That deaf, dumb and blind boy sure has a mean crew cut.
Michael Cerveris, who starred as Tommy in the La Jolla Playhouse mega-hit, “Tommy,” looks completely different as he readies himself to play the villainous Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing” opening Sunday in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The long wavy hair for “Tommy"--which actually was a wig--is gone. His crew-cut, suggestive of a modern military man in this 20th-Century version of “Much Ado,” reveals that he’s balding at the top. But he still has the gentle demeanor--the sweetness--that defined young Tommy.
“Somebody described Don John as an evil Tommy,” Cerveris said with a laugh in an interview this week at the Playhouse offices. “Tommy is so completely open and vulnerable to everybody, and Don John certainly isn’t.”
Yet Cerveris, switching to a serious tone, said he believes there is a link between Tommy and the brother of Don Pedro, who feels life has cheated him because he was born a bastard, so he takes his twisted revenge by breaking up a marriage.
“They are similar in that they are both presented with something beyond their control. Life kicking them early in their lives robs them of something.
“Tommy’s choice is more
embracing, life-affirming. Don John is bitter and angry. But in many ways, they come from the same hurt.”
And both characters, like 31-year-old Cerveris, feel like outsiders.
Born in Bethesda, Md., to a pianist-teacher father and a dancer mother, Cerveris’ family moved to Huntington, W. Va., in 1969. From the beginning, he felt he stuck out. He didn’t have a Southern accent and never acquired one. (He will use a Southern accent in this production, but his natural voice has a Northern, British-tinged accent that he credits to his two years at Exeter, the New England prep school he attended before entering Yale.)
The arts weren’t big in West Virginia, where, as he puts it, “if you wanted to do more than work for the nickel plant or work in the coal mines, you had to leave.” But he grew up with the need to communicate artistically.
“My first memory of growing up was listening to my father play piano,” he recalled. Later, at the age of seven, he performed in a non-speaking role in his first play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” at the school where his father taught.
This didn’t help him make friends.
“I was always a fringe member of every clique,” he said.
When he went to Exeter, he also had difficulty adjusting--but there, theater became a means of belonging.
“It wasn’t until I got a small part in a play, ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ that I found a place where I felt I knew at least as much as the people around me. In the theater, I felt at home. It still seems to be the place where I feel most at home.”
After Yale, he went to New York, where he waited tables, dressed windows at F.A.O. Schwartz and played extras in soap operas between auditions. He developed a reputation for his Shakespeare work, playing Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Old Globe Theatre and at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Dallas Theater Center and Claudio in the Old Globe’s “Measure for Measure.”
He never intended to do so many classics. “But I love Shakespeare,” he said.
He also liked his transition from Romeo to what he calls “the bad guys.” It’s the villains like Don John who drive the action, he points out. “Much Ado About Nothing” is essentially a romance involving two couples, Hero and Claudio, who get tricked out of love, and the clever Beatrice and Benedick who get tricked into love.
But it’s Don John’s passionate anger against the world that drives all the plot twists.
“Most of the time the bad guys have more facets than the good guys. And if they’re Shakespeare’s bad guy, you love him even as you hate them because they’re clever and crafty and don’t subject themselves to the desire of approval like the rest of us.”
In 1984, Cerveris broke away to the path that would lead him to “Tommy” when he was cast as the rock ‘n’ roller Crow in “The Tooth of Crime” at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut and as an English guitar student in the television series “Fame"--a role that caused him to relocate to Los Angeles six years ago.
But he was back in Shakespearean harness, in the middle of rehearsals for “Richard II” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, when he heard in February that “Tommy” was going to be staged at the La Jolla Playhouse.
There was no script at that time that the Playhouse would let anybody see; indeed, he never saw a script until the first day of rehearsal. He had no idea what character would sing what song. So he donned the wig (that he would later use in the show) to audition and sang “Young Americans” by David Bowie.
He knew they were interested in him during a callback when they asked him whether he had a fear of heights and if he could do gymnastics.
After he got the part, he had to perform from atop an armoire and fly with a harness, and at one point do a triple somersault in the air. His lack of gymnastic experience proved no problem. A bigger leap for him was building up his confidence to sing the score. But by the time they loaded the set into the Mandell Weiss Theatre, he knew he could do it and he knew “Tommy” would work.
“We knew by the time we finished run-throughs in the rehearsal space, using ladders for props, that we had something special. There was a heart in it and a spirit in it that we all connected to immediately.”
Even so, the first preview was tense. It was a full house, but because the show left no room for audience response, he had no idea whether people hated it or loved it until the final number, “Listening to You.” The audience stood up and cheered as they finished the song. Standing ovations followed every performance after that--110 times in a row.
The response overwhelmed him. He calls it “a dream come true.”
“It’s what you do it for. It’s what sustains you through all the times you think it’s too hard or people don’t care what you do.”
Cerveris doesn’t know if he will be part of the future for “Tommy,” which is widely believed to be bound for a national tour, a Broadway run and a London run--although no one knows in what order. He would jump at the chance. But for now, he plans to concentrate on Don John.
And, inspired by “Tommy,” he wants to do some more rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’ve been writing music,” he said with a grin. “I’m thinking about getting a band together.”
* Performances of “Much Ado About Nothing” begin at 8 p.m. Sunday and continue at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 through Nov. 29. Tickets are $23.75-$29.75 depending on day and time of performance. At the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road on the UC San Diego campus, La Jolla. 534-3960 or TDD/Voice 534-0351.