The works of Henrik Ibsen provide unique challenges for modern theater companies. This may be because of the complexities of his characters or the difficulties of getting an appealing translation of the playwright's original Norwegian prose.
Happily the Roundabout Theater has faced both of these challenges and is currently presenting a compelling production of HEDDA GABLER at their elegant American Airlines Theater.
Audiences realize they are about to witness something special when they see Hildegard Bechtler's atmospheric set bathed in the subtle and effective lighting of Natasha Katz. However, it is when Michael Cerveris makes his initial entrance that the audience realizes what an exceptional evening this HEDDA GABLER will be. Playing the intellectual writer Jorgen Tesman, Cerveris eschews a dour portrayal of an academic in favor of a character who is robust and certainly in love with his new bride, Hedda, who is stunningly portrayed in this version by Mary-Louise Parker. Cerveris' personal energy is immediately sensed by the audience and throughout the performance they could be detected sitting up or leaning forward whenever he was on stage.
It is a masterful performance in every way and is met point-for-point by Ms. Parker. When these two actors are together on stage, the electricity is almost palpable.
Meeting Michael Cerveris in his dressing room on the afternoon of Inauguration Day found him to be an incredibly amiable man. This comes as something of a surprise because he's made a career out of playing such brooding characters as Sweeney Todd and Richard II and won the 2004 Tony Award as "Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth (in Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS)".
The actor has spent the earlier part of the afternoon watching the television coverage of the Inauguration and is casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with Barack Obama's visage. On his dressing table sat the autobiography of the new president. There's no doubting where Cerveris' political affiliations lie.
Sipping a cup of freshly brewed tea, the actor settled into a comfortable chair and spoke freely about his career and the rehearsal process for HEDDA GABLER, which was still in previews but scheduled for January 25th opening.
Born in the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, Cerveris is the offspring of parents who met at Juilliard. His mother is a trained dancer and his father played in the Navy band.
In fact, his father marched in the parade for John F. Kennedy's Inauguration. "He was a pianist and obviously couldn't drag his piano down the street, so they gave all the guys who played instruments like that clarinets with no reeds so they could (just) march in the freezing cold and just fake it," the actor explains with a laugh. His father earned his BA, MA and PhD before attaining his first teaching job in St. Louis, MO and later taking a position at Huntington's Marshall University and becoming the chair of the piano faculty. "He was always involved in the arts and interested in the theater.
My very first stage experience was either in the first or second grade when I was cast as one of the Little Prince's friends in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, so I began my theatrical career with Brecht. It was a non-speaking role; I was just one of the little friends. When the kid who was playing the Little Prince left the production they asked if I would want to take over. I turned them down because it meant I would have to learn lines and I didn't want the additional burden. I was just enjoying the communal atmosphere of ensemble playing. It may have been the last time I passed on a bigger role," he adds with a smile. "I think that whole episode was a blueprint in many ways for many of the forms my career has taken." Cerveris has a sister who's a ballerina and a brother who's an actor and currently on touring with Spring Awakening.