This weekend, actor Harry Frazier will renew an old acquaintanceship with Shakespeare's Falstaff when he plays the infamous rogue in "Henry IV, Part One," the opening production at the Grove Shakespeare Festival.
Although he first played the part of Falstaff more than 20 years ago, this appearance represents a double challenge to Frazier: After the play closes on Aug. 9 at the Festival Amphitheatre, Frazier will reprise the role in "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Frazier, 45, who looks every bit the burly, full-bearded Falstaff, reminisced recently about his first time out in the role.
"It was a matinee (in 1962) at the original Old Globe Theatre in San Diego," he recalled. As an understudy to Victor Buono, Frazier had had only two hours of rehearsal when he was called to step into the role. Buono had left over a contract dispute. The audience, who had come to see Buono, "was still groaning as I started the prologue. I could see them sliding down in their seats and crossing their arms. Well, I won them. At the end of the show, they gave me a terrific ovation."
Frazier came full circle with Falstaff last fall when he re-created the role at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood in "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two."
Playing the character, Frazier said, "is a constantly changing process.
"The great thing about playing any Shakespearean part is that each time you come back to it you find new things," Frazier said. "You're always attempting to come up to the playwright's level. You never make it--no one ever does, because the characters he wrote are just so rich and varied. Just when you think you've got it pretty well understood, there are these other layers and levels of meaning."
In previous characterizations of Falstaff, Frazier said he mostly went for the laughs. This time out, under the direction of Richard E.T. White from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Frazier wanted to find a little more of the character's "black side."
The actor views Falstaff as a sort of "darker father" to young Prince Hal (who later becomes King Henry V).
And he sees something of the teacher in Falstaff. Providing the amoral counterpoint to Prince Hal's father, King Henry IV, Falstaff indirectly shows Hal how to handle hypocrisy. "At the end of the play you begin to see Hal's disenchantment with his relationship with Falstaff. This is necessary for him in his growth as a monarch. Life is going to be full of hangers-on, and he has to develop good judgment." Shakespeare also uses Falstaff to comment on the atrocities of war, Frazier maintained. Falstaff recruits a rag-tag bunch of men for the battle in Act V and epitomizes the cavalier attitude toward death when he says of his men, they're "good enough to toss; food for powder."
These negative aspects to Falstaff's character, however, do not mean that Frazier's Falstaff will be a gloomy fellow. Indeed, at a recent rehearsal in the blazing afternoon sun at the Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove, Frazier showed Falstaff to be as much in command of verbal repartee as ever.
"Falstaff is still a very funny fellow," he noted. "He's very witty, and the way he relates to people is through verbal gamesmanship. It's interesting because I just never hang out with these kinds of people. In my own personal life I don't care for that sort of thing. But it makes it fascinating to play, to look for those areas in myself where I'm less than admirable."
Frazier, who has done a small body of work in television and is also a film maker, is most at home in the theater. Since he began acting in the late 1950s, he has worked extensively in regional theater and was a charter member of two of the United States' most esteemed repertory companies: Milwaukee Repertory and the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco. His stage credits also include a season with the Alaska Repertory Theatre and a longstanding involvement with Theatricum Botanicum, the Topanga Canyon Theater founded by the late Will Geer.
When he's not acting, Frazier and his partner, William Moritz, collaborate in making experimental films. Without plot or dialogue, the films center on images and mood. Frazier's film "Maya" has won acclaim in museum and art gallery showings here and abroad. He currently has an American Film Institute grant for yet another experimental film short and entertains thoughts of directing plays as well.
Frazier says he now has developed a new consciousness about his work. Despite more than two decades in the theater, Frazier maintained he has always been very low-key about his occupation. "I never thought about myself as having a 'career.' Now I do. I've realized that it's very important that you give yourself that context."
The Grove Shakespeare Festival features "Henry IV, Part One," today through Aug. 9; "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Aug. 15 through Sept. 13; "Love's Labour Lost," July 25 through Aug. 23 (Gem Theatre). For information , call Gem Theatre box office at (714) 636-7213.