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By ERIC GRODE
One advantage of performing in repertory is the chance to try on a variety of roles: Coriolanus one night, a stable hand the next. Alternatively, there's the subtler satisfaction of finding different nuances within similar characters. Just ask André Holland, a central part of the Public Theater's current season of Shakespeare in the Park.
In All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Daniel Sullivan, the rising young actor plays Bertram, a callow nobleman who snubs the heroine, spurring all sorts of trouble. In Measure for Measure, directed by David Esbjornson, he plays Claudio, a callow nobleman who tries to corrupt the heroine (a nun, no less), spurring even more trouble.
Although Bertram's actions are less defensible than those of Claudio, who faces an unjust death sentence, Holland makes a case for both characters. "Bertram comes from a more entitled point of view," he admits, "but his father has just died. He's a boy who doesn't really have an idea of how to be a man in the world."
Holland may find similarities between this summer's two roles, but he says the paths to understanding them were quite different because of the two directors. "Dan's very adamant about things being crystal clear," he says of Sullivan. "Once we found the clarity, then we worked on the emotional truth. David is a little more relaxed; he kind of let us find our way into the roles."
An Alabama native currently in his late 20s, Holland followed a somewhat circuitous path to New York. After attending college in Florida, he went to London and then Paris, where he spent a grueling summer as one of about 1,500 actors training at the legendary director Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil collective. That number dwindled over the weeks until only a handful remained. "If people think Simon Cowell is tough, they haven't met Ariane Mnouchkine," says the actor, who himself was shown the door when only about 50 trainees were left.
He then enrolled in NYU's graduate school, and while he was there, he wrote a letter to the Public's casting director begging for an audition. The result was small parts in the 2004 Shakespeare in the Park productions of Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It.
Holland's biggest roles have come in the last two years. He's still waiting to hear whether his NBC sitcom, Friends With Benefits, is returning for a second season, and he has filled the time around it with three---or, depending on how you count them, six---high-profile productions.
First came a variety of characters in the Tarell Alvin McCraney trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays at the Public, followed by parts in the Broadway revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Joe Turner garnered headlines when it served as the destination for the Obamas' first presidential date night. Theatre insiders, however, took note because it was directed by Bartlett Sher, a rare deviation from Wilson's long-held insistence that his plays be directed by African-Americans.
Holland, who is playing an Austrian in Measure for Measure and an Italian in All's Well, says this and other developments have affected his opinions on nontraditional casting and other matters of racial representation in the theatre.
"I understand how it would be frustrating for a non-white director to see Bart Sher direct Joe Turner because the playing field isn't level," he says. "Still, I do believe that any director should be able to direct anything and any actor should be able to perform anything. My thoughts on this have changed over time, but that's what I believe now."
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.