Anything can get Edward Gero going. A quick comment and he’s off to the races, referencing performances from 50 years ago, citing Harold Bloom and tracing the history of the Folger Shakespeare Library without breaking a sweat. His knowledge of theater feels all encompassing, but never overwhelming. It’s not encyclopedic, it’s conspiratorial. He’s not trying to bury you in dates and facts, he’s bringing you in, he’s showing you the connections.
And if anyone can make those connections, it’s Gero. After 15 years at the Folger and theater career featuring iconic contemporary roles, including playing Justice Scalia in The Originalist, he’s made a name for himself in the District. Starting September 3, the iconic D.C. actor will be jumping into the role of the iconic Shakespearean character Falstaff for Folger’s 1 Henry IV. A complex and often analyzed role, Gero describes Falstaff as a relatable epicurean, but also a man who embodies Shakespeare’s talent for comedy and drama at the same time.
We stopped by the Folger to grab some behind the scenes photos and chat with Gero about the joys of Falstaff, his favorite type of comedy and his intense preparation for the role. 1 Henry IV runs through October 13 at the Folger Theatre.
So you’ve been with Folger for a long time and you’ve been in theater for a long time…
It’s been 15 years since I’ve been here. I suppose in Washington I’m noted as a Shakespearian, which is a great moniker, and I was able to breakout into more contemporary [work]. To do plays without feathers in my hats, sitting on sofas.
Where does this story stack up in relation to all of the other Shakespeare plays you’ve done? I’m sure you’ve done all of them by this point, right?
I haven’t done all of them. This is the fourth time I’ve done this play, but in the three previous incarnations I was in the court world and in the rebel world, but never in the Eastcheap world. This stacks up as a bucket list role. One of the great characters of the cannon in the comic vein, but serial comic, actually. What’s really kind of wonderful about Falstaff is he’s a real mixture of Shakespeare’s strengths. He has great language, although he only speaks in verse for maybe four lines.
Is that good or bad for you?
It’s different. It’s a little harder to learn when it’s not in verse. But his diction, his vocabulary is so unique… and his syntax is unique. So that made it a little more difficult. Because it’s in prose, it puts him in the world of the everyman, which he is. He’s the life force, some people have argued. Harold Bloom has argued that he’s the greatest creation of Shakespeare’s cannon. As the director of the Library pointed out to me, it’s the longest role of Shakespeare. I said, “No it’s not,” and he said, “Four plays, there are more words for Falstaff than any other character.” The good news is I don’t have to learn all of them… Just one play.
It stacks up as one of the major accomplishments in a Shakespeare career.
What was your preparation like for this role?
I started by going out to Italy for a month and eating a lot of pasta. I have family there, so that was great. Reading as much as I can about the text, the performance history. I’ve seen some great Falstaffs. I was in one production with Stacy Keach as Falstaff, who came back to the role after 40 or 50 years. He played him as a young man in New York to great success and came back to play him. And my colleagues from the Shakespeare Theatre Company, David Sabin was a wonderful Falstaff in both plays. Ted van Griethuysen played Falstaff in both parts of the play. And of course, Orson Welles is a major influence. I saw an actor named Kenneth McMillan, who you may recall is the character in Dune who blows up and floats through the air, I saw him at Central Park. He was fantastic.
Preparation has been partly watching Chimes At Midnight again, reading about the play, reading Bloom’s monograph about the play called Give Me Life, which is his lifelong relationship and love for Falstaff. The rest of it is the same nuts and bolts of any play that I approach, in terms of analyzing text, syntax and diction.
In your research, is the goal to find some aspect of Falstaff that someone hasn’t discovered? Or is it to learn from what they did well and what they did poorly?
I think it’s all of that actually. I like to get a sense of the performance history, maybe there’s some insight from some of the text that’s really gnarly. I remember seeing different versions of one of the scenes of the play, the way Ralph Richardson played it, the way Welles played it… It’s like doing Beethoven’s 9th, you’re not going to get it all, you’re going to get a rendition of it. Every actor brings their rendition of it, with their inflection based on the kind of actor they are, the kind of person they are.
So yeah, I want to find something different. I want to find my version of it and say, “I’m not going to do it like that,” or, “I’m going to steal that.”
There are a couple of things I’ve referenced. Hopefully no one will notice and they’ll think it’s mine! That’s what great actors do… Or what some actors do, I wouldn’t say great.
No, not stealing! Have you found your own Falstaff?
I like to think I have. I think I have a bead on it that’s a little different. Like I said earlier, I think he’s the best synthesis of both Shakespeare’s comic and dramatic geniuses. He’s also a critic. He’s an observer.
The first play I did here was called Troilus and Cressida and there’s a character in that play called Thersites. There’s a lot of director dress, a lot of soliloquy, and he is the voice of the cynical, dark, shadow-like grouch of the world. There’s some of that in Falstaff. He has a, some would say realist, maybe cynical, but a blunt and direct judgement about life.
I have to say, I did see a production of [Henry IV] recently at the American Shakespeare Center. When we were talking about doing the play, I was talking with Rosa Joshi, the [Folger] director, that weekend while I was there. I thought, “Let me read the play,” and then I thought, “No, I’m going to see the play, I’m going to hear the play, let me see if I can find my way through.”
It was a terrific production, a very clear rendering of the play, and I saw something and I went, “Ahhh, there it is, there’s something.” The moment when Falstaff says on the battlefield, “Give me life,” as much as he says I’m going to redeem myself or stop drinking, I recognize that behavior. I think we all do. “Yeah I’m gonna stop the food tomorrow, I’m going to stop the cigarettes tomorrow, I’m gonna stop the booze tomorrow,” and he doesn’t. In some way, he has one more day, in spite of all that, to live the epicurean life. You know, facing his own death and facing his mortality, the way we all must do at some point.
That gives it some gravitas. I think of him as a trickster, he’s called the Lord of Misrule, anything that sort of creates chaos around him is sort of that trickster archetype. A way to reorder the world or rethink the world.
It sounds like you’re attracted to the more dramatic aspects of his character as opposed to the comedy.
I think that’s the payoff, but we had a rehearsal last night and I thought I was in The Carol Burnett Show. It was hilariously fun.
After the robbery, Falstaff comes back to Eastcheap with his scoundrels to shame Hal. We had done this entrance earlier and said, “Let’s try something.” [Falstaff] Asks all of his friends to pretend like they’re beaten up, so one of the actors comes in with his arm behind his back, like he has no arm. It was just hilarious. I love the comedy. I haven’t had an opportunity to do a lot of comedy and I really love it. To set up the comedy and then to pull the rug out in act two, you get the balance.
Who’s your favorite comedian?
Gosh. Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant.
Those are some classics. What would be your dream comedic role?
Bottom, maybe, in the Shakespeare cannon. Pseudolus. If anybody wants to throw me a comedy, I’ll read it.
Why do you think you haven’t done more comedy?
I think I’ve done a lot of comedy. I think people don’t think of me as a comic actor. Given my dark, swarthy, Italian kind of look. I don’t know. At this age, there are not a lot of comedies written except for The Sunshine Boys, play some old geezers, I’d love to do that.
I like the vaudeville kind of comedy… Or wit. There are not a lot of older characters in Noël Coward, but that kind of stuff would be delicious.
Do you think D.C.’s theater scene leans more serious?
I don’t know. There’s such a great variety of work here. I think our community now is responding to the political landscape, so it probably feels more serious. With what’s happening at Arena Stage with the Power Plays, Signature is doing Assassins right now, Ford’s is going to do Fences, Folger is going to do Amadeus, which is… I did Salieri years ago and I loved that. Such a great role.
I would hope there would be more comedy. We’ve lost our sense of humor. Nobody has a sense of humor about anything anymore and that’s sad. I’d like to see more satire with the same kind of impact as Molière or Saul Bellow, some real good biting satire that’s not just cartoony, but has real gravitas to it as well. I think that’s the power of the theater, whether it’d be serious or comic. There’s not many places left where people pay money as a group to come together and shut up and listen.
This and the movies right?
But it’s not live. There’s no communion with the performers.
Do you still feel that power on stage? The communion?
Oh, absolutely. None more so, in the context of what we’re talking about in terms of the political landscape, than playing Scalia, which was a lot of laughs. Obergefell was being heard that afternoon, and we’re doing the play that night and people were trying to read the tea leaves. It was extraordinary. I really felt the power of the theater there. It was remarkable and it’s still palpable.
Do you miss that role?
I’d like to return to it at some point. It was fun to play, but it was more satisfying to be a part of the national conversation at the time. To be a citizen artist and to have a piece of theater immediately connect with what’s happening in the news cycle, it’s unbelievable. It wouldn’t change anybody’s political mind, but it might have changed their personal opinion about him as a human being… And about the possibility of ending the knee jerk reaction to vilify people with whom you don’t agree.
This play obviously has a lot of political intrigue as well.
Totally. The histories, most of my work in Shakespeare was with the histories… I’ve done Richard II, I’ve played Bolingbrook, I played the King, I’ve played Hotspur, I’ve played Worcester, Chief Justice. My analogy is that it’s The Godfather. It’s tribal. Politics are personal and that’s certainly resonant right now and Shakespeare has plenty to say about it. He reveals it, he doesn’t judge it, he just shows it for what it is. I think that’s very right now. Shakespeare wrote contemporary plays.