Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

A Shakespearean Comic
Blends Stories, Songs,
and a Little Soft-Shoe


By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- No one answers the door at the church where this afternoon's rehearsal is supposed to be taking place, but there's no doubt that Floyd King is somewhere inside. The voice drifting through an open window above a rain-slicked Capitol Hill alley is unmistakably his -- slightly antic, seriously nasal, and loud enough to carry hilarity all the way back to the cheap seats. "Danes do it," he is singing. "Thanes do it. Even ..."

A shout brings Mr. King's face to the window, mouth closed and eyes wide with surprise, as though it had been the ghost of Hamlet's father calling him. It's a moment to savor, even while standing out in the rain, because Floyd King does deer-caught-in-the-headlights surprise as well as anyone in Washington, possibly as well as anyone in the country. "I thought I was hearing the voice of God," he exclaims. "'Floyd! Floyd!' -- yikes."

Though his movements are often as awkward as a teenager's -- both his feet seem to have minds of their own -- Mr. King is in fact a 17-year veteran of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, where he is currently appearing in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor that is set at a 1950s resort and is earning standing ovations; he plays Master Ford, a befuddled, would-be cuckold in madras shorts. Mr. King is also a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, in New York, where he teaches a comedy class every Monday. This particular afternoon, however, he is rehearsing a one-man show called Mad About the Bard. Set to open this week in the Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Theatre here, the production offers stories, songs with rewritten lyrics, even a little soft-shoe -- all of it related to Shakespeare.

And to Mr. King, who created the show last year for a Shakespeare Theatre benefit and is reviving it now for a two-and-a-half-week run. "Not a lot of people quoted Shakespeare where I grew up, in southeast Texas," he says as rehearsal resumes. He is playing to an imaginary crowd, and, as always, his eyes are wide open, flashing around the room and then fixing on one imaginary spectator or another. He is talking about his grandmother, "Big" -- short for "Big Momma," he confides to someone the rest of us can't see. "Big was always running around the house saying, 'My kingdom for a needle,' or, 'My kingdom for a cup of tea.'" Not till he was in high school, he says, did he realize that she was actually quoting Shakespeare, whether she knew it or not. So was anyone who said, "To thine own self be true," or "It's Greek to me," or any of a dozen other expressions that he rattles off.

"I want this to be chatty, right?" Mr. King asks Ethan McSweeny, his director, who is leaning back in a chair behind a folding table. Mr. McSweeny nods. It has been a trying rehearsal, what with Mr. King having to remember new lines added for the show's revival and also having to work out all over again where to stand, lean, or walk during every moment of every scene. Mr. King's restless eyes dart longingly toward the window. "Somebody over there has a beautiful convertible," he says suddenly. "It's green."

"Don't make me pull the shades," Mr. McSweeny deadpans.

"The problem is, there's too many shows in my head, at the present time," Mr. Floyd says later, during a coffee run to the local 7-Eleven. Not just Merry Wives and Mad About the Bard, either. He appeared in the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Peer Gynt last winter. This week, he'll start rehearsing the theater's production of All's Well That Ends Well, which will open next month at an outdoor amphitheater in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Also in his head are lines left over from all manner of earlier productions, from last year's Love! Valour! Compassion! to 1994's The Pirates of Penzance, 1993's The Lisbon Traviata, and more Shakespeare plays than a person can keep track of.

In a class entirely by itself, though, is a 1992 performance at the Studio Theatre here that few who saw it have forgotten. It was another one-man show, called A Tale of Two Cities. Mr. King played a performer who discovered a crying baby abandoned on his doorstep just hours before his new drag act was to have its premiere. Neither lullabies nor nursery rhymes would quiet the infant, but when Mr. King spoke the opening lines of the Dickens novel -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" -- the baby fell silent immediately.

For the rest of the play, Mr. King not only narrated but also acted out the Dickens tale, playing all of its major characters and, at the same time, cooking an on-stage meal, having an on-stage bath, and, after the intermission, preparing for his drag act, from makeup and stockings to gloves and feather boa. The show ended with a torch song that Mr. King, feathered and sequined, sang as he swept through aisles lined with cheering theatergoers.

"I'd wanted to be an actor since I was about 9," says Mr. King, who peppers his conversation with pauses and punchlines. "But I kept it a secret till I was 18. Then I just sprung it on them." At Lamar University, he majored in theater and history, and gradually his parents started coming to see him in plays. His association with Shakespeare and the Shakespeare Theatre is, he says, "just something that fate took me to -- I always thought I'd get a job on a TV show and then disappear after 10 years or so." While he was living in New York in 1981, however, he auditioned for a production of The Taming of the Shrew at what was then called the Folger Shakespeare Group. He auditioned poorly, and he thought the people he auditioned for were rude. So he was surprised when he was asked to be in the show. He's been with the company since.

Mr. King says he's no Shakespeare scholar, just a devout fan. "When he was writing, the language was still just being invented -- if it weren't for Shakespeare and the Bible, I don't know what we'd be saying to each other." But Mr. King adds: "For all the gorgeousness of the language, the true genius is his incredible knowledge of human nature. He wrote before Freud, but I'm sure he was at some level aware of the subconscious. What I've learned about myself while doing Shakespeare is invaluable."

He relies heavily on Shakespeare's texts in his comedy course for Juilliard students, he says. "They learn how to do takes and trips. Mostly it's honing your sense of humor, which you can do -- everybody has one." Shakespeare is especially useful in a comedy course now, he says, because so much of contemporary comedy "is about living single in New York and trying to find a job."

He says he enjoys teaching. "I get so much more out of it than they do -- it's how I find out what I know." Mr. King himself learned comedy from "people who were taught by vaudevillians" -- he mentions W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, and Lucille Ball. "How I learned," he says simply, "was by watching movies."

In any case, he is a master now. In Merry Wives, his imitation of another character's drunken weaving is hysterical; his droll "This is strange" takes the cake in the final scene, a drag number set in the parking lot of a drive-in movie. But better yet -- though it is not at all comic -- is his rendition during the rehearsal of Jaques's famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It. It begins innocently enough, but as Mr. King speaks -- " ... then the whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face" -- Shakespeare's words work their old, astonishing magic. The choreographer and the stage manager fall silent; Mr. McSweeny sits up in his chair. Mr. King, his gaze for once stilled, delivers the lines with spellbinding subtlety:

                       Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

When he is finished, he looks around the room. But for a perfect moment there is only the sound of the rain falling in the empty alley.

Copyright © 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published May 15, 1998.