Rene Moreno, North Texas’ most respected stage director, returns to acting in ‘Richard III,’ thanks to actor-turned-playwright Ian Leson. So what happens when the teacher becomes the student
It is three days before the opening of his latest show, Kitchen Dog Theater’s new production of "Richard III," and the word "terrifying" is echoing through Rene Moreno’s head. As North Texas’ most acclaimed stage director, Moreno should be accustomed to opening-night jitters by now. But this time is different.
Because for the first time in a long time, Moreno isn’t directing a play. He’s starring in it.
A decade ago, that wouldn’t have been very newsworthy. Moreno, a Broadway veteran, was a familiar face on Dallas stages. But aside from some staged readings and short festival pieces, Moreno hasn’t performed live theater in about four years.
His return to acting germinated about 18 months ago. Moreno was talking with Ian Leson, himself a well-regarded actor. They discussed the idea of working again together, this time with Moreno acting and Leson directing. Leson, a company member of Kitchen Dog, was toying with projects to submit to the troupe for producing in its 2007â€“08 season.
"I was thinking about scripts and this one came to mind," Leson remembers.
"Richard III" is about one of England’s most notorious monarchs, believed to have contrived to murder his brother and nephews in order to wrest power for his own personal glory. It’s a plum part, but Leson was at first hesitant to suggest it to Moreno. Leson’s vision was to do away with Richard’s famous hunchback and instead make the king known as "scarce half made up" a paraplegic in a wheelchair, as Moreno is.
"It was a sensitive situation," Leson says. "I e-mailed him and he waited a week to get back to me. I thought I had pissed him off."
Moreno insists he wasn’t.
"I think I needed to be courted a little, that’s all," he says. "But I thought a long time about it. People have often asked me if there were one role I wanted to do, what would it be. I’ve always kept silent about that. But really, it’s Richard — especially since being in this wheelchair. But that teaches you to be careful of what you wish for. You might get it."
Why, though, pick Richard as his comeback part? It’s the second-longest role in the Shakespearean canon and perhaps the most demanding part in all English-speaking theater.
"It is physically demanding to huff and puff for two-and-a-half hours," Moreno says. "Mentally you have to stay with it, and I hadn’t worked that muscle, that part of my brain, in so long. Terrifying? That’s part of it. Perhaps when you approach a role like this, that’s most of it. But as we have moved forward, it is less and less the role and more of [returning to acting itself]. But it’s a privilege to speak these words. It’s exciting and thrilling."
"We decided, if you’re gonna do it, do it," adds Leson. "Rene as Richard III is why it works."
While the production marks Moreno’s return to acting, it’s a kind of first for Leson, too. This is the first full-scale directing he has done in Dallas, and he also adapted the script. But everything has come full-circle for the two.
"The first show I ever directed was here at Kitchen Dog, ‘Miss Julie,’ in 1996," Moreno says. "Then I directed ‘Othello’ that summer, which Ian was in." Moreno directed Leson twice more, notably in the award-winning "Visiting Mr. Green," and "I really just trusted him. That was very important to me. If I was going to take on a project like this, I needed to feel comfortable."
For Leson, going from direct-ee to director with Moreno has been easy.
"The great thing is, there are certain people who you connect to in the right way. I would be a big fool to over-coach Rene," Leson says.
Moreno also had no problem stepping into a new role.
"I took off my director’s hat from word go," he says. "Shakespeare is the great reducer, whoever’s working on it. Watching Ian direct a scene I wasn’t in or directing, I kept thinking, ‘I am not in this scene but I am part of this thing.’ You have to come up to Shakespeare, the play’s not gonna come down to you. My duty was to the role, to Ian, to Shakespeare."
In fact, Moreno had only one requirement for the production: that the set be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Designer Clare Floyd Devries built it to those specs, with the addition of a small set of stairs that Moreno can’t climb. It wasn’t an oversight. The stairs are meant to inform Richard’s sense of exclusion.
"Every ‘Richard III’ I’ve seen gets its wrong," Leson says. "Richard is made evil for the sake of being evil. He’s bored so he does all this? Our Richard has a real good reason."
And the reason is his disability.
"Gail Cronauer played Richard, and her way in was, ‘I am a woman — I am powerless,’" Moreno explains. "This" — he rattles the wheels of his chair — "is where I feel on the outside. My feeling of not fitting in is as a gay man, as a Latino growing up in Texas, as disabled. The feeling of The Other is key to playing Richard."
If investing so much of himself is demanded of the role, is his return to acting worth it? Is Moreno having fun? He pauses.
"It’s a very powerful thing to actually have these words in your brain — I feel so connected to them," Moreno says. "So it’s really getting there for me. Yeah, absolutely."
Kitchen Dog Theater’s production of "Richard III" opens tonight at The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through May 3. Thursdaysâ€“Saturdays, select Wednesdays at 8 p.m., select Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $27â€“$32. 214-953-1055.
THE PLAY’S THE THING
"Richard III" Presented by Kitchen Dog Theater. The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. April 4â€“May 3. Thursdaysâ€“Saturdays, select Wednesdays at 8 p.m., select Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $27â€“$32. 214-953-1055.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 4, 2008.