by Ben Southerland
In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, dexterous actor Richard Henry plays eight different characters in the span of two hours. If that sounds exhausting, you might find it hard to imagine that he will also die over 600 times this season on FST’s stage–more times than any other actor to date. So, why cast the same actor to play so many different roles and die so many deaths? Are we trying to literally kill him?
“For anyone who plays the D’Ysquith Family, it is an athletic event,” said Richard Henry. “It’s about breath control and stamina to maintain eight shows a week. You’ll do a quick costume change, and you’ll have half a second to take a breath and think about who this next character is, and do that scene with control and with patience.” Henry experiences these “quick changes” about eight times within the first act alone.
This practice of multi-casting, otherwise known as company doubling, has been going on for centuries, though rarely to this level of complexity. Even during Shakespeare’s time the same actor would play multiple roles, such as Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear. This theatrical device can serve many purposes. For one, it allows the actor to stretch–giving a performer the challenge of having to physically, vocally, and mentally differentiate between the different characters he or she is playing. It can also be used to underscore comedic motifs, as it does in A Gentleman’s Guide.
On a larger scale, multi-casting is often used to give thematic significance to the story. If the audience knows that the one actor is playing multiple characters, they are likely to link the characters together unconsciously, which can introduce new meanings in the play. For example, many modern stage adaptations of Peter Pan have the same actor portraying Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. This can lead the audience to associate danger represented by villainous Captain Hook with the world of adults, represented by Mr. Darling.
“The part I enjoy most is that all of these characters are dastardly,” shared Henry. “It’s fun to become these characters who are all a little evil in a way that we can’t be in real life–or shouldn’t.”
Regardless of time or genre, multi-casting is one of many ways playwrights and directors shape a piece’s narrative to reveal new and exciting themes. See Richard Henry transform again and again in a chameleon-like role that Henry, himself, describes as “a character actor’s dream.”