November 22, 2010

Profile: 'King Lear's' Barry Kraft,' Marin IJ

A man for all seasons

(*Please note: Actor Barry Kraft stars in the title role of Marin Shakespeare Co.'s "Julius Caesar" this summer. The following is a profile of Kraft written in 2006, during his triumphant run in the title role of Marin Shakespeare Co.'s production of "King Lear." This summer's performance is a master class in the subtle power of a master at his craft, and should not be missed. Be there or unaware. -- ML, 8/08/10)

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

They are an actor’s hands. Almost out of place in sunlight.

In the stillness of a summer garden, near a cottage in Marin, four days after opening as King Lear, actor Barry Kraft holds one of his beloved texts in one hand, and holds the other hand out before him. Waiting for that thing he cannot name.

It is the kind of hand that reaches emphatically for words, as if to snatch them out of the air, and squeeze the meaning from them, like grapes. When he is asked to recite a passage from “King Lear,” he fairly leaps up to oblige. And not, it seems, for any love of self – but for the love of words.

He chooses a scene where Lear is raging, mad upon a heath, a passage said by some to contain a sublimity of tragic verse that is unsurpassed in Western literature.

His keenness turns to silence. He closes his eyes, opens his hand, and waits to summon Lear.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” he cries, “Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes ....”

Gone is the gentle hand that greeted a visitor to this garden. Here, instead, is the face of madness. A shaking fist of rage.

Not just an actor, Barry Kraft is a man of words, as he would be the first tell you. Not just words, but words in flight, the jotted-down idea, the half-finished bit of verse, quatrains, sonnets, villanelles. Not only words, but all the spaces in between the words, the way a composer uses silence. The spaces between the notes.

Indeed, he has approached the role of Lear as a conductor might plan out a symphony, but with a chisel, not a baton. For the 2006 Marin Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear,” Kraft has worked with it like ancient clay, kneading it and sculpting it, hoping to find its original shape. He wears his enthusiasm for this text like a heart sewn on his sleeve.

Once inside the cottage, he describes how he’d been living with it, every day. “Here, I’ll just show you a page from our script,” he says, taking out a pencil and demonstrating how he placed his folios alongside his quartos, teasing out what he thinks might have been the Bard’s original intent. “Some of these original passages can be like a hen’s tooth to find,” he says. “We had to bring it under three hours. I started calling it ‘King Clock.’”

Kraft says, “Poetry is my favorite form, above all others…novels, songs or plays. Too many dismiss the poetry of rap, for example. Rap shows a lyrical richness of language and meter that cannot be dismissed.”

As for where Kraft falls in the debate over whether or not a man named William Shakespeare wrote all the plays: “We know much more today than we ever did about the man,” he says. “He was a genius. It’s as simple as that.”

Kraft points out that if one looks at the list of Shakespeare’s debunkers, one will find a list of lords and nobleman and earls, the so-called “winners” who write history.

“Four hundred years from now there will be debunkers who will say there was this American fellow, a poetic genius who lived in the 20th century, who worked as a lawyer for an insurance company. And they’ll say he was a poet who couldn’t possibly have written all the things ascribed to him, poems about the tropics, jaguars, ghosts and angels, books about ideas of order, reality versus imagination and the moon….That man, of course, was Wallace Stevens. And people will say he couldn’t be…and yet…and yet…he was.”

It would appear that Kraft is one of those Jacks of many trades, who humbly seeks to master all. He has performed in all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays in more than 100 roles in 82 full productions, appearing in his first Shakespeare play at the age of 12. He appeared with the original Marin Shakespeare Festival in 1968, playing Macduff in “Macbeth” and Octavius Caesar in “Antony and Cleopatra,” and was in the original San Francisco cast of the Lee Sankowich’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

He has worked on seven productions of “King Lear,”once alternating the title role with actor Peter Donat at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in 1987 He has also had a distinguished career at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where he performed numerous roles during his 20 seasons, retiring last year with the official title of “Shakespeare Dramaturge and Gadfly.” He also taught at the American Conservatory Theater and the Denver National Theater Conservatory.

He is also a prolific writer, the author of three books: “After-Dinner Shakespeare,” “Thy Father is a Gorbellied Codpiece” and “On the Theatrical Worth of Discarded Words.”

He is a man who revels in his many curiosities and appetites, whose passions include chess and astronomy, and who takes as much delight in exploring ancient caverns as he does exploring ancient texts. “I seem to have this thing for holes in the ground,” he says.

Once, when he was a construction worker in Denver, he paid $5 to watch Bobby Fischer play an exhibition game. Fischer played 59 boards at the same time, one of which was Kraft’s. “He flattered me by stopping at my board. He met my eyes – the only time that he looked up – as if to measure me.” Kraft was one of the last three to finish and when he resigned after the 43rd move, only one pawn down. He was 21 years old, as was Fischer at the time. He has the chess pieces to this day.

His love of stars has taken him as far as Borneo and Cornwall, England, to see a total eclipse. “For the totality of the moment,” he says.

Asked to explain, Kraft says, “I believe it was John Keats, in a letter to his brothers in which he praises Shakespeare, who called it ‘Negative Capability.’ That ability to be open to the mystery without needing a rational explanation of it.”

Kraft pauses for a moment to recall the precise text. When he suddenly remembers, he smiles a white-bearded smile, as if the sun came up inside him.

“Yes, that’s it,” he says. “It goes, ‘…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration’.”

Kraft grins and shrugs. The interview is over.

He waves his hand goodbye in the middle of a summer garden. Then turns toward the cottage to seek his reason's rose.

Marin Independent Journal, Summer, 2006

IJ Photos/Robert Tong