A curious thing is happening at the Actors Alley Repertory Theatre in Van Nuys. A company that had never staged Shakespeare before is drawing critical and popular acclaim for its vigorous production of “Richard III.”
“I had never scheduled a Shakespearean play because I didn’t think the company would be interested in one, and I wasn’t confident that they could handle the demands of the poetry,” said Jordan Charney, artistic director.
But Charney’s gamble has worked so well--due largely to a rousing performance by Shakespeare novice Walter Raymond in the title role--that the show has been extended through March 19. (It opened Feb. 2.)
The production, with 23 actors playing 65 roles, is an outgrowth of Sunday morning Shakespeare workshops that Charney began conducting a year ago, with the repertory members first grappling with sonnets and then graduating to scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.
In effect, this “Richard III” was almost a year in the making. At the same time, it has become a farewell for Charney, who is stepping down after five years as artistic director.
“Walter is the finest actor I’ve had here,” Charney said. “Without him, I would never have done the play.”
But Raymond, 30, who had to learn Richard III’s 1,164 lines--"on a good night, I’ll say 1,640 of them"--never thought of playing the royal, hunchbacked “toad.”
“I was trying out for Buckingham. I didn’t realize that the greatest acting challenge is to dare to be big on stage. I’ve been able to cater to my base instincts.”
When he got the role, Raymond said, he “was so overwhelmed I would sit for hours and stare at the text. I had never even seen a live Shakespeare play. But I learned how to make my task smaller by stapling scenes together. I would read one page, turn it over and recite it until I had it. I had learned scanning iambic pentameter, those five beats to the line, but now I had to be aware of the thought behind the discipline of the poetry.”
One of the strengths of Raymond’s Richard is its accessibility--he never postures. To do Shakespeare, he said, “you have to force yourself to connect a poetic way of feeling into real thought so a lay person can understand what’s going on.
“When I tell Queen Elizabeth in that outrageous wooing scene, ‘Heaven and fortune bar me happy hours . . . if I tender not thy beauteous daughter!’ all I’m saying is ‘Bad luck come to me if I don’t do good by your daughter.’ ”
Raymond, who is the son of television actor Jim Raymond, attended Grant High School in Van Nuys (class of ’76) and spent a few months at Valley College before lucking into a hotshot New York TV commercial career at 19.
“That was my acting heyday until now. I was dark and ethnic-looking. People thought I was Jewish or Italian, but my mother is Lebanese and my father Irish. For a while, I was this serious, intense young actor. But it was all bull,” Raymond said.
The New York commercial work didn’t last and Raymond returned home after a couple of years, married a girl he had known at Grant High and took a day job as a carpenter for a scenic design house in North Hollywood, where he also lives. (He and his wife, Laurie, are expecting their second child in April.)
He also took intensive, experimental
acting classes at a Hollywood workshop called The Loft, which brought him into contact with such other workshop habitues as John Travolta, Henry Winkler, Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage and Lily Tomlin. He joined the Screen Actors Guild, did a few small TV and movie parts, and got an agent.
When Raymond opened “Richard III,” his wife sent 300 letters to agents and casting people urging them to take a look at his performance. He received one direct response--an agent who said she would see the play.
“But you know,” he said, “I can break down scenes now so much easier because I learned Shakespeare. There’s something about giving poetic speech real thought. I can read the Bible now! I never could do that before.”