Opened July 21 at American Conservatory Theater
Roger Rees performs a soliloquy from Richard II, one of many incredible moments in What You Will, a solo show about all things Shakespeare at American Conservatory Theater. Photos by David Allen
Laughs, brains, heart infuse Rees’ evening of Shakespeare
Sometimes one actor is plenty.
Roger Rees may be alone for the duration of What You Will, but he brings with him 400 years’ worth of English history and literary criticism as well as some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse.
One of those great British-born actors who makes it all seem so effortless, Rees is best known on these shores for his TV stints (“Cheers,” “The West Wing,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), but in reality, he’s a Tony-winning former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who knows a thing or two thousand about Shakespeare.
Rees’ abundant knowledge and humor are the focal point of What You Will, a 90-minute showcase now at American Conservatory Theater. He tells stories about Shakespeare, about what people think about Shakespeare, from George Bernard Shaw and Voltaire to kids in online chat rooms. He relates backstage tales, many of them bawdy, and makes fun of himself as a young spear-carrying actor.
And then he performs excerpts from Shakespeare. He sneaks Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy on us at an amazing moment, and his most robust turn comes when he plays Juliet’s nurse from Romeo and Juliet. Rather than donning drag, Rees just puts on a backwards A’s cap and lets loose.
He seeks a “muse of fire” in the opening of Henry V and illuminates Hamlet’s decision to put on a play in “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” He compares a lover to a summer’s day in “Sonnet 18” and entices us to put down the books and pick up the women in Berowne’s speech from Love’s Labour’s Lost. He puts a wig on a bust of Shakespeare and pretends to be Henry V wooing Lady Catherine of France, and he waxes romantic as Romeo notices the light through yonder window breaking in the form of Juliet. He’s a scary Macbeth and a depressing Richard II.
But mostly he’s a brilliant Roger Rees, a man who seems to be in love with acting and its lore. He can talk about his dear friends Ben Kingsley and Judi Dench in between stories about being given Charles Laughton’s boots and having dinner with Sir Laurence Olivier.
Some of the evening’s funniest moments come from students writing about Shakespeare and mangling everything (“Hamlet had an edible complex.”) And some of the evening’s best moments come from other writers, most notably James Thurber (The Macbeth Murder Mystery) and Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby).
You couldn’t ask for a more charming host through the world of Shakespeare and the theater. Rees is not only a brilliant actor but also a warm, wonderful human being (or at least plays one convincingly on stage).
In short, What You Will is the funniest, smartest, most delightful show you’ll see this summer.
What You Will continues through Aug. 9 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.