By May S. Ruiz
A Noise Within opens its Spring event with William Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ going on in repertory from February 9 until April 11. Directed by Geoff Elliott, it features Frederick Stuart as Leontes, Trisha Miller as Hermione, Brian Ibsen as Polixenes, Jeremy Rabb as Camillo, Deborah Strang as Paulina, Angela Gulner as Perdita, and Alan Blumenfeld as Antigonus/shepherd, Alexander de Vasconcelos Matos as Florizel, Jayce Evans as Mamillius, Eric Flores as young shepherd/ensemble, Matthew Faroul as lord/ensemble, Katie Rodriguez as Emilia, Robert Anaya, Christopher Barajas, and Thomas Chavira.
‘The Winter’s Tale’ tells the story of Sicilian King Leontes who, in a fit of jealousy, orders the death of his friend Polixenus and sends his wife Hermione to prison only to find out that he was entirely mistaken. He spends the next 16 years atoning for his sin and is redeemed in the end.
One late afternoon before rehearsal, I meet with Stuart at the theatre lobby to chat about the play, its relevance today, and his favorite roles, among other topics. “It wasn’t a play I particularly knew very well,’ he begins. “Coincidentally, it marked my introduction to A Noise Within. A very good friend of mine brought me to my first ANW play 12 years ago in the old space in Glendale and it was ‘The Winter’s Tale.’”
Stuart summarizes the play for me and describes his character. “We’re staging the play in the 1930s, around the time of Mussolini, when fascism was taking hold. Leontes is essentially a dictator. He seemingly discovers that his wife is cheating on him and might even be nine months pregnant with someone else’s child. He has such certainty that he condemns her to jail and then puts her on trial. He wants to execute the baby but has second thoughts and lets one of his men put her in a place outside ‘so that chance may nurse or end it.’ It so happens that she is rescued by a shepherd and grows up.
“Not only does his wife die, but his son dies as well of, essentially, a broken heart at seeing his mother in such distress. He then finds out he’s mistaken and spends the next 16 years in absolute self-flagellation. He’s so appalled by what he has done and he tries to make amends by going to the grave of both his dead wife and son.
“The daughter later comes back into her father’s life. Unbeknownst to him, Paulina has a gallery with Hermione’s statue in it. And we see her come back to life. As to whether it’s a magical event or whether she stayed on the sidelines for 16 years to teach him a lesson, that’s up to the audience to decide.”
Continues Stuart, “It’s a story that I think is so relevant nowadays because people are so certain about things, especially about their political opinions. It’s a kind of psychosis, a kind of madness, when you are absolutely certain about something. Even scientists’ mode of inquiry is to be doubtful or, at least, uncertain and that is a healthy state of mind. But we seemingly live in times when people are too impatient to be uncertain. I think it’s fitting that this play is set in the 1930s when there was this sense of uncertainty and people held on to Fascism as something they feel certain about all of a sudden. It’s a dangerous mentality especially for the masses to hold onto certainties as a movement – people are capable of doing anything when they’re certain and there are enough numbers behind that certainty – as we’ve seen in the last century.
“So this story is relevant for the times we live in but it’s also relevant to us personally as individuals. It’s always beneficial, before jumping to conclusions, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and have a little bit more compassion before we act in ways such as Leontes does in this play.”
Actors inhabit their characters despite how different they are from the roles. In this case, however, Stuart, actually connects with Leontes’s temper. He discloses, “I’ve learnt over the years, that I have rage inside me. Society tells us to conform, yet everybody has a certain rage about the machine, so to speak. I think it’s healthy to have rage, it’s just where to put it. I’ve been lucky enough to discover acting and I saw it immediately as a way to explore my psyche and put these apparently unacceptable states of mind – rage, lust, and so on – into some use. We’re living in such a society where it’s impolite or improper to display these feelings – especially in England where I grew up. There’s a lid that is put on into all of our natural instincts and emotions. In this play I am able to come on stage and let rip! It’s quite enjoyable. Oh my God, it’s fantastic! You’ll see some shocking things that I do in this play.”
Asked if he has favorite roles, Stuart responds, “I loved ‘Tartuffe‘ which wasn’t a particularly huge role – it was quite small, in fact. The first hour or so, everybody’s just talking about Tartuffe then he makes his entrance. But it was a wonderful character and I enjoyed doing that. Of course, Hamlet is a part that I will always remember playing – it’s iconic.
“You know, it’s funny, Deborah Strang, a veteran actress here at A Noise Within, said a great thing – it’s the one you’re in that’s the favorite. And I have to say, I’m learning a lot about myself and my craft. This play came at the right time … I’m ready for this role. The experiences I’ve gained and where I’m at in life have deepened me as a human being. I have different outlooks on life now. Sure, you can play Leontes as a young man in the first act. But when you come back in the second half of the show, it’s 16 years later, and you have to understand what compassion is. And as a young man, I gave lip service to compassion. I think that’s what aging is about – it’s about realizing that we are finite and mortal. And sometimes we’re frail and there’s nothing like the smile of a stranger, or a helping hand, or some kindness. It means so much especially as you get older.
“Not too long ago, I played Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ That is one of those roles that crack you open. As you progress through roles, each time you tackle something, you wonder whether you’re capable of bringing to it what is needed. For that particular role, it became very emotional at the end because he has to walk up these steps as he says this beautiful line – ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ It’s heartbreaking. And that is a man who was so cynical all his life and ends up preparing to die to let another man live because he knows this man will make the woman he loves happy.”
“There is a real emotional journey and you just wonder whether you’re up for it,” Stuart expounds. “A similar thing is happening right now with ‘The Winter’s Tale’ because it has an ending that is so emotional and bittersweet. I didn’t know how it was going to affect me. It’s very personal for me in the same way that Hamlet was to me. I am an only child who never knew his father. My parents were living in Hong Kong and he was a journalist. When my mother was eight months pregnant with me, my father died during a hurricane. Perhaps because I was in the womb, I had a connection with that particular moment where death was transcendent. It’s such a magical, universal, and profound moment for an audience to experience because, no matter where we come from, that’s the one thing we all share as human beings – we know there will be one day that will be our last. To see this moment that Shakespeare has created come to life, literally, is overwhelming.
“We’ve all worked together before and we all know each other intimately. So for this moment to happen amongst us, it’s almost as if the audience is privy to a private moment amongst the actors on stage. From the first rehearsal onwards, we felt that this meant something profound to us. Rehearsal after rehearsal, with just us on stage, without an audience, we were in tears all the time.”
Stuart can’t predict, though, if the audience will react the same way. He states, “There’s so much out of your control and when you focus on those, you’re disempowered. I’ve honed down my own life only to the things that I can control and within this play I can control what I do as an actor and how I receive other actors. Luckily, I’m surrounded with actors whom I admire and trust and love and the connections are so real and emotional. It feels as if we’re giving birth to something very magical. That said, I hope the audience is walloped.
“My first theatrical experience was Marcel Marceau, the French artist and mime. I saw that as a kid and there was something about the lights coming down and having a communal experience. It’s not the same as cinema. You’re presenting a piece of writing that has lasted for centuries for good reason. That’s why the Greeks invented theatre – because it’s somewhere we could experience something larger than ourselves and be emotionally connected with. This play does that, it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. I want the audience to feel that.”
Acting didn’t come early in Stuart’s life. He reveals, “I was at boarding school when I was in England but I was dreadful in academia. When I was 16, I played the Artful Dodger in the school production of ‘Oliver’ and I was a great success. So that got me thinking about it. I left school, and because I didn’t have any qualification for any career, I went into construction for a while – I carried bricks up and down ladders. I was very good-looking as a young man … you’d never guess it. There were commercials at the time who featured someone who looked similar to me. And the bricklayers would say, ‘Pretty boy, didn’t you see yourself in that advert on TV last night?’ I signed up with a modeling agency and I started booking commercials – I had an entire career of it.
“Then I decided I wanted to go into acting and I auditioned for drama schools. I got into The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which is one of the better drama schools in England; I was about 24 years old. In 2005, I came to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a movie star and ended up falling in love with theatre all over again. I studied with the great Larry Moss and then I found A Noise Within. While I have TV and film credits, theatre is where I feel most at home.”
Finally, I ask what would be a dream role for him and why. Stuart replies, “I’d love to do ‘Richard II’ because he’s very conflicted. He’s being appointed, apparently by God, to be the king. But he is the most inept character you could ever have as the king. And he kind of knows that. So he’s dealing with everything from the point of view of someone with no self-esteem. It is very interesting to see someone grapple with a position that has been thrust on him.”
An inept king may be the character that’s most unlike Stuart but there is no doubt that he would be a believable Richard II. As his performance in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ demonstrates, he is magnificent in every role he takes on.