Monday, June 23, 2008

Will Dennehy Sell Out?

Kathy Rumleski for Sun Media:

"He meanders on stage with a wrinkled suit and a stagger in his step.

"This loud, vexatious characters is not somebody you could stand long. The man behind the mask, though, is the draw.

"American film and stage icon Brian Dennehy couldn't have picked a better time to make his Stratford Shakespeare Festival debut, along with his friend and comrade Joe Grifasi, who lends quite a bit of star power of his own.

"A Canadian dollar that these days hovers at par, climbing gas prices and concerns about border wait times have seemingly conspired to drive down attendance at the festival, which relies on Americans purchasing tickets besides the Canadian attendance.

"Sales have decreased from last year at the repertory theatre, despite production after production receiving praise from the critics.

"The packed Studio Theatre crowd in this preview hangs on Dennehy's every word in Hughie, where he shares the stage with Grifasi, a quiet night clerk -- and then in his one-man presentation of Krapp's Last Tape on the same bill.

"'I think everybody's here to see Brian,' one woman says. 'Not so much the show.'

"Dennehy and Grifasi are perplexed that people wouldn't flock to this 'extraordinary' institution.

"'There is no place like this anywhere in the world,' Dennehy says, mentioning the wonderful support system in place, which includes voice and movement coaches and access to dramaturges (to provide historical and social context for texts).

"'The lighting people, the sound people . . . they have the most extraordinary costume setup I've ever seen. I've worked in a lot of big Broadway productions [Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night to name the two which garnered him Tony awards] and I've never seen anything like this. The ambitions are extraordinary.'

"Grifasi, 64, who first met Dennehy, 69, in 1978 and has worked with him numerous times in film (F/X, Presumed Innocent), TV (Jack Reed) and on stage, including doing Hughie two other times in Chicago and Providence, calls it an 'actor's spa.'

"He signed on for coaching in the Alexander technique, which empowers the actor to become aware of the physical habits that impede performance and improve breathing and vocal production to allow fuller emotional expression.

"In the 1960s when Grifasi wanted to become a stage actor, he'd travel from Buffalo, his hometown, to Stratford to see performances.

"'I saw my first great theatre here. It changed my life.'

"He made his escape from Buffalo after being inspired by festival productions, determined to act.
"It was Christopher Plummer who brought Dennehy to Stratford to work and Dennehy who brought Grifasi here.

"Plummer and Dennehy worked together in New York a year ago in Inherit the Wind.

"'Chris said something to (Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff) about me and Des said something to me about it and we figured out what we could do,' Dennehy says.

"He enjoys the combination of Samuel Beckett and Eugene O'Neill and he's challenged by their scripts.

"'One thing I learned . . . is that a great play never stops revealing itself to you. In many ways it's harder to do it the second or third time because you find it very difficult to satisfy yourself.'

"Grifasi said Canadians seem to enjoy the language of the two plays. 'There's an ear for this stuff here. There's a lot going on out there.'

"As the pair settle in for their interview, Grifasi looks comfortable in jeans, sneakers and a golf shirt and his appearance, including his warm face, make others relax.

"Dennehy, who appears to have lost weight even since opening night on May 26, is somewhat strained. He has taken off the crumpled suit and is wearing a pink dress shirt, beige shorts and ball cap.

"'It's busy. You get here as an actor and you're going, six, five days a week,' Dennehy says. 'Typically for American actors, you're working on one show at a time. In rep you don't do this. In my case, I have three. The (double bill) is difficult enough, especially with two playwrights as extraordinary as O'Neill and Beckett.

"'Then you have the most demanding of all -- Shakespeare. I don't have that much experience, hardly any, doing Shakespeare, so I'm trying to catch up.'

"He referred to himself as the worst basketball player on the team in the cast of All's Well That Ends Well, in which he plays the King of France.

"In the similar way that Dennehy's character Erie Smith needs Hughie the night clerk, Dennehy clearly likes having Grifasi, whom he calls Joey, around.

"They take jabs at each other back and forth, back and forth, almost like its rehearsed they've done it so often -- mostly on this day about Joe's nose. Dennehy has Grifasi to do some of the talking in an interview; takes the load off.

"After his work day is done, Dennehy calls Grifasi on his cell phone to find out where he is. Grifasi is on his way home to the place he rents in Stratford, which has a garden. 'My first garden,' he says proudly, adding that it's an old-fashioned Italian vegetable garden like the one his father, who died this year, had.

"Besides their love of acting, their many projects together, their working-class and Catholic backgrounds, the men both served their country -- and if that doesn't create a bond, nothing will.

"'We got talking one day. He was a marine, I was in the army. We had both served on the same island, almost overlapping. A little Pacific island called Okinawa and it's ironic that we were both there,' Grifasi relates the little story, that comes out of nowhere in a conversation, but seems to fit, nevertheless.

"It's a privilege to watch them on and off the stage. If you get the chance to do one or the other or both -- 'cause it's hard for them to hide in Stratford and neither wants to -- take it.

"'People should come,' Dennehy says."

Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie open together June 28 at the Studio Theatre and run through August 31.

Brian Dennehy also appears in All's Well That Ends Well (June 27-August 23) at the Festival Theatre.

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