The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Actor Leaves the Stage

We find heroes in unexpected places. When I was a boy, I was introverted, fresh-mouthed, loved books more than just about anything (you may ask, "what's changed?" if you must), and decidedly not comfortable in my own skin (Ibid.). Nor was I comfortable with the Long Island zeitgeist. My parents, who cordially loathed Manhattan (at least with kids in tow; they had no objection to a civilized play occasionally, but traffic was and is the bane of their existence), would take my sister and me in for a run at the Strand (me) or record shops (my sister) a few weeks before Christmas. When I was 13, after the book run, the records shopping and dinner (at which the equally important book gloat would take place), an additional event was added: we had dinner early, and afterwards went to a play at CSC Repertory.

And life was never quite the same again.

The play was Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and the lead actor was my cousin (my mother's cousin and lifelong friend, so my first cousin, I suppose), Robert Stattel. You can see some more of his credits here.

Last night, I found from my mother that Bob died on November 9. So far the obituaries are scant, and almost bald. A true testament to what Leo McKern referred to as the evanescent nature of theater. So, a few words to remember him.

Here's what The New York Times had to say about that production:
Christopher Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus” is a loosely episodic play held together by the power and music of the verse. But one would not know it from the supple and engrossing version now showing at the CSC theater on East 13th Street. Credit that result to the actors in the two principal roles, Robert Stattel and Philip Kerr, and to the direction of Christopher Martin.

“Faustus,” as everyone knows, is Marlowe's tale of the famous medieval figure who sells his soul to the Devil so that he can explore all knowledge and savor all the pleasures of the earth. It is a course, though, that leads to eternal damnation.

As Faustus, Mr. Stattel emphasizes the intellectual side of the man. With his spectacles, his ruminating look, his head cocked questioningly at the universe, he is the curious mind incarnate. In spite of the famous passage in which he summons up the likeness of Helen of Troy and other scenes of magic tomfoolery, Faustus's besetting sin is not sensuality but insatiable curiosity. He is always questioning Mephostophilis about the arrangement of the heavens, the stars in their courses, the nature of distant lands. But as he pushes further into these realms, he is conscious of the price he must pay for his knowledge. “In much wisdom is much grief,” said Ecclesiastes and Faustus appears as a case history to this text.

Philip Kerr's Mephostophilis is the soft foil to his master, “pliant, full of obedience and humility.” Mr. Kerr in friar's cowl and with humble countenance never lifts his voice, but his pres- ence is the constant reminder of the Devil's bargain. Both men speak their lines beautifully, never letting the “poetry” get in the way of the thought.
Yes, that's the play I remember. But Thomas Task's admirals perceptive review does not capture the blazing power Bob brought to the last scenes, when Faustus struggles to find a tear, a regret, and, failing, falls into hell.

Something of that is captured in Mel Gusow's review of Bob in King Lear:
DURING his distinguished career, and especially during his four seasons as the leading actor of the C.S.C. Rep, Robert Stattel has been earning his way toward ''King Lear.'' His performance in Christopher Martin's new production is, to a certain extent, a synthesis between his tormented ''Oedipus'' and his all-too-human ''Woyzeck.''

Naturally, Mr. Stattel conceives of his character on a grand scale, and his performance accelerates in passion until his final, bereft, almost hushed ''howl.'' But he also makes us keenly aware of the irony that is the drumbeat underneath the dialogue.

In his madness, Lear sees his life's mistakes with a white-hot clarity. To choose one of a score of moments: When Edgar enters in the guise of Poor Tom, in Tom Spackman's impersonation he is as scurvy as a lifelong Bowery derelict. Mr. Stattel takes a quick look at him and, in his wry delivery, Lear's line ''Didst thou give all to thy daughters?'' becomes a sardonic stab to Lear's own heart.

Physically, Mr. Stattel is slight of stature, but his acting has a heightened emotional awareness. His Lear is a man enthralled by his destiny yet reacting intuitively. His wrath is not that of an Old Testament prophet but of a father slighted by a favorite daughter. By not beginning at too high a pitch, Mr. Stattel leaves an open expanse for Lear's tragic future. Rage accumulates until, wandering on the heath, he exhorts the winds to purge his soul.


Mr. Stattel's always-articulate performance harnesses the production. Everything moves in his orbit - and some of that movement is erratic.
A few years later, Bob was asked to recreate Lear with the students at Fordham's College at Lincoln Center. I knew several member son the cast, and a few of my friends and I from Rose Hill infiltrated the cast party. Bob was beloved by the cast, I think it's fair to say, all of whom praised him as an actor, but even more so as a kind, gentle man, who made himself available to the students who were on fire to make their own way in the theater.

Bob showed me that same gentleness, encouraging me in my own literary interests, and in my love of theater. I was shy with him, really, because he was so eminent and yet so gentle, and because I was star-struck, from the day I met him in his "Faustus" make up after the show to the last time I saw him, at our annual family reunion in September, with his partner Allan Knee, who had persuaded Bob to step out of retirement once more to perform in The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit. I had been looking forward to see him onstage once more. My shyness with Bob cost me a pleasure that I regret: when he heard that I had written Phineas at Bay, he wanted to read it. I never quite worked up the nerve to give him a copy. Arrant folly, on my part--even if he thought it poor, he'd have been kind. But his judgment meant so much to me; I had to work up the nerve and hadn't yet. I thought I had more time.

One day I will truly take to heart those wise words of Henri-Frédéric Ariel, “Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

Still, Bob did take those words to heart, and gladdened the hearts of family, friends, colleagues (Frank Langella himself walked me to the dressing area when I showed up backstage to see Bob after a performance of The Tempest, telling me of his admiration for my gentle cousin, who played Gonzalo in that production).

God rest his soul.


Anonymous said...

My husband Noble Shropshire and I knew Bob for 40 years. Noble played the fool to his Lear, a Lear that was the finest performance of that role I've seen anywhere, as well as many other years working together at CSC. I worked with him in the workshop productions of Little Women. We loved him and will miss him greatly. He was the best classical actor in this country. And the finest and kindest gentleman I've ever met. Christiane (Tina) McKenna and Noble Shropshire.

Anglocat said...

Thank you so very much for your kind words about Bob. I remember Noble Shropshire as Gayev in The Cherry Orchard, a production I greatly enjoyed, and hearing from two of his colleagues means a great deal to me.