Welsh-born actor Roger Rees, a 22-year veteran of England's famed Royal Shakespeare Company, is determined to prove that The Bard was "just a guy like you and me."
"He was arguably the most brilliant playwright we have ever been given," Rees says, "but I like to think he would have been comfortable in Levis. He wrote for the not-so-educated Elizabethan masses. And he wrote about real people. Oh, they may have been kings and queens, but they had the same desires and fears we all have. If his shows are about anything, they are about communication."
For the past four years, Rees has been taking his acclaimed one-man Shakespeare show, "What You Will," across the country to prove his point that there's nothing elitist or snobby about "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet" or "Richard II." He brings his unique, sometimes funny, sometimes quirky 90-minute exploration of some of the greatest Shakespeare soliloquies to Wichita Wednesday as part of the Connoisseur Series at Wichita State University.
Rees came to American attention in 1980 when he created the title role in the two-part, eight-hour stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" and won both the Olivier Award in London and Tony on Broadway as best actor.
But he is probably best known for his TV work as dashing British playboy Robin Colcord, who wooed Wichita native Kirstie Alley in "Cheers" from 1989 to 1993. He also played the eccentric and possibly crazy British ambassador Lord John Marbury on "The West Wing" from 2000 to 2005 and Dr. Colin Marlow on "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007. He's currently making recurring appearances as a villain in "Warehouse 13."
Rees, now 65 and an American citizen, chuckles when he considers the wide — and sometimes wild — swings in his career from Shakespeare to romantic hero to sci-fi villain and cartoon voice. But he says that's precisely what actors are supposed to do.
"I love all aspects of artistic expression from performing to directing to teaching. I even started as a scenery painter before I was accepted at RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). I wanted to know how it all comes together," Rees said from his home in Manhattan, where he has lived for three years after spending 11 years in Los Angeles. "I have a thirst for all aspects of it."
His current one-man show is an outgrowth of his "Roger Rees Acts Up," a one-man romp of literary bits, mostly poetry, coupled with his own insights and observations. A friend suggested Rees put together a similar program using Shakespeare, and "What You Will" was launched to great acclaim in Washington, D.C.
"The thought behind it was to reassure people that Shakespeare is for everyone, not just for the elite or artsy. When I teach, I find it useful to keep that Shakespeare-in-Levis image in mind," he said. "And I often find that some of the best performers are young American actors, who have discovered that they have a right to explore the roles. America is not in an apprenticeship mode anymore."
In "What You Will," Rees inhabits everyone from the melancholy Hamlet to the uber-tragic Richard II to the lovelorn Romeo to even Juliet's foolish nurse.
"I finally get to play the Nurse," he said with a triumphant laugh. "But it's not comic for the reason you may assume. All women's roles were played by men in Shakespeare's time. I'm simply carrying on that tradition — and having fun with it."
Between soliloquies, Rees recounts some of the funniest disasters ever "perpetrated on the stage." And he even finds ways to have the likes of Dickens, James Thurber, Noel Coward and Stevie Wonder make surprise appearances in what one New York critic termed "a veritable riot of wit and laughter that was the funniest thing since Monty Python's 'Spamalot.' "
If you go
'what you will'
What: One-man Shakespearean show by Tony and Olivier Award-winning Roger Rees
Where: Wilner Auditorium on WSU campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
How much: Tickets: $20 (discounts available); call 316-978-3233.