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."

Iglewski also began to develop interest in acting during those teenage years. At the Notre Dame High School for Boys, nearly every student auditioned for a part in the annual musical -- jocks, singers, geeks, everybody. "It was a way to be involved in something that wasn't judgmental, like sports oftentimes is," Iglewski says. "This was about a range of talents being the mark of acceptance as opposed to how far you could throw a ball."

Landing the part of the father in Bye Bye Birdie not only gave the boy a boost of confidence, it also taught him something more about theater: "The message became clear," Iglewski says, "that this was not only a way of transforming and making people laugh, but it was a way of escaping into another world."

After graduating high school, Iglewski enrolled at nearby DePaul University with the intention of going into theater. His mother, he says, probably had the loopy notion that he wanted to be in movies or television. Instead, Iglewski was enthralled by the stage: He continued his theater studies at the University of California - San Diego, a period he describes as three solid years of craft training.

The student's devotion to his art paid off: One of his teachers helped him land a job with John Houseman's The Acting Company straight out of school -- and until recently, Iglewski has never been without immediate work. He moved to New York City, but traveled the country with the touring company, living out of a suitcase and sleeping in hotels. Working long-term and so closely with a small cast of actors was an intensely rewarding experience, Iglewski says. "The work only becomes deeper and richer because of the people you're working with," Iglewski says.

So in 1985, when Guthrie artistic director Liviu Ciulei offered Iglewski a spot in the Midwestern company, the actor leapt at the chance. Iglewski, along with a handful of other Twin Cities actors, became a staple of the Guthrie stage under Ciulei's replacement, Garland Wright. And it remains an enchanting place for a Polish kid from Chicago: "I'm working at the flagship of regional theater in the U.S., with people who deserve to be there because of their experience and talent," Iglewski says. "That can't help but get your ya-ya's going."

Guthrie audiences are well aware that Iglewski, called "Julio" by his friends, knows how to get those ya-ya's going. Guthrie veteran Charlie Janasz says his friend and fellow actor has a "fearless" sense of humor. "He's got an outrageous imagination," Janasz says, "He'll take things to the 'nth' degree."

Isabell Monk, who has been a member of the Guthrie company since 1989, says, "Julio always comes to the table with an idea. I think he keeps the characters alive because he never stops working on them."

When it comes to such creative collaboration at the Guthrie, Iglewski has high praise for the theater's newest artistic director Joe Dowling. "In the rehearsal process Joe shows great care for serving the best interests of what he calls the three A's -- the author, the actors, and the audience," Iglewski says. "Not every director will concern himself with that kind of camaraderie."

But Dowling also has revamped the notion of a permanent Guthrie company. In addition to utilizing the talents of the core group of Twin Cities actors who worked under Wright, the new director has wooed actors from New York and Los Angeles to participate in Guthrie productions. Last fall, for the first time in years, Iglewski found himself with six weeks of down time during the regular Guthrie season. For an actor who'd done full-time seasons back to back for a dozen years, it came as a bit of a relief: Iglewski played with his dog, Libby, and varnished his house. "The opportunity of having a life beyond a full season is enormously attractive," he says.

Iglewski shares his Minnetonka home with his partner of two years, Timothy Lee, artistic director of the Outward Spiral Theater Company. Although the two often talk shop ("Sitting across the breakfast table from Nick Bottom is mostly a blessing," Lee quips), they also spend considerable time kidding around. While celebrating their anniversary at Disneyworld last year, the pair rented a videocam and filmed their own James Bond spoof amid the thrill rides.

This spring, Dowling invited Iglewski to return for a full year at the Guthrie, where he'll start the season with roles in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country. But the actor says he's also intrigued by the idea of working elsewhere -- a possibility that a less-than-full-time Guthrie schedule might afford him someday. Still, he admits, "There aren't many places I'm keen on going away to and leaving my home. I think of the Guthrie as my artistic home."

Of late, Iglewski has also been toying with expanding theater into more avant-garde realms. He's always been interested in directing, he says, but previous attempts met with mixed results. "There is a string within me," he says with a Shakespearean touch, "that is yet untuned."

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