King Richard III is more than mean. He woos a grieving widow whose husband he has killed himself. He orders the murders of two child princes in the Tower of London. He kills his wife so he can marry his cousin.
But to Reg Rogers, the actor playing Richard in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, the character is not just a villain.
“He’s villainous and does bad things, but he’s got his reasons,” says Rogers, 42. “We’re trying to find the vulnerable side of a tyrant.”
Rogers pauses after he says that and laughs a little.
“Saying that makes me think of a TV movie I made about Attila the Hun, and it was sort of, you know, `The Misunderstood Attila the Hun.’ It was so bad,” Rogers says. “With Richard, it’s not quite as simple as that. He says something toward the end of the play, `Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes, which after hours give leisure to repent,’ and he’s trying to play a game he played earlier in the play, but it doesn’t work as well. He’s saying, look, I’m sorry I made the wrong choice, but f— it. I’m here now. There’s a lot going on in this guy’s head.”
Rogers has been working primarily in New York for the last few years, both on Broadway and off. He’s also been popping up in movies and on TV.
Local audiences might know him from his work with Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the early ’90s, or from his most recent Bay Area appearance, in 2004 opposite Olympia Dukakis in “A Mother” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.
Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone was in Rogers’ class at Yale School of Drama and has wanted to get Rogers out here for some time.
The opportunity to work at Moscone’s outdoor theater in the Orinda Hills combined with the chance to work with another Yale classmate, director Mark Rucker, were strong pulls for Rogers, but the real deciding factor was that his pie-eating-alien services were no longer required.
Rogers had filmed a pilot for Fox called “Them,” about a terrorist cell of aliens, and that window between making the pilot and finding out if the network will pick it up allows a certain amount of freedom.
Rogers decided to use that freedom to do a play in California with his friends. Turns out that Fox didn’t care enough about the aliens, all of whom are having a hard time adjusting to the complications of pretending to be human.
“I played this sort of shrink/parole officer dealing with aliens who can’t cope with human emotions,” Rogers explains. “They’re not used to desire. My guy felt that if you let a little desire in, you build up the antibodies for it. His desire was for pie, so he had cupboards full of pie.”
From a baked-goods-hoarding E.T. to a hunchbacked monarch who would give his kingdom for a horse _ such a transition surely keeps an actor on his toes.
While working with Rucker in Santa Cruz, Rogers says, he began to feel secure in the world of Shakespeare.
“That’s when I started to figure out my approach to the language, right or wrong,” Rogers says. “Mark and I did a King Lear there, and my character, Edmund, got to talk to the audience a lot. I knew I didn’t want to take the Englishman’s approach. Now doing `Richard’ I get to try that again and see if I was crazy or not.”
Working with Rucker, his old friend and “one of my all-time favorite directors,” has been a joy, Rogers says, because his take on Shakespeare is so clear.
“That’s the goal with modern audiences: Make it clear,” Rogers says. “I’ve never seen anyone make it clearer than Mark or (former Shakespeare Santa Cruz artistic director and Cal Shakes audience favorite) Danny Scheie. They’re super smart and know how to let the story be the story rather than some other imposed thing.
“They’re also really good with actors. I’ve seen Mark go up to an actor and say the simplest, most immediate thing, as opposed to some diatribe that leaves the actor going, `What? I don’t even know what you meant, let alone what I’m supposed to do with that.’ Sometimes — and I have to be careful how I put this — a director’s notes can defeat the purpose. That’s not the case with Mark. He’s exactly right on.”
Though hardly an old fogy, Rogers says he’s been thinking the time was ripe to tackle Richard before he “got too old to twist myself up.” Still, the extreme physicality of the character — the hunch, the limp — has taken its toll.
“I’ve already hurt my back,” he says. “Yesterday I did something to a muscle I didn’t even know I had.”
As for the hump — doesn’t it always come down to Richard’s hump? — Rogers is pleased with it.
“What’s cool about the hump is that you can’t see it from the front,” he says. “You don’t see the hump until Richard wants you to see the hump. Our Richard uses his deformity like everything else — for his own gain. He’s such an actor. He’ll play `oh, poor me’ if he thinks it’ll help get him what he wants. It’s never not by choice with this guy.”
Richard III continues through June 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $32 to $60. There’s a free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. For ticket information and to read some terrific actor blogs, visit www.calshakes.org. Or call 9510) 548-9666.