Notes on Playing “Chryssipus the Merchant” in a Hong Kong Production of Forget Herostratus

“Forget Hierostratus” was written by the Russian playwright Grigori Gorin in 1972. It concerns Herostratus, who burned down the famous temple of Artemis, in Ephesus in 356 BC. In it, Herostratus defies his jailers, the Archon and the Persian ruler of Ephesus and seduces the Queen of Ephesus.

Forget Herostratus (Chryssipus the Merchant) was fun but was against type as was my aborted role in Measure for Measure (Escalus). I’m neither a fat merchant nor a wise old counselor. But that’s what acting is all about. Got some laughs from last night’s audience, and Nick Milnes and Pakamisa Swedala were great to work with. Ashley Galina D did great not only as the Priestess of Artemis but also as a costume fitter and Sarah Blackman gave a powerful performance as the Queen. Tom Hope is a great director.

Originally slated to play Escalus, I was removed from the Measure for Measure play in the same series for mouthing off.

That is (das ist): take direction or leave the production. And, as a Yank, you should not know more than the director about Shakespeare (or pretentiously think that you do) when the director is British and the play is Shakespeare.

Note that in the above I sleaze out of making a positive claim about my knowledge of Shakespeare. And I certainly don’t have much experience in Shakespeare stagecraft. However, in any applied, artisan-like art, as opposed to Higher Things, it’s always possible that the collective wisdom of generations might be malarkey. Branagh certainly demonstrated, for example, that you could do Shakespeare on the level, with no Angry Young Man nonsense, and uncut.

At the point I left I didn’t think the actors were listening to each other, and I believe that for somewhat the same reason Shakespeare’s characters, in Iago’s words, “wear their hearts on their sleeve/For daws to peck at” they also do not multitask while not listening.

Modern CEOs will be taking phone calls and playing stupid games on their Blackberry while you as the CIO is trying to tell them to upgrade to cloud computing. But I can think of no plot-point in Shakespeare caused by a failure to listen.

In Richard III, Richard fails to attend to “deep revolving witty Buckingham” after Buckingham doesn’t immediately assent to murdering the Princes in the Tower…for half a minute. Dickie Crookback then unloads on Buckingham: he asks him what ’tis o’Clock:

KING RICHARD III
Well, but what’s o’clock?
BUCKINGHAM
Upon the stroke of ten.
KING RICHARD III
Well, let it strike.
BUCKINGHAM
Why let it strike?
KING RICHARD III
Because that, like a Jack, thou keep’st the stroke
Betwixt thy begging and my meditation.
I am not in the giving vein to-day.

Lear attends to his Fool, and Tom o’ Bedlam-Edgar. When Beatrice says early in Much Ado, “I wonder why you are talking, Sir Benedict, no one attends to you” (or something like that) the put-down sounds curioiusly modern, and is only a prelude to her falling madly in love with him.

But no hard feelings above a small amount, and I understand that the production came together very well with an Escalus more attuned to the director’s vision: in a play that must last not more than two hours, Escalus must be a gofer and dogsbody. But Shakespeare’s intent was that he was an independent power able to mediate the lowlife and the upper classes within reason. A kind of Zhou Enlai.

But I vastly preferred doing Glengarry because I wasn’t sitting backstage and had a huge line load which gave me the willies, so I worked hard.

My contributions were mostly appreciated: for example, I deliberately violated a “blocking” rule in which a taller actor such as myself should try to stay back when I gave the audience a sales talk starting with “everyone who wants to succeed has to believe in themselves” accompanied by a sort of forestage dance. This gesture nearly got axed when Glengarry’s director was absent but she put it back in, and it produced a good audience reaction.

My comic timing in Herostratus was not all there because of overconfidence with the lesser role. TS Eliot said, perhaps based on his own theatrical experiences at Harvard, “Am an attendant lord/One that will do/To swell a scene or two”, but I haven’t the time to waste being older than dirt. Besides, if you’ve swot Hamlet they can’t kick you off as easily.

I inserted a joke into Herostratus about the whole affair, for when Chryssipus says, “no one reads Aeschylus anymore”, I had him mispronounce the playwright’s name and correct it to “Escalus”.

Untrained formally as I am, my acting is just Richard III’s “plain devil and dissembling looks”, memorizing lines, listening and reacting to what the other character is saying, and moving in measure like a dancer. If it works it works, if it don’t it don’t.

It’s as Marcellus Wallace says, in Pulp Fiction, a lot of us think our shit’s gonna age like fine wine. Mostly, it don’t. But Bruce Willis taught him a thing or two.

And it is important for me to remember that I’ve been given a shot in a semipro league that I would not get in Chicago.

I’d wanted to be an actor in seventh grade after reading the collected works of Shakespeare, and the lovely lady who became my ex wife did Richard III’s seduction scene with the Lady Anne with me. But because I wanted to support her career, I became a software nerd. The moral is, don’t do that. Don’t give up your dreams so readily.

I think American Beauty taught Kevin Spacey to attempt the impossible, for he is now a renowned Shakespearean actor…instead of an aging boob like Harrison Ford. He played a man who drew the line.

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