The A-Game: Acting and Austin
"Dress of Fire," by Nina Kethevan, brought me two wonderful opportunities: first, acting with film and theatre legend Austin Pendleton, and second, a role so meaty, this vegetarian had to sharpen her fangs to sink her teeth in.
Nina Kethevan's "Dress of Fire" uses a backdrop of the Trojan war to explore the perils of a nation that only operates in its own interests. By the end of the play, King Priam, played expertly by Austin Pendleton, has been convinced by his daughter Cassandra, played fiercely by Alice Kremelberg, that war is the old way. As he goes off to fight his final battle, he tells his wife, Queen Hecuba (me), that everything about their lives has been wrong, and that after he dies, she must abandon their doomed empire, and spread the word of peace.
Hecuba's like, "Ah HELL to the no."
It's not that she fully disagrees with the new sentiment, but the idea of living on in a mindset of "it was all for naught" is too much. Throughout the play, she reflects on how her life has been merely in service of his: she was taken from a village as a child to be his wife, bore a multitude of descendants, and when he moved on to other concubines, she steadied her life's purpose in her role as Queen by doubling down on making theirs an empire of greatness. Though none of her relationships have left her feeling particularly satisfied, and she fails to see her own part in alienating others, she is the ultimate business-owner: she overseas every last detail herself.
Acting this final scene with Austin always felt like flying on a trapeze with a fabulous, bouncy safety net: each performance was different, and there was an instant unspoken awareness that we were safe to play- that anything we threw wouldn't be missed.
As written, Hecuba feels very much unseen by Priam. He gives his final instructions without taking in what she might want, or that she might be a separate entity with her own aspirations. She breaks rank to speak her mind, letting it all hang out.
I'll never forget the beautiful challenge Austin gave me one night when, standing on the opposite side of the stage, he spoke a line to me with such an undercurrent of gratitude and love that he just broke my heart open. I couldn't just be "angry" with him for never seeing me and not appreciating me, with that line, his behavior had just told me the opposite. He gave Hecuba, with that one utterance, all she ever really needed.
And yet, I still had to finish the play. Suddenly, my fighting words became about something else. I know longer was angry, desperate for him to take me seriously, instead, I desperately wanted him to stay. But tragically... didn't have any other words to use.
And right there, that was the character. Incapable of getting out of her own way.