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Stage Preview: 'Medea' brings top-class, hard-working actor to the bad-guy role of Jason

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

You've heard about men behaving badly? Well Jason, famous for leading that adolescent fleece-raid by the Argonauts (a fatuous caper from the start), holds pretty near the all-time championship record for male contemptibility, marital division.

 
  STAGE PREVIEW

'MEDEA'

WHERE: Pittsburgh Public Theater at O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun., with some exceptions, through Oct. 28.

TICKETS: $10-$42; 412-316-1600.

   
 

And that assessment isn't just from a modern perspective of gender equality -- the Greeks who first saw Euripides' "Medea" in 431 B.C. would have been crystal clear on that point, too. No matter how horrific Medea's actions, the audience roots for her most of the way, because of how completely she has been used, abused, duped and discarded by Jason, the heel supreme.

Now there's a juicy assignment for an actor! And to play Jason in "Medea," its first foray into the tragic Greeks, the Public Theater has enrolled Robert Westenberg, a national-class actor with considerable experience in the slime league. It's good that it has, because he's going up against a tragic heavyweight with a golden Pittsburgh track record -- Lisa Harrow, who broke everyone's heart last year as the indomitable 17th-century scholar and cancer victim in "Wit."

Robert Westenberg is Jason to Lisa Harrow's Medea for the Public Theater production. (Gabor Degre/Post-Gazette)

In person, Westenberg turns out to be thoughtful, smart, friendly, blessed with a rich, deep voice and a ready laugh. The only serious personal shortcoming that's apparent is his passionate affection for the New York Yankees. But on the Broadway stage, he's played some major league baddies.

Most melodramatically, there was Inspector Javert, the vengeful dark obsessive who pursues the saintly Jean Valjean through the Parisian sewers and around the endlessly revolving stage of "Les Miserables."

More insidiously, with the added creepiness of repression, there was Neville in "The Secret Garden," the misguided (even malevolent) doctor who tries to crush young Mary Lennox and nearly kills young Colin through ignorance and frustrated ill will.

More stylishly, there was Westenberg's Tony-nominated double turn in "Into the Woods," playing both the Wolf who stalks red riding-hooded girlflesh (and not just to eat) and Cinderella's addictively philandering Prince.

Not that he hasn't also played some good guys, but you get the idea. This is an actor with the experience to marshal all Jason's weasly arguments and self-promoting rationalizations to oppose the primal ferocity of Medea, as embodied by the marble-tough Harrow.

Or will that prove too harrowing?

Chatting during a rehearsal break, Westenberg looked forward to seeing how it will go, himself. He'd never done a Greek tragedy, so when his agent relayed the offer, he figured, "I had an opening. If I didn't do it now, maybe I never would." Also, he had done a play-reading with Harrow in Denver, "so I knew how good she was. I thought I'd see if I can rise to her level. Or maybe she'll just use me as a mop out there."

He hasn't done any Greek, but he has done lots of Shakespeare. Though his major Broadway credits are in musicals, this is a man who also knows his way around iambic pentameter, which is just as well, since that's what the Public's translation is written in.

And how do you play someone who is, at best, an antihero? You trust to the playwright, Westenberg says. "This is a good playwright; his characters are surprisingly human."

That's not often the case with musicals, he says. "Too many of them can drive you nuts." Unless written by a master, a musical can seem especially creaky: "The seams show and the actor has to do all the work. The sign of a good musical is that it's easy to do -- the librettist has written all the connective tissue for you. Those characters have an off-stage life, so they carry a scene with them when they step on stage."

Much of Westenberg's Broadway work has been as a replacement, as in "Les Mis" and in "Sunday in the Park with George," where he understudied and then replaced Mandy Patinkin in the lead. He happened to be pinch-hitting for Patinkin when Frank Rich saw the show, and that review helped him get the part for himself. "They looked all over the world, trying David Bowie and other stars, but they came back and picked me."

In the odd way of theater, one of Westenberg's best breaks came from leaving a show. He was playing opposite Anthony Quinn in "Zorba" on Broadway, and Quinn was so difficult to work with that he left the show very early -- which coincidentally left him free to be cast in Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park," which led to his originating the Wolf/Prince in Sondheim's "Into the Woods." And that's where he met, fell in love with and married one of the most appealing women to star on the recent Broadway stage, Kim Crosby, a former Miss Teenage America, who played Cinderella.

"So I have to credit Mr. Quinn with my meeting my wife." Besides that, he spent two years in "Into the Woods": "It paid for a lot of furniture." And now he and his wife have been married 10 years and have three children.

Westenberg grew up in the San Francisco area. Getting a sense of who he is, it's not surprising to hear that he started out in a seminary. "A lot of my friends are priests." But he discovered an "inability to assimilate," so he switched to Fresno State -- "who by the way are on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week," says the proud alum.

He didn't act in a play until he was 19, but he got the bug and switched from English to theater. After graduation he studied acting from 1977-80 at the A.C.T. theater school in San Francisco, then went to New York and "I've just been bumping around ever since."

"Bumping around" means he's a working actor, doing movies and TV as well as musicals and drama, never unwilling to travel ("I have to -- I have to keep working to pay the rent"). Asked about his only previous visit to Pittsburgh, he laughs with embarrassment. He was in the ill-begotten tour of "Funny Girl" with Debby Gibson that started in Pittsburgh and died quickly thereafter. Another touring memory is happier: Doing "Zorba" in Atlanta, he was part of the group when President Carter and Rosalynn went backstage to meet Quinn. "And there I was talking with Jimmy Carter about woodworking, which we both do a lot of," he recalls.

Face it, ya gotta like him, bad guy or not. When we talked, he'd already been to three Pirates games. And he has an excuse for his Yankee affiliation: That's what happens, he says, "If you live near a ballpark and you're an out-of-work actor in the summer. I saw 30 games my first year in New York."

Anyway, Jason is exactly the kind of guy who'd root for the Yankees himself.

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