Actor Shuler Hensley, who plays the Critic in "The Guardsman" in its run at the Eisenhower Theater for the next month, is one of those rare actors who is never idle. He arrives at the Kennedy Center fresh from a successful Off-Broadway run in "The Whale," for which he won the Lucille Lortel Award for Lead Actor and nominations from the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League and Drama Desk for Outstanding Actor in a Play. New York Magazine's Year in Culture 2012 honored him with Stage Performance of the Year.
"The Guardsman" is described by director Gregory Mosher as a funny play about a bad marriage. It was written in 1910 by the thrice-married and divorced Hungarian-American playwright Ferenc Molnar while he was in a mental institution. It tells of an Actress whose affairs last only six months; consequently, her marriage of five months is due to end until her Actor husband disguises himself to test her fidelity and tempt her to fall in love with his new guardsman persona.
"The Critic is a mutual friend serving as a mentor to the couple," said Hensley. "The back story is that he helped discover both the Actor and the Actress and now is the man in the middle, an awkward position inasmuch as he also is in love with the Actress.
|» Where: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW|
|» When: Saturday through June 23|
|» Info: $54 to $95; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org.|
"My character is very personal to Molnar, who was himself a critic, the ultimate listener and observer. It's an engaging play, a throwback to another time and it's very thought-provoking. It doesn't beat you over the head about the relationships, but the interests are clear."
Hensley grew up in Georgia, where his father was a former Georgia Tech football star, civil engineer and state senator and his mother was artistic director of the Georgia Ballet. He studied voice at Manhattan School of Music, followed by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and consciously divided his stage appearances between musicals and drama. His musical roles include Javert in "Les Miserables" and the Monster in "Young Frankenstein" on Broadway and the lead role in "Phantom of the Opera" in Hamburg, Germany.
"I had done 'The Magic Flute' and was somewhat fluent in German, but after living there two years, I knew the language well and recommend that all young actors look for that kind of experience," he said. "It was good to have a classical background and know how to project. I've enjoyed my other roles as well. One of an actor's most important jobs is developing basic listening skills. In 'Young Frankenstein' I had no dialogue until the end of the show and it was so liberating to express myself by not speaking."
Hensley's many awards include the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical as Jud Fry in "Oklahoma!" and the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical when the show transferred from London's West End to Broadway. Earlier this season, following the closing of "The Whale," he appeared in the concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" at Lincoln Center and the New York City Center Encores! production of "Fiorello!" This fall he returns to Broadway opposite Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in the repertoire productions of "Waiting for Godot" and "No Man's Land."
"Because of my size and a voice on the darker side, I've always gravitated to villains or outsiders," he said. "The task of finding empathy for them and what they have in common with others makes them interesting people to play. In 'Oklahoma,' the quintessential musical, the song 'Lonely Room' is the key to understanding Jud Fry.
" 'The Whale' was all about isolation and empathy. My character was a man who weighed 600 pounds. The story took place in his living room where people had to relate to each other in a small place. The suit I wore weighed 80 pounds. It was made of mesh with pockets of small beads like marbles that kept me cool, but at the end of the run I had lost 20 pounds. We all know people who are abusive to themselves, but not to such a degree as that character."
A favorite in his home town, Hensley is in Atlanta each April to present the Cobb Energy Centre's foundation awards named in his honor and given to high school students throughout the state.
"This was the fifth year of the program," he said. "When it started, only eleven high schools participated, but this year we had 54 schools involved. Kids work hard to be recognized for their talent and this is an important part of education."