Maggie Siff, celebrated actress known for her work in Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy as well as for her prestigious career in the theatre, returns to the Theatre for a New Audience stage this season. Siff, who last year performed the role Kate in the Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew to much critical acclaim, plays the role of Beatrice in our current production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Arin Arbus.
As a well-versed Shakespearean actor and veteran of the theatre, Ms. Siff is the perfect fit for one of the title roles in our first production of the 2012-2013 Season. During rehearsal for Much Ado, she answered several questions on her view of Beatrice and her take on Shakespeare’s renowned romantic comedy:
Q: Many people see similarities between Katharina and Petruchio of The Taming of the Shrew and Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado. Some even believe that Kate and Petruchio are precursors, early versions of Beatrice and Benedick. Having played Kate in last season’s production and playing Beatrice in this season’s Much Ado, we’re curious to hear your thoughts on the differences and similarities between Kate and Beatrice, and the two couples.
A: To me they feel like distant cousins. I think the most concise version of how I feel they are related is to say, with regard to Kate and Beatrice, that Beatrice seems to pick up where Kate leaves off. I feel the discovery we made in our production was that Kate’s “taming” was learning how to live in the world. She spends so much of that play struggling with how to express herself. In attempting to make herself seen and heard she resorts to violent expression to enact her rage, to shake her thoughts into the world, to give voice to her depth of feeling. For me, Kate’s final monologue which many people find so troubling because it expresses a language of patriarchy, was a very brilliant expression of her learning how to play the game. She can say one thing and mean another, she can bury meaning and play with meaning, all the while speaking a language that doesn’t overtly threaten the people around her, but does manage to express or point to her true feelings. And it is the gap between the overt meaning and hidden meaning that is truly subversive. Petruchio is her wild and crafty teacher in this regard. He is an iconoclast and a rebel who knows how to play these games and he teaches her how to play them as well. You just know they are going to have so much fun together…they will never be bored in that marriage.
Beatrice is really very good at being seen and heard. She knows how to finesse and play with language in ways that allow her to say exactly what she thinks and feels, no matter how subversive it is in the culture of the play. Beatrice and Benedick have a very modern-seeming connection almost from the beginning. They are equals, and they are both wise to the pitfalls of love and marriage and of eschewing convention. I think the questions posed in Much Ado around love and marriage are more sophisticated and more ambiguous than they are in Shrew. It has more to do with making hard choices and sacrifices for the people we love, for abandoning parts of self for the sake of the other.
Q: Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s only plays that is primarily in prose. Do you approach Shakespeare’s prose differently than you approach his verse? If so, how? Are there any vocal or physical differences in performing prose as opposed to verse?
A: In Shakespeare’s verse he offers so many clues within the structure of iambic pentameter. In exploring verse you explore the structure and how the speeches are either adhering to the “rules” or departing from them. You can extrapolate meaning from this. In working with prose you feel sort of rudderless right at first, until you begin to understand the rhythms within this kind of writing. We have been talking about it as the language of argument, the language of noting the world and making a case. (The “Nothing” in the title of the play, in Shakespeare’s time, was a homonym of “noting.”) In that sense it is more grounded in the world of observation as opposed to the world of visceral gutsy feeling. Which is where all that wit and cleverness comes in. It requires a specific kind of mental acuity to keep making all the sharp turns they make, to build the arguments or to take the ball from someone and run in a different direction with it. And punctuation is very important! Personally, I also found it much more difficult to memorize…something to do with not having the undulations of verse.
Q: You may not know this yet, but at this point (before rehearsals), do you think Beatrice knows that she is going to ask Benedick to “kill Claudio” before she says it?
A: No. I don’t. I believe it is a spontaneous request arising in a moment of extremis.
Q: Since you performed in Shrew for New York City school kids and will also perform in Much Ado for them, could you talk about the differences and/or similarities between performing for student as opposed to adult audiences?
A: Well students don’t get all the nuances of the language. But they ALWAYS get the heart of the play and they are the most honest audience you can imagine. You really feel like they are living it with you. Which is the feeling we strive for as actors. Last year during Shrew I was so struck with how much they identified with Kate…as the unreasonable one, the one who won’t “behave,” the one who is too loud, who won’t listen, or (my favorite) the “mean” one. They want to understand so badly, and when they are presented with a story where it is hard to take sides, where the grey areas open up, their minds just starting whirring with questions and speculation and identification. Adults are so much more formed in their opinions about the world. One never feels judged performing for kids. Sadly, that is not the case when performing for adults who are assessing performance and interpretation (and whatever else the particular assessing mind might be working on). The innocence of children reminds me of the innocence we need as performers…to turn off the assessing mind and throw ourselves at things with play and openness so that we might surprise ourselves and invite unexpected ideas and feelings to enter the room. And it is our greatest hope as performers that we can invite an audience, children and adults alike, to do the same.
Q: You have been in a production of Aunt Dan and Lemon, a play by Wallace Shawn, whose work will also be produced at Theatre for a New Audience this season. What was your experience like in working on this project? Do you see similarities between working with Shakespeare and working with more contemporary pieces?
A: Oh I wish I could back and do that one again. I loved working on that play so much. It was quite a long time ago now so I am speaking from ye olde memory here… Aunt Dan and Lemon is a remarkable piece of writing. Yes, there are certainly similarities especially in the context of thinking about prose plays. Many of Wallace Shawn’s characters are masters of making an argument, making a case, “noting.” I played Lemon, a young girl whose mind has been corrupted by an older revered friend of the family. But she is the audience’s friend and leads them through the play, down the primrose path as it were, until the very end, when she deposits them squarely in the middle of her world view which is evil. And there we all were every night…sitting in that darkness, everyone complicit. The power and danger of language itself is revealed in that play. Which is a great theme in Shakespeare.
Much Ado About Nothing opened on February 17th and is currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street. For tickets, please click here.