By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; C01
On the heads of American actors who really can turn in big Shakespearean performances, uneasy lies the crown. Yes, from time to time, an actor of note from these shores distinguishes him- or herself in one of the great classical roles. Think of, for instance, Kevin Kline, who in 2004 sent Broadway hearts aflutter with his movingly autumnal Falstaff in "Henry IV," or Liev Schreiber, who broke through more than a decade ago in Central Park with a superlative portrayal of Iachimo in "Cymbeline."
But let's face it: American audiences don't seem to care that much whether stars have classical chops, whether we have a stable of alpha actors capable of speaking Elizabethan verse with authority. Hey, that's what the British are for, isn't it?
So you have to wonder how grand a payoff there can possibly be when the remarkable occurs, when an American actor magnetically delivers the Elizabethan goods and shows himself equipped for Shakespearean stardom. For this is what Michael Hayden is doing at the moment in his astonishing work as both Henry V and Richard II at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
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One can only hope that the gauntlets being thrown onto the stage each night during "Richard II" represent more than a bit of Bard-driven bravado -- that even if American audiences don't demand their stars do Shakespeare, there is a challenge to be taken up by other leading men and women eager to acquire or refine their technique.
A few brave big-name actors have given Shakespeare a try over the past several years, albeit with mixed results: Denzel Washington went to Broadway as a one-dimensional Brutus in "Julius Caesar," and Helen Hunt and Paul Rudd dipped their toes in at Lincoln Center as Viola and Orsino in a wilted version of "Twelfth Night." Dustin Hoffman, though, packed houses years ago with a creditable turn as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," and Anne Hathaway did the same with her well-received Viola in Central Park last summer.
These count as only the rarest of sightings. In reflecting on this subject, I was hard-pressed to produce the names of American actors of national stature who have distinguished themselves of late in some of the best major parts in Shakespeare, from Hamlet and Prospero to Lady Macbeth and Beatrice. Of course, there have been some noteworthy performances at regional companies, such as the capital's Shakespeare Theatre: Stacy Keach's searingly clueless King Lear -- birthed at Chicago's Goodman Theatre -- comes to mind, as does Patrick Page's icily efficient Iago in "Othello."
But no classical act I've come across agitates so forcefully for support of an elite corps of American Shakespearean lead players as does Hayden's vigorous contributions to the "Richard II" and "Henry V" running in repertory through mid-April at Sidney Harman Hall. The double-casting was a nervy gambit, and the mere fact that Hayden would take it on speaks to the sort of voracious appetite you wish could be capably fed on the stage more often.
Hayden is not a marquee draw, even though he deserves to be. At 46, he's a theater pro, well known in New York circles, who's crossed over to television occasionally, most notably on the short-lived legal series "Murder One." He first came to notice in a big way in the mid-1990s, with his performance in London and New York as Billy Bigelow in Nicholas Hytner's celebrated revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." What followed has been a solid stage career that included, in 2003, his Prince Hal in the best American Shakespeare New Yorkers saw in the first decade of the century: director Jack O'Brien's compression of "Henry IV" parts 1 and 2 at Lincoln Center Theater.
The actor brings his Shakespeare to another level with Richard II and Henry V. The performances, taken together, constitute the most charismatic work in Shakespeare the city has experienced in memory. What Hayden provides in these divergent portrayals is the savory sense of well-spoken interpretation from the gut as well as the imagination. It's red-meat Shakespeare, served up in a gratifyingly old-fashioned way: He compels us to the illusion that Richard and Henry are stars being played by one. And even more impressively, he is able to sustain the illusion even when the productions don't adequately support him.
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The career trajectories of Henry and Richard are in diametric opposition; the best way to see the stories is in the reverse of when they occur historically. So watch a king ascend with oratorical dexterity in "Henry V" before you see another brought down, in "Richard II," lyrically lamenting his humiliation (at the hands, by the way, of Henry's father, Bolingbroke).
With a keen grasp of the psyche of each man, Hayden conjures for us a two-sided portrait of royal bedside manner: Henry's common touch, honed to lead men to military victory, and Richard's effete sense of entitlement, which blinds him to the subtler forms of gamesmanship that a ruler of a fractious kingdom must practice.
Hayden's tailoring of vocal and physical affect gives added value. His Henry V is all about the drive to glory: His speeches are not so much declaimed as trumpeted, his careful step the gait of one who knows he has to win over men to be called their leader. (He delivers an inspired version of Henry's famous St. Crispin's Day speech, before the battle of Agincourt.) His self-impressed Richard -- who likes to keep a mirror handy -- sings his soliloquies in an older style, aptly enough. And in the wake of Richard's stunning surrender to Bolingbroke, Hayden offers in the "sad stories of the death of kings" scene a splendid account of a proud man's submission and acknowledgment that he is, in the end, merely a man.
It is Hayden's energy, chiefly, that keeps the engines purring. A measure of the force he exerts is that the gears grind down very quickly when he's not on the stage. A lot of that is the playwright, but some of it is Hayden. This makes you eager for the return of this Shakespearean comer -- and not just on these two nights.