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The Return of the Pimpernel

The role revived Douglas Sills' interest in acting. Now he returns to his roots in Shakespeare.

February 25, 2001|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a regular contributor to Calendar

While performing "The Scarlet Pimpernel" on Broadway, Douglas Sills often found 200 fans waiting for him at the stage door. After years of working in touring companies and Southern California theaters, the 6-foot-2, dark-blond actor had finally landed on Broadway, to become an instant matinee idol.

Sills didn't see himself in those terms, however. Matinee idol? The description causes him to roll his eyes and make a face.

"It was like walking into a fun house," Sills says of the adulation. "It was very much a distortion of reality. And as long as you understood that, you were fine."

If ever he felt himself floating into the clouds, the work quickly brought him down to earth. The title role pushed Sills' voice and body to their limits, requiring him to virtually sign his life over to "Pimpernel" from mid-1997 through mid-1999.

Since his departure from the show after its national tour stop at the Ahmanson Theatre last spring, the 40-year-old Sills has returned to basics: the people he loves and the work that sustains him. That means quality time at home in Los Angeles' Fairfax District with Todd Murray, his partner of 7 1/2 years. And it means exercising different sets of acting muscles in the Reprise! concert series' presentation of the Jerry Herman musical "Mack & Mabel" last November and in South Coast Repertory's staging of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," now in previews for a Friday opening.

"Much Ado" reconnects Sills to his roots in classical theater--specifically, his graduate studies at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, where he and Nike Doukas, who plays Beatrice to his Benedick at SCR, performed the roles in a scene study class. Murray, whom Sills met when they performed in the national tour of "The Secret Garden," has a small part as the balladeer Balthasar.

The production is directed by Mark Rucker, whose SCR credits include a 1996 "Taming of the Shrew" transferred to a cartoon-colored, "Guys and Dolls" fantasy of the 1950s. His staging of "Much Ado" will retain the Italian setting but will infuse the story with the look and style of Hollywood's 1930s screwball comedies.

"I miss this process-oriented work," Sills says one evening at home, after rehearsal.

"You're dealing with such strong linguistic issues. So much of what is joyous about 'Much Ado' has to do with a sort of 'Seinfeld'-esque or 'Will & Grace' quality of 400 years ago." Many of the jokes involve topical references that have long since been forgotten, he explains, so the actors must dig in and "archeologically" uncover the meanings.

Written in the middle of Shakespeare's career, circa 1598, "Much Ado" is a dark-tinged comedy about appearance versus reality. In the main story, Claudio, a young lord, rejects his bride, Hero, at the altar because he has been duped into believing she is unchaste. Benedick and Beatrice, another young lord and lady, serve as a sort of case study in attraction-repulsion. Though drawn to one another, they fight the impulse by engaging in a war of words--until, gradually, they argue themselves into a more reasoned, intellectual love.

A tangle of contradictions, Benedick is prone to "very quick turns in mood, in tempo, in personality," Sills says. An effective portrayal of him is "like a Napoleon--not the person, the pastry. If one layer is too heavy, you're going to crush all the others. And if it's too light, it falls apart in your hand."

Doukas says her co-star brings "phenomenal charisma" to the role. "Part of it is, he's very handsome," she says. But what makes him truly riveting, she explains, is the stuff going on inside his head. "He's really smart; he's thinking a lot of things at the same time. He can be very, very funny but very moving."

*

Certainly, a lot is going on in that head as Sills sits in front of a crackling fire in his 1930s Spanish-revival-style home, talking about his career. He analyzes every issue frontward, backward and sideways, pondering for a few moments before he speaks. When the sentences begin to flow, they're colored with similes, metaphors and layers of detail. He'll begin an anecdote by saying, "The short version is"--then talk nonstop for 10 or 15 minutes.

Checking in, Murray jokingly observes: "He doesn't like to talk, does he?"

Looking back on his early adventures in acting in suburban Detroit, Sills talks about making 16-millimeter films with buddy Sam Raimi (now a director of films including "The Gift") and another future actor, Bruce Campbell (star of syndicated television's "Jack of All Trades"). Grinning, Sills recalls that they used ample amounts of fake blood made of Karo syrup and red dye No. 2.

At the University of Michigan, Sills had law school in mind as he sampled psychology, math, economics, literature and music. He felt a tug in his heart, however, as friends auditioned for graduate acting programs.

After much soul-searching and with his family's encouragement, he headed to San Francisco to study acting, then moved to Los Angeles to look for work.

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