Benjamin Stewart launches Shakespeare Orange County's 1995 summer season tonight at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange with a one-man dramatization of "Venus and Adonis," the epic poem that first made Shakespeare's literary reputation.
Rarely seen on stage except as a reading, the poem tells the story of Venus' infatuation with and pursuit of the handsome Adonis, who prefers to take a rain check on the affair.
Stewart, 52, hardly seems the embodiment of either Venus or Adonis. He looks more like a puckish version of Charles Laughton, with jowls that make him seem a cherub rather than a bulldog.
Stewart, who was born and raised in Houston, first came to Southern California in 1969. Lacking any conservatory training in theater, he supported himself for four years by delivering furniture while trying to catch on as an actor by doing "Shakespeare on the side." By the mid-1970s, however, Stewart found a professional home at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (appearing in "St. Joan" with Sarah Miles, "Macbeth" with Charlton Heston, "The Devil's Disciple" with Rex Harrison and "Night of the Iguana" with Richard Chamberlain, among others) and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
Stewart also worked for many seasons at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, for whom he staged "Venus and Adonis" in 1988.
By the mid-1980s, after appearing in "Jitters" and "As You Like It" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, he left Southern California for Tucson and became a member of the classical ensemble at the Arizona Theatre Company.
In 1991, he left that company and took a year off to write a novel, as yet unpublished. Since then he has been crisscrossing the country from Portland, Me., to Dallas, Hartford, Conn., to Phoenix, doing everything from his one-man Truman Capote show to "Sly Fox" to "The Merry Wives of Windsor," as well as new plays.
Recently, Stewart spoke to staff writer Jan Herman about "Venus and Adonis" and his lifelong devotion to Shakespeare.
Question: Why stage a Shakespeare poem when there are so many of his plays?
Answer: Every time I do "Venus and Adonis" for more than just one performance, I get to feeling it's my mission in life. I don't know why exactly. I think people should learn to sit and listen to poetry again. And this one is accessible because it's a simple narrative story. People need to hear a poem being emoted, not just read off the page. That can be very dull. When "Venus and Adonis" is emoted, it has all the rises and falls, the subtleties and changes of texture that make it entertaining.
Q: How do you memorize an epic poem with more than a 1,000 lines?
A: Over the past six months I've broken it down into its music, which has changed how I rehearse it. I used to not be able to do it all the way through. I used to start and get a certain way in, and then I'd stop. So the second half was under-rehearsed. Now that I've finally broke it into its musical sections, I can pick it up at any point because I've got the score in my head--and the emotion attaches to that.
Q: It's interesting that you refer to the "score" of a poem.
A: I think the most important thing in doing Shakespeare is the music. If you don't get the music, you probably won't get the meaning.
Once, when I was doing "Henry IV, Part I," I went out in the first scene, and everything was going beautifully. The timing was right. The audience seemed to be paying attention. I did my opening pantomime, sat on the throne and looked at the crowd. And then I started my first speech.
Because we didn't have enough people on stage to make a court, we addressed the audience as if it was the court. So I gazed into the audience, and, as luck would have it, I looked right into the face of a woman with the kind of expression that somebody doing Shakespeare does not want to see.
It was an expression of total incomprehension, boredom and fear. She looked like she was thinking, "Oh God! I knew it was going to be like this. I knew I wasn't going to understand it. I wonder how long this is going to be?"
I thought, "Just great." Actors face this all the time. This is why, every once in a while, I say, "I'm not going to do any more Shakespeare. They don't understand it, and I have to fool myself into thinking they do."
Well, you don't go to grand opera and expect to understand it all by not having studied the score. When you get it on a musical level, even if you don't understand the language they're singing in, certain emotions comes through. That's what makes the music of Shakespeare so important. You have to come to it . It must not lower itself to come to you .
Q: When did you connect with "Venus and Adonis?"
A: The very first time in 1969 when the Shakespeare Society in Houston decided to stage it. Somebody played Venus and somebody else played Adonis. I narrated. It was a multimedia thing with "story theater" staging. I was in another version when I first came out to Hollywood. We did it at the Shakespeare Society down the hill from the Playboy Club, which sort of loomed above us. Whenever we needed inspiration, we could always look up.
Q: How did your one-man performance of it come about?
A: I suggested it to various artistic directors around the country, but nobody took me up on it. "Venus and Adonis" was not intended to be performed, I told them, but, believe me, it's performable. When I got no takers, I thought it was being wasted. So I said, 'Well, well--I'll do the whole thing anyway.' But first I had to memorize it to see if I could make anything out of it. And that took a long time.
Q: Were you the first to do a solo dramatization?
A: I was beaten to the point by Irene Worth. She did [an edited] version at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, in 1983, when I was still memorizing it. I never saw her performance, but I heard about it. I had a recording of her reading it, and she's very good at being loyal to the text. She is also one of the world's great actresses. You can follow the lines and learn how to do what's written there just by listening to her. But my interpretation is much different from hers. I don't know what people think of a man standing up and playing Venus, this sexy love goddess. . . . It's an androgynous piece, but, as I see it, it's actually more of a man's piece. Adonis is the hero.
Q: How does "Venus and Adonis" compare with the plays?
A: It's juvenile Shakespeare in contrast to "Lear" and "Hamlet" and "Othello." It's even easier than "Romeo and Juliet," which has some real convoluted text. The difficult thing in this poem is the filigree. The narrative is very simple. It's basically a plea that Venus makes to Adonis, who thinks his beauty should not be wasted. She wants to have his child. "Gold that's put to use more gold begets."
Adonis thinks that all Venus is trying to do is seduce him, that she's just using the idea of having a child as an excuse. All she really wants to do is have sex. He says no. He states his reasons. He goes off and gets killed by a boar. She mourns and puts a curse on love in the future. That's it.
When I introduced the piece for the Mark Taper Forum--I did it at the Itchey Foote [in Los Angeles] in 1984--my producer wanted me to cut out the filigree. I didn't, because that's the poetry of it. He just wanted the narrative line. But it's the filigree, which has to be spoken almost at the speed of thought, that makes it interesting.
Q: Have you changed anything?
A: A few words here and there for clarity. In the plays I generally don't. I feel, "Let 'em look it up."
Q: Why do you think Shakespeare turned to poetry? He'd already written several of his early plays.
A: The plague had closed the theaters in London, so he was out in the country weathering the storm. And he had a patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom the poem was dedicated. It was an artistic way of telling his patron, who was a beautiful young aristocrat, "Please have a child before it's too late. You're getting involved in all these court intrigues, and people get their heads cut off that way. We don't have sperm banks yet."
Q: How did "Venus and Adonis" affect Shakespeare's career?
A: Shakespeare established himself as a poet with it. He was in his late 20s at the time. He could have stopped working in the theater and gone on writing poems for the rest of his life, because this one was extremely popular. It went through nine editions in his lifetime.
Q: Will you continue doing this show?
A: If I can get it booked frequently enough, I wouldn't mind doing this exclusively until my retirement. I'm supposed to do it in the fall at the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas. I don't know whether that will come to fruition, but I hope so.
* "Venus and Adonis" opens tonight in a Shakespeare Orange County production at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange. Shows Thursday-Saturday at 8; Sunday at 3 p.m. Through July 1. $18-$22. (714) 744-7016.