Spend a few minutes with the brilliant actor Larry Yando and you might think, as I do, that he is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. So, when I turned that particular description back to the roles he plays, it launched us on a fascinating conversation about why he has, in fact, ended up most often playing what he termed ‘the meanies.’
Not just your average, everyday meanie, either.
Consider the devious Scar in the national tour of “The Lion King,” a role Yando played for three years, Dodge in the recent Writers Theatre production of “Buried Child,” eleven years and counting as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre Holiday Classic “A Christmas Carol” and, currently, Lord Arlington in the American premiere of “Nell Gwynn” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a milestone of sorts in an association with the company that dates back 25 years.
Yando admits that not playing the ‘goody-goody’ has its advantages. The darker roles are typically his favorites and usually more interesting to him overall. He loves the language of these characters. “They speak well,” he says, and “have a way of turning a phrase” that “piques his curiosity,” as he is “trying to find what is funny … or what is somehow ‘needful’ in a villain … or where the cracks are.”
Among the highlights of the long list of Yando’s critically-acclaimed productions are “Angels in America” at Court Theatre, “Candide” at Goodman Theatre, “The Dance of Death” at Writers Theatre, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at Pegasus Players and Porchlight’s “Scottsboro Boys.” Earlier this year, he appeared in the European tour of Peter Brooks’ “Battlefield.”
At Chicago Shakes, Yando’s most memorable performances include King Henry in “Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2,” Prospero in “The Tempest” and Barbara Gaines’ “King Lear” and Tug of War series. He credits the opportunity to delve into Shakespeare’s language with the company as one of the most important influences in his acting career. He is still holding out to play Romeo or Hamlet in a production someday, but he suspects that ship has sailed and that Richard III is a more realistic bucket list item for the future.
In the meantime, there is much more in our CONVERSATION and still a few weeks left to see Lord Arlington weave a cunning web of deception in “Nell Gwynn” on Navy Pier before Yando returns to the Goodman Theatre with Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, a trio of ghosts, and the adorable Paris Strickland blessing everyone as Tiny Tim in one of the most classic – and beloved – meanies of all, Ebenezer Scrooge. PODCAST
The American premiere of NELL GWYNN … “It's a British comedy, based on a real character named Nell Gwynn who was a prostitute and an orange-hawker who caught the eye of King Charles and became his mistress. … a kind of flip-flopping between the love story of Nell and King Charles and backstage theater story ala “Noises Off,” for lack of a better reference. It's very witty. It’s very funny. It’s very touching and fabulous. I play Lord Arlington … a second in command to King Charles who tries to get him to run the country and stop fooling around with theater and Nell Gwynn. …Chicago Shakes worked really hard to get this show. Barbara and everyone saw it in London and they got the premiere …It is period specific. … the King Charles wigs … the clothes are heavy, layered and ornate. It's all about flash and that makes it fun.”
Bridging the gap … “If you read it, it's not blatantly referencing contemporary, which is what I think is one of the most fabulous things about the script. For example – and it fits right into the scene – I say to the King, “You've got to be the King. You've got to make Britain great again.” That is absolutely something I could have said in the 1600s when I was dealing with King Charles because I mean it. The audience connects dots very often. There is not a lot of anachronistic stuff from the period on the page. I think it's got to do with the playwright being really clever, bridging that gap. Audiences love it when they can make the connection. It's why I think it works ... we've done a lot of the fun work for the audience already, which is why I like Shakespeare when it's from another time or another place. Shakespeare is such a humanistic playwright, mythic almost, and the connections are on a very deep level that you don't have to say, “Look, this could be happening now.” The people who receive the play make those connections and then they have added something to the event.”
Discovering Shakespeare … “This is my 25th year working at Chicago Shakespeare. I was taken aback by that last week when they told me. I had no idea … Just investigating and understanding and digging into the Shakespeare has really helped me in every show I do, no matter when it was written, what century, or who the playwright was. I feel very fortunate that I found this theater and Shakespeare. I came to it late. I used to think he just talked too much. ‘Say what you mean!’ For years I thought that I don't want to do Shakespeare. Who knew this would happen? ... You can apply everything I do to a Shakespeare play. … It makes me hear the music of the playwright. It has helped me become attune to finding the music of every individual playwright. I think it started with my investigation of Shakespeare in this theater, which is what Barbara based the theater on – The text. The work. Making it clear. Understanding it and not sort of messing around with delivering what was intended. We see how it has paid off with the theater and it certainly has helped actors too, like me.”
The Yard … “I just think it's great and it allows the theater to bring in these fabulous international companies – from Belgium, France, Italy, Colombia where amazing theater is happening. It allows that to happen on a bigger level now, which is crucial to me because to me theatre – from the people in the room rehearsing a play to the international scope – is a family. … It's about ensemble. A big ensemble working together to create this sort of piece that will happen and then never be seen again. … The Yard at Chicago Shakes secures and toughens the threads that link us to theater all over the world.”
Buried Child at Writers … “A dream of mine. I thought, ‘Wow! I get to sit on a couch for all three acts. This is going to be a breeze.’ And it was one of the hardest things I've ever done! … just supporting your voice technically when you're slumped on a sofa, and then I had to be on the floor … I should know by now, nothing is ever going to be easy, especially if you want to push yourself and sort of go to the limit for the role. … I was buried in corn husks. … They were not helpful. I had to lay there and all the little hairs from the corn would go up my nose and I’m like, ‘Don't sneeze. Supposed to be asleep.’ … I saw (‘Buried Child’) when I was in college, the original production Off Off Broadway, and it was one of those major productions in my life. My world kind of got rocked. Same thing happened with ‘Angels in America’. I'm very lucky. These dreams of mine that were on hold in the back of my head have resurfaced. I always loved Sam Shepard. I did my Master's thesis at The Theater School (at DePaul University) on Sam Shepherd, which is funny because he's a misogynistic cowboy who writes the most beautiful poetry. You know what I mean? This Americana. A vernacular that's heightened into soaring poetry very often. I love that combination of the subject matter with form and content.”
Kimberly Senior … “I had never worked with Kimberly before … that was a treat because the older I get, what the rehearsal room is like has become very important to me. I just have no time for a nasty negative rehearsal room. I've been very lucky that that has not happened to me. … (Actors) have to be brave and have to step out on an edge if they're going to grow and be startling – and perhaps magical – and make the show work. And if you don't have the trust in the room where you're figuring everything out, if you do not feel safe, it's never going to happen. Kimberly's rehearsal room (was safe) from the word go with a play that deals with really deep, dysfunctional family issues. I think to get to the rock bottom of it and to make it work, you need to really excavate as an actor yourself and go deep. And you need to feel comfortable to do that. And that was the case with her and so it was just a joy to work with Kimberly on that show. She loves Sam Shepard as much as I do.”
Ebenezer Scrooge… “It still brings me a great deal of satisfaction and great joy to see how that show lands on people. Now more than ever. I love the director Henry Wishcamper. I first did it with Bill Brown, who is a dear friend. We had acted a lot together. Then he went into directing. I think it was his idea to bring me in and everyone was like, “What! Larry Yando?” And he said just try it and it kind of worked. … Everything about it resonates now so strongly. I thought I would absolutely get tired of myself doing this show thinking ‘What more can I give to it?’ But last year and this year it felt more important to do A Christmas Carol. You know, separation of classes. Someone who hates the world. There is hope in it. He finds redemption. He finds joy. He forgives himself, which is what I think we are hoping desperately. A lot of people who are sort of above us and running us now will do or find some sort of crack where light can get in. And so, I'm happy to do it again and I am excited and hoping I could find something new this year, but the play sort of finds its own newness just based on what's going on around us.”
Paris Strickland as Tiny Tim … “She's so tiny. So strong. So smart. So focused. She kept me on track last year … a rock for the production and she is back this year.”
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater|Liz Lauren
Henry IV Parts I & II|CST Archive
Goodman Theatre|Liz Lauren
Writers Theatre|Michael Brosilow
Scottsboro Boys|Porchlight Music Theatre Archive
CHICAGO SHAKESPEARE THEATER
on Navy Pier