From comedy to the classics, TV to the stage, Pat Carroll has shown her versatility
February 16, 2011
By Joseph Hurley
Pat Carroll gave up on California, where she’d lived since 1933, during the earthquake of 1994. "That’s when I moved to Cape Cod," she said. "I honestly thought that earthquake was the end of the world. My son lived in a house that was literally shaken off of its foundation."
The veteran performer talked openly about her life and her work over a late, long breakfast recently in a Greek diner, a wholly suitable place, considering that she’s in New York because of her participation in director David Leveaux’s smash hit production of Sophocles’ "Electra," in which she plays the Chorus.
Carroll is quick to point out that the lean, fast-moving but subtle new adaptation is the work of an Irish playwright, Frank McGuinness, whom she greatly admired and likes.
"The first time we did the play in New York he sat in my dressing room and listened to the entire performance," she said of McGuinness. "The next couple of nights, of course, he watched, but that first time, he just wanted to listen to the words."
Carroll seemed delighted by the fact that playwright McGuinness never uses her given name. "He just calls me ‘Woman,’ " she said. "’Woman, will you do this . . . ?’ or ‘Woman, would you like that . . . ? ‘ "
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Last fall, when "Electra" played a brief engagement at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, a journalist from a theater magazine pointed out to the company that a large number of recent adaptations of Greek classics had been the work of Irish writers, a fact that doesn’t surprise Carroll.
"Why wouldn’t that be the case?" she asked. "The Irish love tragedy, and they adore death, so what writers could possibly be better suited to reworking the Greeks?"
Carroll was born in Shreveport, La., and made the move to California when she was 6. She’s quick to say that her involvement with "Electra" marks her 51st year on the professional stage, and she’s equally forthcoming about her age, which is 71.
Her extensive television career includes partnering with comics ranging from Red Buttons to Sid C’ser and Danny Thomas. She’s probably best-known to New York theater audiences for a one-woman show, "Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein," which opened off-Broadway in 1979, played for 18 months, and then toured for four years. The recording of the show, on the C’dman label, won the actress a Grammy.
Even though so much of her work has been in the fields of comedy and music, "Electra" isn’t Carroll’s maiden voyage onto the frequently choppy seas of classical theater.
Her dealings with the classics began in 1986 when she played the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. The Nurse, obviously, is a role for which Carroll is clearly well-cast, but her second assignment at the long-established theater, formerly known as the Folger Shakespeare Library, represented something of a surprise, even a shock.
"They asked me what I might want to do after ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I said I’d like to play Falstaff, but I think Michael Kahn, who runs the place, thought I was joking," Carroll said.
Twice more Carroll was asked, and twice more she answered "Falstaff," with the result that the actress finally did play the role in the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," to excellent reviews in the Washington newspapers.
Later, again for the Shakespeare Theatre, Carroll took on the title role in Bertold Brecht’s taxing "Mother Courage and Her Children," and of the most demanding roles in the modern repertoire.
If "Electra" hardly represents Pat Carroll’s first experience with a classic play, it does stand as the longest run she’s ever had with a work of legendary, indeed immortal, stature. By the time the production reaches its announced closing date of March 21, it will have played nearly four full months on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, and, before then, an engagement at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.
It was the highly praised Princeton run that led to the New York stand, an extremely risky proposition, considering that New York producers who were invited to see the show in New Jersey were being asked to put a Greek tragedy by Sophocles on a Broadway stage for a commercial run.
Against all odds, the show succeeded, and, a few weeks ago, earned back its entire investment. Ironically, the success of "Electra" stands as a distinct landmark in the career of playwright Frank McGuinness, who, in addition to his adaptation of the Sophocles work, two seasons ago provided a new version of Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House," another extremely unlikely commercial venture which, in the end, proved to be a tremendous success, running an entire theatrical season and finished by turning at least a respectable profit.
For Pat Carroll, "Electra" has been one of the happiest experiences of a long and varied career. "It’s been an extremely happy company," she said, "starting with Zoe Wanamaker, who is one of the most generous actors I’ve ever encountered."
This production of "Electra," initially staged by the Donmar Warehouse, an innovative London theater, was built around Wanamaker, the daughter of the late American actor Sam Wanamaker, who, as a blacklisted actor in the 1950s, moved his family to England, where he was able to find work and rebuild his shattered career.
"Zoe never lets down," Carroll said. "She rehearsed at the level of full performance to help us to rise to the level of her energy."
Carroll attributes her somewhat late entry into the world of classical theater to her reading habits, among other things.
"I can’t say I had a very strong leaning to do the classics earlier on," she said, "but there came a time when there was a kind of paucity of really interesting work in television, and in the theater, and I started to ask myself why I’d gone into this business in the first place. I took a look at the things I’d always read, and I realized I always fell back on Shakespeare and Shaw and the classics. This was at a time when I’d done my one-woman show, my Gertrude Stein show, and I was fidgeting to do good work. And about that time the call came to do the Nurse in Washington, and I said ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’ "
For Carroll, Shakespeare represents the actor’s equivalent to the Olympics. "That’s what we have to go up against to prove our worth," she said, "and I’d never done it. I felt a great need to prove myself."
For a performer with very nearly four decades of ongoing experience to her credit to strike out in new directions as she approached her 60th birthday is remarkable in itself, but the daring with which Carroll did it says something decisive about her courage and imagination as an artist.
Carroll recalled creating Jack Falstaff as a "marvelous" experience, but not altogether an uncomplicated one. "I didn’t have a problem with it," she said, "but the company did, particularly the men. They’d come over to me and take my hand, or put their arms around me, because they saw me as ‘good old Pat.’ "
Finally, the director intervened. "He told them they had to remember that, as long as we were rehearsing or playing I was Sir John, or Fat Jack, anything but ‘good old Pat,’" she said. "Once they accepted that, everything got a lot easier, particularly when we got into costume and I put facial hair on. There was never any problem after that."
Outright sexuality was never a part of the mix, in Carroll’s view. "By the time of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ Falstaff was a lot of talk and very little action. It’s all in the play, really. In fact, he’s a sad old man with very little in the way of a future. He’s already been told by his beloved Prince Hal that he won’t be a part of the court when he becomes King Henry V. It was easy to play all of that."
At 71, Pat Carroll has an illustrious past, an exciting and vivid present, and a future which holds no terrors. She’s raised three children, Sean, Kerry and Tara, and, except when she’s working, she lives quietly and calmly on Cape Cod. "If I’m lucky," she said, "I’ll have 10 more years, and that’ll be fine."
If "Electra" extends its run on Broadway past March 21, the producers will have to find another actress to play the Chorus. Pat Carroll will have had enough of a very good thing, one of the best things, in fact, in her long and active career.
"I’ve loved this," she said, "but I want to move on to something else. I fell in love with the theater when I was 13, and I intend to love it until the very end."