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Actor Michael Hayden takes on two demanding roles at Shakespeare Theatre

For Michael Hayden, being called "two-faced" at the office is a badge of honor. The actor gives us a backstage look as he prepares to play the lead in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Henry V" and "Richard II."

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

So of course, you want to know: Why would he put himself through this? Every actor likes a challenge, sure. But there are strenuous tasks in the theater, and then there are Herculean labors, of a magnitude to stretch to the absolute limit the voice, the mind, the legs, the self-confidence.

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Actually, in the case of Michael Hayden, you might be able to strike that last concern. Although he professes to have a "healthy dose" of apprehension, the man exudes self-belief, the sense that he knows how to take care of himself (and us) even when he's pushing beyond the logical bounds of human endeavor and making the art of the stage seem the act of a daredevil.

As, for instance, when he decides to play both Richard II and Henry V. At the same time.

Hayden is performing this extraordinary double duty for Shakespeare Theatre Company, where "Richard II" and "Henry V" began performances in repertory last week at Sidney Harman Hall. The productions may have demanded separate directors: Michael Kahn for "Richard," David Muse for "Henry." Two costume designers also seem to have been urgently required. Apparently, though, only one actor needed to apply for the two mega-characters who are among the largest parts by line count in all of Shakespeare. Or, as Akiva Fox, the company's literary associate, explained, the task of portraying both is the equivalent of memorizing the entire text of "The Comedy of Errors."

Not by a long shot is this Juilliard-trained New York stage actor -- who has a history with the theater company going back to "Sweet Bird of Youth" in 1998 -- the first of his profession to take on a heavy mantle in more than one play. Doubtless many veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, could engage in a game of "Can you top this?," enumerating the tragic royals and disguised lovers they've played in the revolving sequences employed by some classical repertory companies.

Still, when you consider how rarely title roles of this physical and intellectual intensity are parceled to any single actor -- and on top of that, how relatively short Hayden's Shakespearean résumé is -- you begin to feel just a wee bit anxious for him and the elaborate mechanics that must keep him focused and prepared. (And never mind that he wakes up every Monday, his day off, at 5 a.m. to take Amtrak back to New Jersey, so he can spend 24 hours with his wife and children in suburban Millburn.)

An intriguing proposal

Hayden has built a career on stage versatility, winning plum roles in everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" to Arthur Miller's "All My Sons." (He was also a regular on the TV procedural drama "Murder One.") His previous brush with the Bard was a role in a history play, that of Prince Hal in the well-received compression of the "Henry IV" plays at Lincoln Center Theater in 2004. But if this particular assignment, the eight weeks of rehearsals for the Washington double bill, has been grueling, Hayden doesn't like to show it.

Others who've watched him know how tough it is. "Michael has been such a pro about it," says Muse, Shakespeare's associate artistic director. "He soldiers on. Because of course he's exhausted."

The actor does acknowledge that he had an inkling from the get-go that this enterprise would be a bear. It was on the first day of rehearsals last year for Shakespeare Theatre's "The Dog in the Manger" -- in which Hayden had one sensibly sized part -- that Kahn had come up to him with the intriguing and daunting double-casting proposal.

"I just thought, 'How could you pass up that opportunity?' " Hayden says on a recent afternoon, as he sits in his dressing room in the subterranean honeycomb of Harman Hall. "And then I realized: Richard and Henry. And I thought: 'Holy [expletive]!' " Yup, that about sums it up.

Richard II and Henry V are strongly linked historically: Henry's father, Henry IV, was the architect of his cousin Richard's downfall, a usurper who took Richard's throne and orchestrated his murder. In terms of the temperament to rule, however, the two characters are worlds apart. Henry V was a natural-born leader; Richard II an utterly ill-equipped one. Literary critic Harold Bloom echoes the prevailing view when he writes that Richard was better suited to complex thought than practical matters. "He is totally incompetent as a politician," he declared, in a widely admired book on Shakespeare's characters, "and totally a master of metaphor."

Henry V, on the other hand, becomes a master of the battlefield with an additional gift -- a feel for the common man -- totally foreign to vain, imperious Richard. It's a clear-cut dichotomy that makes playing both of them especially delicious, even if Hayden has to let go completely of one king when he's playing the other. "A lot of people have asked, but it's never crossed my mind, that when I'm doing one I have to be conscious of being different from the other," he says. "I'm not thinking about it because the roles are so profoundly different -- there's not a thing similar about them at all."


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