Daniel Breaker is in the hopeless thrall of a crafty sweet talker by the name of William Shakespeare.
Making the rounds a few years ago, the Juilliard-trained actor found himself in meeting after meeting with enthusiastic New York agents who professed to have him pegged. Each one dictated a career trajectory that, rather than exciting Breaker to no end, had him squirming.
"At every interview, they'd say things like, 'I see you doing the WB,' " Breaker says. Or even more alarming, they'd recite some version of: "You're going to be the next Dule Hill, on 'West Wing 2.' "
No offense to Hill or even the WB, but Breaker saw neither as models for his own resume. He aspired to be Daniel Breaker, which, according to those who knew him at Juilliard, was special enough. Just as important, though, he wanted to train his sights on a facet of show business that does not exactly bring a twinkle to the eyes of those who groom, trumpet and massage the careers of the next generation of acting talent. He wanted to do -- prepare yourselves -- the Classics.
Outrageous as it sounds, Breaker, 25, prefers the challenges of 400-year-old iambic pentameter to the hypnotic prose of "Yes, Dear." And it's not merely his preference. It's his practice. Beginning with a Washington debut nearly three years ago in "The Silent Woman," Breaker has been seen in five -- count 'em, five -- Shakespeare Theatre Company productions. He also, by the way, finally signed with an agent who charmed him by posing a question he had been dying to hear: "What do you want to do?"
What he has done at the Shakespeare Company since a funny turn in the rarely performed Ben Jonson play is make a succession of ah-inspiring impressions: first in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals," then as Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Ariel in "The Tempest" and, now, as Dromio of Syracuse in the company's brash and whimsical "The Comedy of Errors."
A host of young actors -- some drawn from Juilliard, where the Shakespeare's artistic director, Michael Kahn, has headed the drama division for many years -- cut their classical teeth under the guidance of Kahn and other directors at one of the nation's best classical venues. In recent years, these hopes for the future have ranged from Jeffrey Carlson ("Lorenzaccio") to Tessa Auberjonois ("Lady Windermere's Fan"). None, however, has become quite as ardent or ubiquitous a fixture of the playhouse on Seventh Street NW as Breaker.
"There's nobody who took the training more seriously than Daniel," Kahn says. "He has a huge natural ability, but it all shows up because of his hard work. His sense of craft, his work ethic, are extraordinary and very rare in this day and age."
What also distinguishes Breaker is a charismatic oneness with verse. He has the ability to make ancient language completely his own. There is, too, that ineffable quality of an actor in his element, that feeling radiating across the footlights that he's exactly where he belongs. In "The Comedy of Errors," that translates into the production's funniest, most watchable performance.
Seeing his progress, his mentors at Juilliard are deeply gratified.
"Students come out of here, and there's more and more pressure for them to go out to L.A.," says Richard Feldman, an acting teacher who directed Breaker in Juilliard productions. Some students, he says, leave the school with little idea of how to apply the techniques they've learned. "They don't develop a personal sense of a mission or a sense of what they want to do," he continues. "Here's a young man with a deep sense of what it's about and what he wants to do with his artistic life."
Time now for a reality check: In a culture driven by what flashes by on big and little screens, you cannot make much of a splash devoting yourself to Sheridan and Shakespeare. For an African American actor with a classical bent, this fervor might be even more constraining. As Breaker himself notes, no matter how good the roles, the Shakespearean parts he has played in Washington are all servants. The twin Dromios in "Comedy of Errors" are even summoned by their masters from time to time by the moniker "slave."
Casting him in this string of roles might be more coincidental than conscious: Ariel and Puck are, after all, two of the most magnetic roles in Shakespeare. The more pressing issue for Breaker is probably one of genre: When will he try on a more tragic mask? The idea has occurred to him and Kahn. Richard III, Iago and Romeo intrigue him specially. "I would love to be doing the canon all my life," he says.
How precisely this young man was infected with an Elizabethan virus is not easily diagnosed. A self-described Army brat who grew up in Kansas, Illinois and Germany, Breaker -- the youngest of four siblings -- saw his mother in an amateur "Guys and Dolls" and was in his high school production of "West Side Story." "My mom said I was good, so I must have been good," he recalls jokingly during one of two recent conversations.
He would not begin to appreciate just how good until the Breakers moved to Jacksonville, Fla., where he enrolled in a magnet program, the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. At 17, he says, "I fell in love with acting. I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' "
Juilliard meant virtually nothing to him when he was invited to the Lincoln Center campus as part of the school's recruiting effort. His closest point of reference was the movie "Fame," set at Manhattan's High School of the Performing Arts. ("Great," Breaker remembers thinking. "I'll be dancing on cabs.")
Rather, he was soon acting on stages. "In terms of his maturity and sense of theatricality, it was a pretty remarkable combination," says Feldman, who recalls Breaker's first-year work in the play "Distant Fires," about a construction crew in Ocean City.
"We gave him the part of a disaffected, drunken guy filled with rage and hurt," Feldman adds, explaining that it was an attempt to push the student beyond his instinctive range. "We asked him to search other parts of himself, and he was more than willing."
Since graduating in 2002, Breaker, who lives in Manhattan, has ventured beyond the world of doublets and tights. Between contemporary and classical assignments, he has worked steadily on stages across the country. (A few bigger paydays came his way, too, in the form of national commercials for Papa John's and McDonald's.) In New York, he appeared in the premiere of Lynn Nottage's comedy "Fabulation"; at California's well-regarded South Coast Repertory, he was cast in Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle." This past summer, at the Sundance Theatre Lab, he had major parts in two works-in-progress: a play by Tanya Barfield, "Blue Door," and "Passing Strange," an experimental musical.
Naturally, there's Shakespeare peering at him around the corner, too. He's in talks with Kahn about traveling with the company next summer to Stratford-upon-Avon, where the Washington troupe is to stage "Love's Labour's Lost" as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's year-long, 37-play Shakespeare marathon.
How would an actor who is in this deep resist reciting the Bard to a hometown crowd?
"As of now, it's a yes," he confides, his eyes reflecting how helplessly he's hooked. "Honestly, I just can't say no."