‘Dying’ onstage

Posted on 16 Jun 2011 at 5:12pm

Rhett Henckel plays twin brothers — one straight, one gay — in ‘Dying City’

It’s not unusual for an actor to play multiple roles in a single play, but that’s a position usually reserved for minor characters. But for Rhett Henckel, the two men he plays in Dying City — twin brothers —are the main characters. One, seen in flashbacks, is a straight man who may have killed himself in Iraq; the other is a gay actor who visits the dead man’s widow a year after his death.

Second Thought Theatre closes out its 10th season with Christopher Shinn’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play that touches on the Iraq War and the prickliness of family relations with a clipped, realistic style. Lee Trull makes his directorial debut.

We asked Henckel about playing two roles — and which one he identifies with more.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

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DYING CITY
Studio Theatre, Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road. Through July 2. $15–$20.
SecondThoughtTheatre.com

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Dallas Voice: One of your characters, Peter, is described as an “intimidatingly handsome actor.” Typecasting? Henckel: I’ve been self-described as that, but I don’t hear it all the time. I have to act a little for it — I have to earn it this time.

Peter has a promising career, but he seems to have slept his way there. Same question. [Laughs] That’s maybe some advice I should take! If I want to have as promising a career as him, I should be more promiscuous. I’ve never really had that opportunity to do that — maybe I should have initiated it more. Though in rehearsals, I have flirted with [director] Lee Trull much more than I expected to. I’m constantly trying to gauge my fuckability in Lee’s eyes.

The play jumps quickly between years, and requires you to go between Peter, who’s gay, and his twin brother Craig, who’s straight. How do you subtly convey which character you are? I hope that I am doing it subtly. I think Christopher Shinn is very intentional on that — he wants the audience to be confused for a bit, even though they are two distinct characters. I’m not working off myself because I don’t see that character; it’s been through the eyes of Kelly [Craig’s widow] that I find the characters. Peter and Craig have very distinct opinions of Kelly, so that has opened up a lot.

But I think they are really alike. There’s a reason you are supposed to be confused. They have a lot of the same psychology and grew up in the same household. I have a therapist I talk to who I shared this play with, and when I said they had been described as polar opposites, he looked at me strangely. He thought they weren’t at all opposite, but really two extremes of one person. We’re all sort of that complex.

Which character do you relate to more? When I first started I identified as Peter — his passive-aggressive way of dealing with people; being an actor; his rampant egoism. But once we got into rehearsal, it was Craig I found quicker. There’s a quiet fury in this man that I feel like I ended up relating to. A lot more things are going on in Peter; Craig is a little bit simpler.

Peter is kind of complicated, for one, pretending to be antiwar to his gay friends even though he could not escape his conservative upbringing: Midwest values, guns, hawkishness about spreading freedom. Did you get that contradiction in him? I’m not even sure that’s entirely true — that’s what Craig says Peter told him. It’s hard to get to the core of what Peter really believes. Getting to the core is what’s so devastating. Being really honest about how we feel, confronting ourselves.

If I had to label the main theme of the play I would say it’s about how difficult true honesty can be: to others, to one’s self. What’s your take on it? No, that’s absolutely correct. Lies in this play are a very core theme. As any great play, it confronts this idea of what is the absolute truth. I hadn’t thought of it before, but Brick [in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] is a very similar character to Craig. And even Peter. What is a lie and what is full disclosure and what is truly at the core of ourselves? It’s really fucking messy when we get right down to it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

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