The one-man wonder

Dale Rose, director of USF’s School of Theatre and Dance, recalled nearly burning breakfast the morning he received an unexpected phone call from the master himself.

“‘Hello! This is Brian Bedford calling from Budapest,'” Rose re-enacted. “And I’m like, ‘Oh no! Burn the food!'”

Bedford, the Tony Award-winning classical actor, is coming to USF today to instruct a master class and again Thursday to perform the one-man Shakespearean anthology The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet as USF’s 2005 Distinguished Master Artist.

“(Bedford) is acknowledged by his peers as one of the greatest interpreters of Shakespeare and certainly the greatest interpreter of Molière in this country,” said Rose.

Rose has seen the British-born dramatist in several onstage productions both on and off Broadway. Although the unfamiliar language of the respective English and French playwrights can initially intimidate, Bedford constantly connects with his audience by translating 17th-century language into contemporary understanding.

“It’s (like) a banquet of Shakespeare — one man doing many, many roles,” said Rose. “What you’ll get is a sense of how the playwright and the actor get you — the audience members — to participate in the evening.

“What you find out, when somebody is a great actor using language from four centuries ago, is that the language really speaks,” Rose said. “An audience member starts feeling smarter than they thought they were.”

A World of Experience

Bedford entered England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art when he was 15. His career spans over half a century of acting and directing experience in at least 17 theater productions, most of which were on Broadway or used in Canada’s famous Stratford Festival; five Tony nominations; a 1971 win for Best Actor in Moliére’s play The School for Wives; appearances on Cheers, The Equalizer and Frasier; acting in several films, including the1960s classics Grand Prix and The Angry Silence; the voice of Robin Hood in Disney’s animated version of the movie and most recently, Mr. Fezziwig in the 2003 musical TV version of A Christmas Carol.

Bedford’s list of credentials seems endless, and the 70-year-old actor is still going.

“We’re trying (to) show people of all ages that creativity lasts a lifetime,” said Lee Leavengood, co-chair of the three-year-old Distinguished Master Artists Program that recognized and invited a well-known, older artist to perform and teach a master class at USF each year.

“It’s going to be an interesting one-man show,” Leavengood explained. “If you really love Shakespeare, you’ll see a first-class actor.”

Much Ado About Nothing

If you didn’t like Shakespeare before, allow yourself to be surprised and challenged, said Rose.

Live performances of the age-old texts hath converted many an anti-Shakespearean. Even if you’ve never heard of Macbeth or As You Like it, the playwright’s dramatic characters and themes are universal, and Bedford delivers.

“The reason Shakespeare is being done continually all over the world is because it’s relevant,” Rose said. “It’s not always easy to read. But if you’re seeing a great production it’s very easy to follow and get involved in.

“As (Bedford) has grown in his craft, his ability to really know where the comic moment is — what gets the laugh — (has been honed). I’m always amazed by that.”

Waiting for Bedford

Rose and his students have studied the text and familiarized themselves with the scenes and images most played by Bedford in anticipation of the class time they will spend learning from him today.

“The purpose of the master class is to work with the master. They will be working on specific scenes or monologues they’ve prepared,” Rose said. “There’s a scene from Romeo and Juliet. He’ll work with them for about an hour. So that’s an intensive time to really get another understanding or another level of work on the material.”

Rose said watching and working with Bedford so closely will offer students invaluable insight about how to improve their present and future work. The actor easily reaches the audience with his dramatic expressions, ability to communicate and comic timing, no matter what his role.

“He can wait and just look at the audience, and it’s sort of like, ‘Did you get that?’ And they all respond,” Rose said. “For young actors, that’s so scary because you don’t quite yet know what your relationship to an audience is. You’re exploring that a lot of your life … you grow to the point, like great comics do, (of) understanding an audience and understanding just what it takes to sell the punch line, to really convey it. When that happens as an audience you totally relax.

“You know you’re in the hands of a great performer, so it’s easy then to follow text you might think is difficult language. Suddenly it’s being spoken in a way that just makes perfect sense. And you’re waiting for the next moment.”

“Just be ready for anything,” Rose told his students. “To have the opportunity to work with him is pretty great and rare.”