios days (I’m thinking especially of Guinness’s performance in The Man in the White Suit), an Everyman in extremis whose panic and determination have pitched him right on the edge of hysteria.

Missi Pyle & Mark Rylance in Boeing-Boeing, in 2008
I caught up with Boeing-Boeing only recently, at the New York Public Library’s archive. My introduction to Rylance was a year and a half ago in David Hirson’s verse comedy La Bête (also directed by Warchus, who would be my personal choice to stage any comedy anywhere), where he appeared with David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley and, from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, Stephen Ouimette. The play, about rival playwrights in the era of Molière, begins as an amusing trifle but deteriorates rapidly after intermission into an intolerably self-righteous lecture on art and commercialism in the theatre. But the real show is the contrasting styles of Rylance and Hyde Pierce, who suggest a collision of low-down clowning and high comedy. Not that Rylance is any slouch when it comes to manipulating the play’s rhyming couplets, which, in imitation of Richard Wilbur’s iambic pentameter translations of Molière, dance to the end of every line like speeded-up minuets. Valère, Rylance’s character, is a boor of stupefying magnitude, and the joke at the heart of the performance is the tension between the elegant formality of his verse and the grossness of his behavior. Nowhere is that contrast clearer than in the twenty-five-minute monologue he discharges in the first act, nattering on heedless of the increasing discomfort, disgust, annoyance and eventually fury of his reluctant host, Hyde Pierce’s Elomire. A twenty-five minute speech – Jesus Christ. And Rylance defies whatever gravity adheres to theatrical performance by making it funnier as it goes along, not only through a seemingly bottomless vocal and physical inventiveness but also – and most importantly – through what seems like an impossibility: that he’s as blissfully relaxed throughout as a jubilant drunk whose body has forgotten it has nerves. His floating obliviousness is a wonderful comic metaphor for Valère’s narcissism, which is so enormous and flamboyant that it’s a spectacle, sui generis, like a zeppelin.

Rylance is even more phenomenal in Boeing-Boeing. The play is an artifact from the swinging sixties, a French farce by Marc Camoletti that, in an English translation by Beverley Cross, ran for seven years in London. (It bombed on Broadway but was made into a Hollywood movie with Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis in 1965.) Like most farces, it’s a cipher filled in with increasingly frantic shtick. The premise is that Bernard (Bradley Whitford in the Broadway production) is simultaneously engaged to three women, each a stewardess of a different nationality and affiliated with a different airline, who call his Paris apartment home whenever they’re in town. None of them knows about the other two, but inevitably in the course of the play all three show up at the same time. Rylance plays Robert, an old friend of Bernard’s who comes to visit and gets caught up in Bernard’s machinations to keep the three women from encountering one another. And that’s all there is to it; there’s barely any plot. Yet the revival, with its cast of nutcakes (Mary McCormack, Gina Gershon and Kathryn Hahn play the stewardesses, and Christine Baranski, under a razor-cut brunette wig, is the incredulous French maid) is peerlessly ridiculous. Farce has rarely been this loose-limbed; the actors cavort like merry lunatics let out of the asylum, and physically they, especially the three stewardesses, also suggest comic-strip figures brought to life. (They never seem to stop moving; they even samba through the curtain call.) Most of the scenes are pas de deux and Rylance gets to partner everyone except Gershon, though the show’s highlight is an extended episode between him and McCormack (as the German, Gretchen) that’s in the same class as the teamwork of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on live TV in the fifties or Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman in the sixties. I can think of no higher compliment.

Mark Rylance, Bradley Whitford, and Gina Gershon
Rylance makes a marvelous comic entrance into Bernard’s Paris pad, the site of the kind of sexual hijinks that a buttoned-down fellow like Robert could only dream of. He looks like a refugee from the Eisenhower era in his brown suit and caramel sweater, and painfully ill at ease; he holds his attaché case close to his chest as if it were a shield that might protect him from the flying debris from his pal’s crazy life. His long face drips down toward his feet – it looks as if he’d had it pressed along with his shirt – and his eyebrows don’t match: the right one comes in at a different angle and practically jabs his eye. The effect is anguished deadpan, as if someone had punctured his tires. He tends to talk slowly, as if he had trouble pulling out the words, and they trail off as his rhythms wind down like a record on an old Victrola. Rylance uses his Midwestern flatness as a comic device, stretching out certain words, but then he sometimes speeds up the rest of the line as if it suddenly occurred to him that he was running behind and had to catch up. And just as unexpectedly, his words drift off, tumbling into mid-air, or he stops dead in the middle of a line, paralyzed with befuddlement, as if he either can’t figure out what the hell to say next or can’t believe where his mouth his taken him . He has the most bizarre musicality: he can get a laugh out of a line like “Family life – it’s a wonderful thing” just by giving it a sing-song cadence – exactly what any vocal coach would tell an actor not to do, but Rylance is a genius, so rules simply don’t apply to him. (Another example: his voice never goes up when he asks a question.) When Bernard’s description of his lifestyle revs Robert up, Rylance starts to parrot his friend’s phrases, his voice high and piping like that of a zonked tweety-bird. And because Whitford’s style is basically a hipster variation on high comedy and because he’s such an animated performer (the combination made him the perfect choice for The West Wing, with its verbal banter played at exuberantly accelerated pace), he and Rylance are an inspired match of opposites.

The running gag around this character is that while he’s so committed to helping his friend preserve his idiotic balancing act that he’s in constant terror lest one of the women find out about one of the other two, the situation also turns him on. Rylance’s physical performance is based on the tension between old habit and new-found desire, so his body often seems to be at war with itself, one part lunging into activities that the other part can’t fathom and even finds frightening. When Robert has to keep Gabriella, the Italian (Gershon), out of Bernard’s bedroom, he hurls a bean-bag chair in front of the door, then pounds the couch, practically throwing himself over it, while his face registers a mixture of amazement and horror. Later, performing the same task with Gloria, the American (Hahn), he tears off a series of mock-macho riffs, beating his chest, caveman style, waving his hands around as if he were shooting off invisible guns, and even slapping her ass, but he also looks baffled, as if some other man had taken over his body. When Mary McCormack’s Gretchen plants a kiss on him he twists himself around underneath her, then pulls up his body so it looks like he’s playing an invisible saxophone; after they split apart he backs up warily, like a boxing-ring combatant dancing away from his opponent after the referee has pulled them apart. McCormack is ridiculously huge and predatory as Gretchen – she does this bizarre thing with her big lips, blowing them out and then pulling them back to show off her teeth – so you almost fear for Robert’s physical well-being when she goes for him. (Even her hair is aggressive: some of it is brushed up into a thick lump and the rest is braided around in a sort of crown that looks like whipped cream spray-painted gold.) Their interaction is so oddball that it goes over the edge into absurdism: Ionesco played for sheer laughs.

Rylance can probably play anything, but watching him in Jerusalem I realized that there were some things I didn’t want to see him play. This is a minority opinion, but I’d say that neither the material nor Ian Rickson’s direction does him any favors. Jerusalem is a big-boned, bardic three-act play set among the Wiltshire underclass and though the writing shows a great deal of talent and wit (I enjoyed the first act and a half), it’s self-conscious and inflated and it doesn’t know when to stop. By the time Rooster staggers out of his trailer in act three after being beaten and tortured by some local toughs and finds his little boy waiting for him, you’re about ready to come out with your hands up and beg Butterworth to call a halt. And Rylance is strapped to this thing; he has to keep blowing himself up along with the play. You have to admire him for his stamina and invention, but I didn’t get much pleasure out of sitting through so masochistic a performance. Rylance doesn’t need a role that makes him push for his effects. This is an actor who really thrives when he’s loose and free.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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