By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It’s funny how you can spend so much time with a play and still have things to learn.
Case in point: Venerated actor Gerry Bamman is about to appear in his third production of The Winter’s Tale, which begins previews this week in The Public’s annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, but until a few weeks ago, he’d never really noticed his character.
He’s playing Antigonus, a supporting player who’s mostly known for his final scene, when he gets chased and eaten by a bear.
“I never really paid attention to him,” Bamman says. “But when you start working on it on your own, and when you start digging the gems out of the ground on your own, you discover all sorts of things. I didn’t know what a good part it was.”
He especially savors the moment when the king orders Antigonus to dispose of a baby. “That scene is heartbreaking,” he says. “It never occurred to me. I was superficially reading it as, ‘A soldier’s being told to do something, and he does it.’ But it’s more than that. It’s awful.”
Then there’s the infamous bear attack, which ends with Antigonus saying, “This is the chase: I am gone forever.”
Bamman admits, “I’ve been puzzling over that. You’re speaking what the audience is seeing. It’s almost like bad writing.” (He says he and director Michael Greif have found a “satisfying” approach, but he won’t give details.)
This text work highlights another facet of Bamman’s approach. Though he’s learning new things about The Winter’s Tale, he’s also mining decades of experience in theatre, film, and television. (Among other credits, he starred in the play Nixon’s Nixon, and he appeared as Kevin’s grouchy uncle in Home Alone.)
At this point in his career, for instance, Bamman’s learned to approach Shakespeare without frills.
“I’m pretty heavily convinced that meaning is the entrée into the verse, that if you just pay attention to what’s in the words, the opposing phrases, the structure of lines, you can get everything you need,” he says. “When I was younger, I might have thought, ‘Oh, spreading colors around the room with my lines is a good idea!’ I would take much more time to improvise and mess around, and it didn’t matter what the character wanted. Now I’ve learned that doesn’t help me. Now, I’m better about cutting directly to what I need.”
Meanwhile, along with The Winter’s Tale, Bamman is appearing in The Merchant of Venice, the summer’s other Shakespeare in the Park show, and playing in rep with actors like Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jesse L. Martin, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste has been a boon for his work. “One of the things they’re able to accomplish by doing this in rep is they give a juicy part to you in one play and then a smaller role in the other play,” he says. “So you have the smaller roles being played by terrific actors. It sets the standard very high.”
He chuckles, then adds, “I say that sort of tongue-in-cheek, because I would make the same effort no matter who was around me, but this makes it so much fun.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
(Photo: Gerry Bamman in The Winter’s Tale. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.)