Smile and Be a Villain; Despair and Be One, Too
by Patrick Healy
September 20, 2012
Patrick Page has dreamed of performing the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway for as long as he can remember. It is his favorite play, “the greatest part ever written,” he said, and he has been in three productions of it over the past 25 years, including twice as Cyrano. But when he learned that a new Broadway revival was already committed to star a Tony Award winner, Mr. Page chose not to sulk. Instead, he sought to join the production as one of Cyrano’s antagonists, the aristocrat de Guiche. And soon the job was his, the latest in a career of villains from Richard III and Iago to, most recently, the spandex-and-foam-suited Green Goblin for 21 months in the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Yet Mr. Page’s interest in the new “Cyrano,” now in previews, wasn’t to add another villain to his résumé or to escape his 15-minute costume changes in “Spider-Man.” He hoped, rather, to explode the image of mustache-twirling cads like de Guiche (pronounced de GEESH), a French count who covets Roxane, the beauty beloved by the big-beaked Cyrano and the dimwitted Christian. For Mr. Page does not approach his villains as villains, he said; he sees de Guiche swept up in a true feeling that makes him realize the phoniness of his life.
“De Guiche is a man baffled by the fact that he’s gotten everything he’s ever wanted, and yet he’s so unhappy,” Mr. Page said in an interview amid rehearsals this month. “I felt he was more complicated than he’s been given credit for.”
The same could be said of Mr. Page, should anyone assume his range begins and ends with his most devilish feature: his unforgettably deep executioner’s voice, which delighted so many children (and cracked up parents) in “Spider-Man” and two earlier Broadway outings as another green meanie, in the musical “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
The 50-year-old Mr. Page is one of the most critically admired Shakespeareans in regional theater, as well as an actor who relentlessly examines his characters; he is now putting together a one-man show about the nature of evil in Shakespeare, from “Richard III” through “The Tempest.”
That struggle came to a head in March 2009, as he was preparing to play Claudius in an Off Broadway “Hamlet” for Theater for a New Audience. After years of masking his depression from most colleagues, Mr. Page said, he suffered a breakdown in the “Hamlet” rehearsal room and had to be taken straightaway to see doctors; he was replaced in that production and became bedridden as his wife, the actress Paige Davis, talked over options with psychiatrists. They decided to take him to a friend’s house in the Hamptons for a bright change of scene, but Mr. Page’s crying jags did not stop.
About the only thing that calmed him, he said, was a request from the director Julie Taymor to audition as the Green Goblin for “Spider-Man.” She asked him to sing a rock song, and as he lay in bed, he fastened onto Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare,” which he began murmuring in the voice of the Goblin.
He was still prostrate on the day of the “Spider-Man” audition. But he got up; met with Ms. Taymor and one of the show’s composers, Bono of U2; sang; and then went back to bed. The Tony-winning Alan Cumming got the role, but when he dropped out a year later because of production delays, Ms. Taymor made an offer to Mr. Page, who by then was thriving from a mix of antidepressants and talk therapy.
“For all the bumps that ‘Spider-Man’ had, that show was a blessed event for me,” he said.
Referring to his earlier Broadway work, he continued: “I felt absolutely no joy performing in ‘The Grinch,’ performing ‘A Man for All Seasons.’ And then with ‘Spider-Man,’ when cast injuries happened and other problems hit the show, people asked me how I kept such equanimity. A huge part of it was I knew what it was like to be in a life-threatening situation. ‘Spider-Man’ wasn’t one.”
Mr. Page’s depression took root when he was a young boy in the Pacific Northwest. During many nights of his fitful sleeping his father, a university theater professor, would try to lull him by playing audiotapes of Laurence Olivier’s performances in Shakespeare’s plays. Mr. Page fell in love with Richard III from those tapes as he recited famous speeches along with Olivier. He felt compassion, not fear, for the hunchbacked Richard, identifying with him as a fellow misfit.
“I wouldn’t play with other children, and at recess I would just walk the perimeter of the playground alone,” Mr. Page said. “I remember my third-grade teacher would line us up before recess and say: ‘I have two lemon drops. One is for Patrick if he will play with the other kids, and one is for whoever wants to play with Patrick.'”
In junior high school Mr. Page was bullied, but he soon broke out of his shell in the safe havens of clubs like speech and debate and drama. He went on to become the valedictorian of his Class of ’85 at Whitman College and began working at Western theaters like the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Pioneer Theater Company.
Mr. Page began making stabs at Broadway in the 1990s, and his singular voice and classical training landed him both plays (“The Kentucky Cycle“) and musicals (“Beauty and the Beast“). But his breakout role did not come until 2003, when he was cast on Broadway in Ms. Taymor’s “Lion King” as a replacement Scar, the silky, fratricidal usurper. He played the role on and off for several years, sprinkled among lead roles in “Macbeth,” “Othello” and other works of the Shakespeare canon at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington and the Old Globe Theater.
Ms. Taymor said in an interview that Mr. Page remained one of her favorite Scars — “every gesture carried a thought that set him apart, like how he swung his cane like a golf club” — and instantly settled on him as the Green Goblin (a k a the scientist Norman Osborn) when Mr. Cumming moved on.
“Alan probably would have been a boyish bad guy, while Patrick brings a warmth and almost a paternal quality to his roles, so when he turns bad, it’s just even more monstrous,” Ms. Taymor said.
During the “Spider-Man” winter of discontent in 2010-11, amid months of previews and Ms. Taymor’s eventual firing by the show’s producers, Mr. Page became a rock for the company, with its young stars, like the lead actor, Reeve Carney, saying they turned to him for moral support and a long-view perspective. Mr. Page said he never felt that his acting talent was being wasted under his 30-pound green costume and added that for all the offstage hostility between Ms. Taymor and the producers, no one on either side ever said a bad word about the others to him.
“Instead, we could enjoy the opportunity of a long-running show, which is when you can really increase your ability to concentrate and listen,” said Mr. Page, dressed in black for the interview in the flying circle mezzanine of his old “Spider-Man” theater, his voice echoing occasionally in the huge hall. “Acting in a long run is like meditation for me. Other thoughts fall away, and you’re just in a scene, totally present, talking and relating and feeling.”
Melting into the words is also his experience with “Cyrano,” given that he knows the play by Edmond Rostand by heart. Even so, he has found new passages to explore. At a recent rehearsal he initially performed de Guiche’s final speech like a reproach to Le Bret, as if to bat away the other man’s observations about Cyrano. When Mr. Page finished, the production’s director, Jamie Lloyd, encouraged him to make the speech more personal and existential — to make it more about de Guiche’s own confusion and wistfulness. Mr. Page took a moment; the scene started again, and his delivery was more bittersweet and decidedly more memorable. “My fear had been that the speech would be too much about me,” Mr. Page said. “I sort of needed Jamie to give me permission to do that.”
The star of this revival, Douglas Hodge, who won a 2010 Tony for “La Cage aux Folles,” said that Mr. Page impressed him not only with his historical research — Mr. Page has read dozens of books about “Cyrano” and the play’s era — but also his courtesy as a member of the company.
“He has fastidiously avoided saying anything about how he played Cyrano before or how he might approach a moment I’m figuring out,” Mr. Hodge said. “If he’s had to bite his lip, I wouldn’t know it. The only thing he’s done is shown me pictures of his Cyrano nose, which I loved.”
Mr. Page, whose omission from the last season’s Tony Award nominations surprised plenty of fellow artists, said he still hoped to play Cyrano himself on Broadway someday but added that he was at peace with the current realities of casting Tony winners and Hollywood celebrities. Just being on his feet and onstage, he said, was happiness enough.
“Star casting on Broadway just makes me all the more ambitious, to aspire to be in a place where I can play those roles too, like at Washington Shakespeare or the Old Globe,” Mr. Page said. “But there are plenty of good roles to play on Broadway. Including villains. And typecasting is not really a problem in my book when the roles are good. The only thing I can’t do is paint my face green again.”