Much To-Do

Richard Iglewski's sense of play and artistry extend from Shakespearean drama to Eastern music

Playing the humble role of consummate host, Richard Iglewski has peeled off his socks, crossed his legs Buddha-style, and taken the sithar upon his lap. Balancing the gourd end of the four-foot instrument on his left ankle, he begins to tune the strings, sending a twangy wash of sound across the living room of his Minnetonka home. "The strings vibrate sympathetically," he explains, stroking the instrument with a wire pick on his right hand. "Nothing sounds more beautiful than a well-tuned sithar. And nothing sounds worse than a badly tuned one."

With sithar in tune, Iglewski plays as if consumed by fever, and the impromptu melody wafts through the room like a prayer to some great Hindu god. Transported in reverie, the musician returns from this higher plane of existence only as the last chord fades. Iglewski then opens his eyes, shrugs, and offers a self-deprecating apology for being "out of practice." When his audience remarks on the unique quality of the sound, Iglewski smiles softly: "Yes," he murmurs knowingly. "There are so many layers there."

The same might be said of Iglewski himself. Even after 18 years spent in the professional theater -- 12 of them on the Guthrie stage -- the 42-year-old Chicago native revels in peeling away the underlying layers of character, motivation, quirks, and comedy in the roles he plays. His battery of dramatic roles over the years has included Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet; the pedophilic Jack in David Storey's Home; Mr. Fezziwig in the Guthrie's perennial Christmas Carol; and actor-wanna-be Nick Bottom in last year's hilarious Midsummer Night's Dream. Like any worthy actor, he digs deep into each new script to make familiar characters fresh, and unfamiliar characters recognizable. The process, he says, is like slicing into "character lasagna."

More often than not, Iglewski seasons the dish liberally with humor. In the current Guthrie production of Much Ado About Nothing, which continues through May 17, he plays Leonato, a genial, hospitable Italian gentleman whose villa serves as the primary setting for Shakespeare's comedy about love and loathing. The role of Leonato is neither pivotal to the plot nor necessarily funny, but Iglewski makes it so: On opening night, the doddering Leonato's antics drew more laughs than those of many more central characters.

But Iglewski explores all the layers of Leonato's character: When his soon-to-be-wed daughter, Hero, is exposed at the altar for allegedly having an affair, the old man flies into a rage: "Why doth not every earthly thing cry shame upon her?" he storms. "Do not live, Hero! Do not ope' thine eyes." Leonato has turned on a dime.

"At this point," Iglewski says during an interview in early April, "I'm starting to think [Leonato] is my most favorite character."

Those are startling words coming from a man who discovered his acting talents already in kindergarten. "We were playing 'Duck, Duck, Goose,' and for some reason I didn't want to play," Iglewski recalls. "I wanted to go back to the room and read my book. So when I got tapped, I stood up and did a pratfall." Feigning an ankle injury, the boy limped back to the classroom under the orders of his teacher. "Admittedly it was not an altruistic moment of theater art," he adds. "But I learned the value of transformation. I don't think I used theater arts to that end again, but it lent me a sense of what you could get away with. And I suppose, given the nature of some of my roles, I'm still doing that to this day."

Born to a father who made wooden cabinets for Zenith, Motorola, and RCA electronics and a piano-playing mother who claimed she once entertained Al Capone at a Chicago speakeasy, Iglewski grew up in Edgebrook, Ill., just north of the Windy City. The youngest of four children, he spent much of his time finding ways to amuse himself. He read books; he listened to music. ("While other kids were listening to the Dave Clark Five and the Monkees, I was buying the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations.") He invented fantastic scenarios with his small group of friends, pedaling off to nearby parks and prairies to stage their imaginary dramas. "The notion of play is something that to this day I find extremely rewarding and valuable," Iglewski says.

When the boy was 9, his father was diagnosed with a rare heart disease, and the pall of illness settled over the house. Although Mayo Clinic doctors predicted he had only a few years to live, Iglewski's father survived seven more years. "Toward the end it was clear something was wrong," Iglewski says. "But nobody talked about it."

It was shortly after his father's death that Iglewski took up the sithar. His piano lessons hadn't gone well -- "Sister Gertrude kept falling asleep during my lessons and kept confusing me with my brother" -- and he was intrigued by recordings he'd heard of Eastern music. His mother, at his request, signed him up for sithar lessons. "I heard sithar playing on a classical-radio station in Chicago," Iglewski recalls, "and the moment I heard it, I knew I had to study that instrument."

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