Five questions for the Falstaffs

Between them, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's K.T. Vogt and G. Valmont Thomas are playing the Big Guy in all three of his shows. Here's what they think.

This year, Falstaff is all over the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF patrons can see all three plays that feature that most well-loved, most roundly hated, most written-about of Shakespeare’s (perhaps) comic creations, Sir John Falstaff. He appears as a mentor, teacher, playmate, and friend to Prince Hal – who will someday be Henry V – in both parts of Henry IV, and this season, he’s played in both by G. Valmont Thomas.

The Henrys are some of the best of Shakespeare’s history plays, but Falstaff has a longer life: A theory exists that Queen Elizabeth liked the character of Falstaff so much that she asked the Bard to write a play, supposedly in 14 days, which featured Falstaff in love. True or not, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy that indeed features Sir John Falstaff trying to woo and win at least a couple of women at once, and hijinks definitely ensue. It’s a comedy, but also for several scenes an excellent farce, and it features Falstaff considering his place in life as he grows older. Thomas played that role in OSF’s 2006 version of Merry Wives, but this year the Falstaff of love is played by the festival’s K.T. Vogt.

Poins ((Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and Mistress Quickly (Michele Mais) are unconvinced by Sir John Falstaff’s (G. Valmont Thomas’s) account of his bravery during a robbery in “Henry IV, Part 1.” Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

With the festival’s summer open-air shows opening this weekend on the Elizabethan Stage (Merry Wives on Friday, June 16; Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Odyssey on Saturday; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Sunday) we asked both Falstaffs five questions via email as they rehearsed for the openings of Merry Wives and Henry IV, Part 2. They are due to present themselves for a similar discussion for a special donor/member event on Sunday morning of opening weekend.

True to their Falstaffs, Vogt answered with humor, and Thomas, while funny, gave a little more of the character’s life philosophy.

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Oregon ArtsWatch: What’s your favorite part (could be costume, scene, line, anything) of the Falstaff you’re playing this year?

K.T. Vogt: His codpiece.

G. Valmont Thomas: My favorite part of playing Falstaff this year is the ability to improvise with the people in the cast, especially the actor playing Hal (Daniel Jose Molina). Our director (Lileana Blain-Cruz) left a few moments open for us to be able to flavor the performance for the day or week that we are in, so there have been times that we can pay homage to an actor or musician who has passed (Adam West is foremost on our minds this week, so the ’60s Batman theme has found its way into the performance).

OAW: What’s different about the Falstaff in your play(s) from Falstaff in the other play(s)?

K.T. Vogt: Legend has it the Merry Wives Falstaff was created for the queen ’cause she wanted to see Falstaff fall in love. I feel it was like a spinoff, like Rhoda was to Mary Tyler Moore, or how the movie of M.A.S.H. became a sitcom. Falstaff is the same person, but in a lighter situation, and was written a lot quicker.

G. Valmont Thomas: I am rehearsing for Part 2 right now, so I will answer from the point of view of Falstaff from Part 1. I think that H4pt.1 Falstaff is the one that has lent itself to most of the enthusiastic love that the character receives over the years. He is much more playful and energetic in this one because he gets to spend time with Hal, the heir apparent. He mentions that more than once and it reminds him of his youth when he was growing up as Sir Thomas Mowbray’s page. He feels like he matters in the world of the court and he definitely begins to feel a responsibility to let Hal see the ACTUAL life of his subjects rather than what the people of court “think” is their actual life. So, he is a teacher AND a playmate! And he finds it ever so fun and relaxing!

OAW: What’s different or special about playing Falstaff from playing other Shakespearean characters?

K.T. Vogt: He is larger than life in many aspects. A very large person, physically and vocally; manic, privileged, cowardly, boisterous, and a lover of sack, ladies, life, and most importantly, himself.

G. Valmont Thomas: Geez, most people that want to talk about Falstaff have some personal story they will tell you about getting to know him. It very often includes people that the storyteller holds dear to their hearts. So, I think that Falstaff has a gift, or a charm that enables him to be welcome in just about ANYBODY’S heart. He is almost like a magical creature (a fairie or a mage) in that people will assign qualities to him that THEY seem to value and hold dear rather than the values that Falstaff himself exhibits or holds dear. With the character of Falstaff, perspective, or viewpoint is a defining force. Falstaff is a member of almost EVERYBODY’S family!

Falstaff (K. T. Vogt) bemoans his difficulties wooing Mistresses Ford and Page, unaware that he’s speaking to Master Ford (Rex Young) in disguise in “Merry Wives.” Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

OAW: Certain lines/moments of Falstaff are iconic, whether that be “We have heard the chimes at midnight” or “Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.” How do you, working with directors and other actors and perhaps the dramaturgs, prepare for those scenes, which have both resonance within the plays and in larger culture?

K.T. Vogt: The quotes you gave were all from the Henrys, not Merry Wives, which tells us something. Not as iconic. But as in every Shakespeare play I’ve been in at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the director, dramaturg and actors do a lot of research long before rehearsal starts. We also discuss the relevance of the play today. All great plays have relevance today; they transcend the time in which they were written. They speak to the truth of the human experience.

G. Valmont Thomas: Frankly, as an actor preparing to play the role of one who utters “purple prose” (a kind of code word for those passages that so many people have committed to memory or read somewhere outside of the play) you have to realize that everyone has THEIR OWN version of the passage as well as their own understanding of what the poet (Mr. Shakespeare) meant by that particular line. My job is to get as close to the original understanding of the line “as it was written” and allow the given circumstances of the particular play to work upon the speaker of the line or passage. We represent human beings when we play characters. When they speak the words the playwright assigns them, and I say this a lot when teaching an acting class, THOSE ARE THE ONLY WORDS THAT WORK AT THAT TIME, IN THAT SITUATION! So, staying very focused on our job is the best way to handle those passages.

OAW: What will surprise newbies to Shakespeare about your Falstaff, and what will surprise experienced Shakespeare fans about your Falstaff?

K.T. Vogt: I am a cisgender woman.

G. Valmont Thomas: His love of music. I think that all of the Falstaffs (Fal-staves?) exhibit a love for music that I have enjoyed finding and exploiting for my personal Sir John. He is a man after my own heart.  In fact, he actually USES my own heart, if you think about it.

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  • Henry IV, Part One opened in March in the Thomas Theatre, and runs through Oct. 28.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor opens Friday, June 16, in the Elizabethan Theatre, and runs through Oct. 13.
  • Henry IV, Part Two opens July 7, also in the Thomas, and runs through Oct. 29.

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