Matthew Amendt has a banged-up finger and other talismans of recent melees. “I took a broadsword to the knuckle the other day,” the actor says with relish, holding up his right hand, with its swollen digit. “You can’t really see it, but I’m covered in bruises.”
Such battle scars may go with the territory for a performer who embodies the wastrel-turned-royal-prodigy Prince Hal, as Amendt does in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s staging of the two parts of “Henry IV,” directed by Michael Kahn and running in repertory through June 8. The black-and-blue marks are probably all the more welcome for Amendt, who is making his Shakespeare Theatre debut, because he and Prince Hal go way back.
As the New York-based actor explained in an interview before a tech rehearsal at Sidney Harman Hall, the rapscallion Prince of Wales — drinking buddy to Falstaff, tear-your-hair-out parenting problem to King Henry IV, eventual heroic monarch — has been a friend since Amendt was a child growing up in Indiana, Pa.
One day when he was 7, he recalls, he woke up to find that half of his face was paralyzed. “I’d look in the mirror, and one half of my face was bright and hopeful, and the other half was sloughed off and dead,” he says.
In subsequent months and years, he spent considerable time at a Pittsburgh children’s hospital as doctors tried to diagnose the problem. Needless to say, “I was very scared, as any little boy would be,” he says.
During the ordeal, his mother — who was an English teacher and had noticed that her son was a remarkably advanced reader — gave him copies of the two parts of “Henry IV,” as well as “Henry V,” in which the reformed Prince Hal, having ascended to the throne, leads England to military victory in France.
His mother, who has since died, told him that the plays related “a story of a prince with two faces,” Amendt remembers. “And I was very, very taken with that idea,” which “really carried me through those troublesome days of getting spinal taps and MRIs.” Prince Hal became “almost an imaginary friend” who was so vivid that he would occasionally lecture the mopey young Matt.
“It was very comforting to hear somebody say, ‘We don’t need any more self pity today: I won the battle of Agincourt, you can deal with a paralyzed face,’ ” the actor recalls.
Low-key in demeanor and quick to laugh, Amendt — who now has a clean bill of health — says his early love for the Bard was not “any mark of my intelligence” but rather an instance of how accessible Shakespeare can be when presented in a non-value-loaded context. He speaks with intensity about his early bond with Hal, but he can joke about it, too. “Thank God she didn’t give me ‘Richard III,’ ” he says of his mother.
Never fully explained, Amendt’s facial paralysis disappeared and recurred regularly over the course of a decade, he says, finally vanishing for good when he was in his late teens. (He declines to give his current age on the grounds that age discrimination can make the precarious profession of acting even dicier.) After high school, he relocated to Minneapolis, where he earned his BFA from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, graduating in 2004. He has acted in many productions at the Guthrie: Among other turns, he created the role of Nick Carraway in a stage adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” that had its world premiere in Minneapolis and has been widely produced.
His other credits nationwide included shouldering the title role in a touring edition of “Henry V” directed by Davis McCallum and co-produced by the Guthrie and the Acting Company. When the production arrived in the Big Apple in 2009, the New York Times review — comparing Amendt’s looks, in passing, to those of Tom Cruise — praised the “magnetic focus” he gave the production and his ability to peel off “the steel-clad surface of the king to reveal the layers of doubt and anxiety that assail him.”
But Amendt was an unknown quantity to Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Kahn before the auditions for Prince Hal. Kahn says he initially hesitated to cast an unfamiliar face in such a central role, but he eventually decided Amendt was a shoe-in.
“He’s so alive on stage,” Kahn says, particularly praising Amendt’s ability to make the Bard’s words his own. “His ability to use the language like it’s real talking and still know how to use the verse — it’s just wonderful in a young actor. And he’s so inventive about his behavior onstage — smart, but so inventive.”
Amendt “brings a very strong intellectual quality to the work, as well as great emotional quality,” says Joe Dowling, head of the Guthrie. Dowling adds that, without jeopardizing “a very real quality onstage,” Amendt “really does think about the bigger picture of the play.”
Indeed, Amendt is not lacking in the smarts department. During the recent interview, the Converse-sneaker-wearing actor made casual references to postmodernism, Joseph Campbell and Plato; suggested parallels between Shakespeare’s history tetralogies and the works of August Wilson; and confessed to having written a play about Aristophanes. (The play, “The Comedian’s Tragedy” was staged at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. “It’s about art,” so “it’s never going to be produced again,” he said with a laugh.)
But when it comes to playing Prince Hal in “Henry IV,” Amendt believes, “the biggest challenge is the danger of thinking too much.” That’s the case, in part, because the arc Shakespeare has written for the character is so epic. “That journey is just too big, really, to think about,” Amendt says.
And besides, he says, “these plays are all so pre-Freudian, and there’s such a mythic component to them — so when we try to apply our notions of ‘Why is a character behaving this way?’ you can get really lost in that. There’s an ambiguity in life, I think, that Shakespeare is very interested in, in these plays.”
All in all, having played the title role in “Henry V” is virtually no help in his current acting gig, he says. He doesn’t get much inspiration from thinking about political dynamics in the “Henry IV” saga, either. Rather — perhaps in keeping with his childhood allegiance to the prince with two faces — he is drawn to deeper, archetypal patterns in the plays.
“I think we [humans] have some really profound obsession with princes and princesses and crowns,” he says. “I think they symbolize, kind of, our best selves, in some small way that is completely removed from the geopolitics of monarchy.” In fact, “in a mythic way, we all are king of our own kingdom, in a certain sense.”
Not that he doesn’t warm to various worldly, boisterous aspects of Prince Hal’s story. “Some of the conversations I have with Falstaff, it feels as if [Shakespeare] overheard them in a bar and just walked into rehearsal and transcribed them,” Amendt says.
‘Henry IV, Part 1’ and ‘Henry IV, Part 2’ Directed by Michael Kahn. Running in repertory through June 8 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.
It was very comforting
to hear somebody say, ‘We don’t need any more self pity today:
I won the battle of Agincourt, you can deal with a paralyzed face.’
MATTHEW AMENDT recalls of being sick as a child and reading “a story of a prince with two faces”