If all goes as planned, by the end of this year Chicago theater stalwart Larry Yando will have achieved the crotchety trifecta, playing three of the most quarrelsome old cusses in literature back-to-back-to-back.
In the fall, he’ll take on King Lear—the Mt. Everest of English-speaking drama—at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, before reprising his role as Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol.
First, though, comes Edgar, the ferociously cantankerous military captain locked in eternal combat with his unhappy wife in The Dance of Death, August Strindberg’s uncompromising 1900 portrait of marital strife and spiritual torment. The U.S. premiere of a new adaptation of the play, by Irish dramatist Conor McPherson, is currently getting a blistering production. It's under the direction of Henry Wishcamper, at Writers Theatre’s space at Books on Vernon in Glencoe.
Yando joined us recently to talk about his upcoming roles.
What appealed to you about doing Strindberg in the back of a bookstore in Glencoe?
I love working in that bookstore. I love that the idea of playing to the 50th row is taken out of the mix. It feels like any sort of bullshit is caught very easily. I think every actor should do a show there once a year.
As far as the actual show, I wanted to work with Shannon Cochran again. One of the first shows I did out of DePaul was Sweet Charity at Marriott Lincolnshire. Shannon was Charity and I played all her boyfriends.
I also loved the idea of working on a US premiere by Conor McPherson. It was cool to me—the idea of Swedish Strindberg filtered through Irish Conor McPherson. So all of the elements came together. It’s a luxury when you can pick a show because you really want to work with the director, you really want to work on the play, you really want to work with a particular actor, and you like the space you’re doing it in. It doesn’t happen all the time. So it was sort of a perfect storm for me.
Tell me about your approach to playing Edgar. You play him as kind of childish bully with what seems a feverish fear of death behind the bluster.
There’s a sense with him of not having achieved something and creating a reality that doesn’t exist. He tells himself, “I am a very important military captain.” At the same time, he’s an alcoholic, he’s abusive, and actually is not taken seriously at all. So the amount of energy that takes, to perpetuate that myth for yourself and for everyone else around you, accounts for a lot of the fever pitch.
There’s a sense of loss and failure that this man cannot possibly acknowledge. Vulnerable is not a place where he lives. But the fact of the matter is, his health is failing, he’s gonna die, and his whole life is based on a fabrication. And the wife knows it. And there’s nowhere else for him to go. They need each other.
They need each other and resent needing each other.
Absolutely. When it comes down to it, they can’t separate from each other. They can’t get out of there but they desperately want to get out of there.
Everybody who ever talks about the play compares it to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it seems like a precursor to so much of what appeared in the 20th century—Beckett and Pinter, for instance.
I think somewhere along the way, Albee said that he got his inspiration from Dance of Death and now every single dramaturgical writing on it is all about Woolf. But I never really think of it. I’ve never done Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so that connection isn’t as palpable as maybe it might be for someone who’s played George or Martha. It doesn’t enter my psyche. What does is [Beckett’s] Waiting for Godot or Endgame. That’s what resonates in my head.
Speaking of other roles, you’re playing Lear in the fall. That’s another aging man given to tantrums and stuck in a difficult family situation. Do you think Edgar will influence that performance?
I’m in denial I’m doing Lear. It’s very exciting but it also feels like, What am I doing? I’ve got to be out of my mind.
But I truly believe that every part I play is really like playing all the parts I’ve played before. Together. It’s a weird thing. I feel like I learn and excavate with every role I play, and once you uncover something that’s inside of you and allow it to be witnessed, I don’t think you can cover it up again. I think it’s added into the mix of who you are as an actor. For example, I’m playing Scrooge again this coming year. And if this Scrooge is at all different, it’s because Edgar and Lear are going to be in there somehow. Inside of me is this accumulation of discoveries that come with different parts, and you can’t undiscover something.
So you’re a Russian nesting doll, basically.
Yeah. And I like it. I couldn’t have done this Edgar three years ago. Something is different, and it’s got to do with [Mary Zimmerman’s] The Jungle Book and Hamlet [at Writers in 2012] and all the things I’ve done that have altered me in some way.
Through 7/20. $35–$70. Writers Theatre, 664 Vernon, Glencoe. writerstheatre.org