By TOM CHESEK
As a regular for the last seven seasons of The Cosby Show, Geoffrey Owens was part of a pop-cultural juggernaut that TV Guide named as The Greatest Sitcom of the 1980s; a Reagan-era repository of positive role models and fatherly sweaters that consistently topped the Nielsens — before ultimately being toppled by The Simpsons and other heirs to the throne of tubeland’s most dysfunctional modern family.
While his recurring role as Cliff Huxtable’s occasionally opinionated but nice-guy son-in-law Elvin allowed him to have the odd moment of good-natured fun with Bill Cosby’s proven shtick, it wasn’t until returning to the stage that the son of former U.S. Congressman Major Owens discovered a surprising specialty — as a sought-after interpreter of the comedic and tragic characters from the quill of Wm. Shakespeare.
Seen recently on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet (with Orlando Bloom), Owens has starred and co-starred in major productions of Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and many others — including a Joseph Papp-produced As You Like It that brought him to the Broadway boards as Orlando, the exiled young noble and dashing leading man of the Bard’s “comedy of cross-dressing heroines and triumphant heroes.” Beginning this weekend, the actor returns to As You Like It‘s “Forest of Arden” setting for the first in a series of preview performances this Saturday night, January 25.
There’s much more going on around the figurative Forest of Arden in February, as TRTC’s “black box” Marion Huber space hosts a special sidebar production of A LITTLE SHAKESPEARE: AS YOU LIKE IT, a special 75 minute version of (adapted and directed by Jason McDowell-Green) designed for audiences of ages 9 and up. Along with a set of school-show matinees, a trio of public performances will be offered on February 7 at 7pm, and February 8 at 12 and 4pm. Take it here for ticket info and bios of the cast members, including several current students of Red Bank Catholic and Red Bank Regional high schools. (photo by Ozzie Rodriguez)
In the Two River Theater Company production directed by Michael Sexton of NYC’s Shakespeare Society, the part of Orlando is taken on by Jacob Fishel, who starred under Sexton’s direction in TRTC’s 2012 production of Henry V. Miriam A. Hyman plays Rosalind — a fellow runaway from family drama and court intrigue who spends a good deal of the play’s running time disguised as a young guy named Ganymede. And Owens returns to the 400 year old comedy in the smaller but vividly memorable role of Jaques — an unusually (for Shakespeare) cynical observer of the passing human parade, and the character who gets to deliver the play’s most quotable line: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
The production that opens on January 31 also lends a new layer of musicality to an already song-infused work, with an original score by Ben Toth that finds the company of eleven actors singing and accompanying themselves on various instruments. The Drama Desk at redbankgreen rang up Geoffrey Owens for a quick conversation about finding romance, reconciliation and religion in a place called Arden.
redbankgreen: Good to see you back in Red Bank, Geoffrey. I have to apologize, a bit after the fact, for not even realizing the first time we met that you were the same Geoffrey Owens from COSBY. It’s a show that I somehow never managed to make a habit of, all those years it was on.
GEOFFREY OWENS: I didn’t make a habit of watching the show either, unless I was on it that night! (laughs)
Well, these days the pendulum has swung around more to the dysfunctional-family template for TV comedy, which is more my speed. And one of my favorite TV families, the gang from IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, has encountered you several times on the show. Your running-gag appearances, where you play on your status as “that guy who was in that thing,” and insist that you’re somebody else like Donovan McNabb, have been a lot of fun.
Those were just so much fun to do…especially the first time I appeared on the show. That was the single most fun I’ve had doing television. It’s a hilarious show, and you wouldn’t believe how many people know me just for that!
Of course, Mr. Shakespeare figured out a long time ago how to mine comic gold from family dysfunction. And you’ve been a Shakespearean veteran for a long time yourself.
I didn’t set out for it be this way, but I’ve done more Shakespeare than anything else…in fact, I was the last Romeo on Broadway before Orlando Bloom! It was 26, 27 years ago, as part of a multi-ethnic company directed by Estelle Parsons, where we did Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It and Macbeth in repertory.
And of course last season you worked with Michael Sexton and with Jacob Fishel at Two River Theater, where you played Pistol in HENRY V…
And the Archbishop of Canterbury! This will actually be the third time that I’ve worked with Michael Sexton — he invited me to read some scenes from Henry IV, part 1 at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse in New York, six or seven months ago, with Brian Cox as Falstaff. I had to do it; it was a great pleasure to work with Brian Cox.
You’ve definitely gotten to work with a panorama of pros in your day…everyone from Al Pacino to Andy Griffith.
And Ron Howard! He directed me in The Paper.
So there’s your Andy Griffith connection right there. Now in this production, you’re playing Jaques, who doesn’t have a great deal of stage time, but who tends to make a splash with the audience whenever he’s around…he has command of the stage.
He insists on command of the stage! It’s a role that I always wanted to play…everything is on his terms…he’s antisocial, but he’s a lover of people in his particular way…he likes to use them, and move on. He’s a guy with a checkered past, too…he’s been a libertine, and he does not deny it.
He can be so sour…but I think he’s very likable and funny, and audiences really like him, even though he doesn’t follow the patterns of social behavior. He don’t dance if he don’t have to dance!
Actually, I understand that you and everyone else in the cast have a touch of the song-and-dance-man in them for this production. It brings to mind the first play that you did at Two River, OPUS, where you had to get into the head of a classical musician in a chamber quartet.
True, there is some choreography involved in this production! And they’ve got us singing and playing instruments…I have a solo verse in one of the songs, and a I play a little guitar and a little viola. I played viola as a kid growing up, but I’m more of a guitarist. And in Opus, I was actually the cellist in the quartet.
So when you make these frequent forays to Red Bank, do you stay locally, or do you grab the train back to the city every night?
No, I’m staying right here, in good old Shrewsbury Manor! I enjoy it here. And I’m ready for this show; I’m really looking forward to it.
Take it here for tickets ($20 – $65 for adults; $25 ages 18 and younger) for AS YOU LIKE IT, which opens on Friday, January 31 and continues its limited engagement through February 16. And check the Two River website for info on additional special events, including a post-show presentation on February 9 by Fordham University professor Mary Bly (alias bestselling romance novelist Eloisa James).