Kate Mulgrew Stars as Egyptian Queen in Antony and Cleopatra
By FRANK RIZZO
October 03, 2010
Kate Mulgrew was wondering about the snake.
Should she or should she not have a live snake on stage for her climactic death scene in Hartford Stage's production of William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," in which she portrays the Queen of the Nile?
"I meet the snake at today's rehearsals," she said at a recent breakfast interview in downtown Hartford. "I asked for a live snake and I got it. It's supposed to be trained. I think it's important that it be live, if I can manage it. Snakes are scary, which is why that moment is so fantastic. I want to see if the snake will coil itself naturally around me. If it will, it will be worth it. If it won't and it's unwieldy and it makes women in the audience scream, we might have to reassess it."
The snake ended up not being used, but it's clear from her eagerness to go live-reptile that Mulgrew is going all out for the role she has coveted for years, one of the most challenging parts for an actress in Shakespeare's canon. She is fast with praise for Tina Landau ("a director for whom I would do anything"), artistic director Michael Wilson, Hartford Stage and her co-star John Douglas Thompson, who in the last few years has become a hot classical actor for his starring roles in "Othello," "Richard III" and "Emperor Jones." He is scheduled to play Macbeth next year off-Broadway.
"This pair of middle-aged lovers are flawed, fractured, splendid people in the last throes of a magnificent love affair which is also a great political alliance," she says.
Mulgrew says she has studied the life of the fabled queen, who lived from 69 to 30 BC and ruled an empire.
"I always wanted to play this role," says Mulgrew. "She's the most complex, richest, most developed female character Shakespeare's ever written, and the writing is spectacular. And let us not forget how astutely political she was. Also, her intelligence was so keen and almost overdeveloped for that time in the ancient world. She spoke 15 languages. Incredible. But first and foremost, she was a queen, and boy, did she know it."
There's also something about Mulgrew that makes you, too, sit up straight, enunciate and mind your manners. Besides playing royalty, she guided the Voyager as Capt. Kathryn Janeway in the television series, "Star Trek: Voyager." ("I'm a lot like her," she told an interviewer.) And her most memorable parts were characters of fierce determination, not the least of which is Katharine Hepburn, a role she undertook the last time she was in town for Hartford Stage's 2002 premiere of the solo bio-play "Tea at Five."
"I have a strength in my personality,' says the 55-year-old actress. "That's the first thing that jumps out at you, my strength. So naturally I'm inclined to take those roles [of self-possessed women] thinking they're going to be a little bit easier. But the flip side to strength is always the vulnerability underneath, the insecurity below the surface, and always weakness."
She says that also applies to Cleopatra: "I'm finding that for every moment of her extraordinary expertise, there are moments of bewilderment, regret, self-loathing, despair, all changing on a dime."
Growing Up In Iowa
A lot of that strength comes with the actress's own DNA.
"I was born able and hearty," says Mulgrew, the second oldest of eight children growing up in Iowa in an Irish-Catholic household without TV. "You're looking at one very unspoiled person. If you wanted something in our family, you had to work for it."
At the age of 12, she knew exactly what she wanted to do and started to work for it, with a slight detour at first. She retells a tale she has told for decades, but making it sound as if she was remembering it for the first time.
"I remember it clearly," she says. "I was writing the world's worst poetry, thinking it was divine. The nuns at this ridiculously agrarian Catholic school in the middle of a cornfield ask me to read some of my poems to the school. But my mother said to me, 'You know what, kitten? I wouldn't read your poetry. Why don't you read someone else's poetry just to see what the reaction would be.' And she gave me Alice Duer Miller's poem 'The White Cliffs' and I read it and the nuns were all crying by the end of it. My mother was there, too, and on the long way home, she stopped the car — I'll never forget it — she stopped the car, turned off the ignition and turned to me and said, 'You have one choice. You can either be the world's most mediocre poet or you can be a great actress.' I just looked at her knowing she was right."
From that point on, Mulgrew set her sights on an acting career and her mother helped, sending her to summer acting schools.
Though her mother was a painter, a cosmopolitan person and an elitist, her father, who was a contractor, was not swayed by a theatrical career for his daughter.
"He didn't like the theater and he didn't buy it," she says. "He said, 'I think you're full of [expletive] and I'm going to watch while you break your neck coming out of the gate. Maybe then you'll get a real job.' Looking back at it, he may have said that for any number of reasons, but foremost among them, I think he wanted to instill in me the significance of the stakes; that I couldn't just play at it; that I had to get his attention in a serious way. To the day he died six years ago, he never saw me work."
She later says he saw her in two stage shows, the second in which he left at intermission. "He was tough, tough, but I adored him."
Off On Her Career
At 17, Mulgrew left the Midwest. She eventually landed at New York University and the Stella Adler Conservatory. But at the end of her junior year at NYU, she left school to pursue an acting career full-time.
How did she assess herself at the time? With an unsentimental, clear mind.
"I was good-looking enough, but I didn't have beauty to fall back on. I didn't have looks or a pedigree but I had strength and I was determined."
Mulgrew made her stage debut in Connecticut in the summer of 1975 when she was at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, playing Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in a cast that included Geraldine Fitzgerald, Eileen Heckart, Fred Gwynne, Lee Richardson and Richard Backus.
"I was the happiest summer of my life,' she says.
Making it even happier that season was getting the coveted role of Mary Ryan in the new television daytime drama, "Ryan's Hope," a role she kept until 1989. She was the self-described "it" girl, getting a lot of attention from television producers.
But she also wanted to have a career in the theater and would return to the stage between TV series and guest episodes. She regularly played roles from "Hedda Gabler" to "Major Barbara" at regional theaters in Seattle, Los Angeles and Alaska. (She played debutante Tracy Lord in "The Philadelphia Story" — a part synonymous with Hepburn — while pregnant in Anchorage to audiences of boomtown men. "I loved it. Everybody in the audience was always drunk and full of testosterone. They would yell out, 'Yeah, baby.' This is the way theater should be. It was great.")
Early in her career she was in the original cast of Wendy Wasserstein's "Uncommon Women" at its first staged reading at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. Another Connecticut credit was as Desdemona in an antebellum "Othello" starring Ron O'Neal ("Superfly") at the Hartman Theater in Stamford.
On TV, she landed the title role as Kate Columbo in "Mrs. Columbo" when she was 23. On " Cheers," she had the reccurring role of a self-possessed Boston pol who was one of Sam Malone's girlfriends. More recently she was in the series "Mercy" and "The Black Donnellys."
One of her most high-profile roles was as the first female commander of the starship Enterprise in "StarTrek: Voyager," which ran from 1995 to 2001.
"It wasn't easy after that,' she says, saying being on a successful series doesn't ensure you're going to get great stage roles. At that time, playwright Matthew Lombardo, a friend of a friend, started wooing her to do "Tea at Five." The play premiered in Hartford eight years ago and after its success here (at the time it was the theater's biggest hit), it moved off-Broadway and then played theaters around the country.
"ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA" begins performances Thursday at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. and continues through Nov. 6. Information: 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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