Embodying a Character
For those of you who watched the 2014 Tony Awards this past Sunday, you will have seen actor Bryan Cranston win the Tony for Best Lead Actor in a play.
Who is not surprised? Me
Because who also saw his performance as President Lyndon Johnson at the Neil Simon Theatre in Robert Schenkkan’s, ‘All the Way’?
There was much to love about this production especially for the less-than-scholarly. Projections of news footage from actual press releases, marches, and debates from designer Shawn Sagady and consultant Wendall K. Harrington added a sense of reality as pictures of murdered demonstrators flashed onscreen or paired with onstage recreations of actors duplicating the actual dialogue of this cast of famous characters. Some sentiments, especially those from Governor George Wallace, seemed so outrageous to a modern person of today that it was wise to allow them to speak for themselves.
The scenic design from Christopher Acebo also lended a closed-in focus to Johnson’s life and woes, opening beautifully on the curved rows of Congress as members slowly filled in. Stage elements were sparse and multifunctional; a grave becoming a table, a podium transforming into a bed. The expressive lighting from Jane Cox made the stage feel appropriately regal in court scenes, bright and exposed in moments signifying publicity, and always somehow soft and a little hazy as history usually seems. Many of the congress scenes reminded me of choreographer Kurt Jooss’ ‘The Green Table’- which never hurts, as it is one of my favorites.
There was so much information presented in this script and as is always true in the case of non-fiction, debates will rage on which side of the story the playwright seems to fall. Perhaps the biggest challenge of portraying the lives of actual people and events is transcending beyond reenactment and veering into the territory of reinvention in the audiences understanding, sympathy, and perspective of said character. No one is going to buy the same tired, old replication of a cliched image- or buy a ticket to see it onstage. This kind of necessary reimagining is probably even harder when the character in question is a public figure, and probably known for the collective media game-face that earned them a place in the public eye to begin with.
Cranston, in the lead role, was all of the things associated with the public and private-made-public life of Johnson; crude, sensitive, physical making up in power and quirky humor what he lacked in finesse. Whether this portrayal was much of a new examination into history and historical figures is more for a scholar to say. What is undeniably true is that the portrayal was at every moment rich and nuanced in motivation and emotions, fully developed in body language and vocal tone, captivating and believable. In a play that seems to center on Johnson’s election and trickery, manipulations, luck, and or brilliance to secure the Presidency amidst some of the country’s worst turmoil, it seems only appropriate that the lead character should be able to employ just that on the audience and critics.
As Act 2 and the election concludes, Johnson proudly states after his win, ‘It’s my party‘. In this case, the play proceeds history as Cranston, who seems to have fooled us all, is having his party.
Let’s not forget the history-making ballerinas, either.(And the only post where I diss usual leading-lady of my heart, Misty Copeland. And more Misty Copeland) Oh right, this post is about All the Way. What was I saying again? Go see it.
More Tony Awards with a side of meth here