Who says actors in their 60s can't play the sparring lovers in "Much Ado"?
Beatrice and Benedick, the sparring would-be lovers in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," are traditionally played by actors in their 40s.
Guthrie director Joe Dowling has tapped two stars who are in the 60-ish range for his production that opens Friday in Minneapolis.
Irish actor Dearbhla Molloy, nominated for a Tony for playing Maggie in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" in the early 1990s, and Daniel Gerroll, who played Scrooge recently in "A Christmas Carol," headline Dowling's production.
For the director, who turns 63 on Sept. 27, advancing the age of the lead characters is related to his own growth.
"When I was younger, I didn't think people at this age could feel and do some of the things that they feel and do," he said. "I'm older now and feel just as vital."
Besides, he said, there is a marked difference in perception of love between Shakespeare's time and now.
"In the modern world, love can come at any time, and marriage makes sense beyond the childbearing years," he said.
"Much Ado" is set in a world of gossip and people minding each other's business. Benedick and Beatrice can't stand each other. But their meddlesome friends trick them into believing that each is in love with the other.
The comedy also has younger lovers Claudio and Hero, who are played by middle-aged actors Bill McCallum and Michelle O'Neill.
Literary critic Harold Bloom finds a lot of Freudian meanings in "Much Ado," viewing Beatrice as a verbal castrater, for example. And he describes Hero as a cipher -- an empty character onto whom viewers and critics project their own meanings.
Dowling has his own ideas about the play. He leaves it to literary critics to psychoanalyze its characters.
Before a rehearsal last week he spoke of the references in the title of the play. "In Elizabethan English, 'nothing' would've been pronounced 'noting,' and obviously there's a lot of noting in the play," he said.
With younger actors as Beatrice and Benedick, their verbal jousts take on a sexual charge -- fighting as foreplay -- as was the case with Dowling's last production of "Much Ado," which starred Stephen Pelinski and Pamela Nyberg in 1998.
"When you read it, it really sits better on young people," said Molloy. "I do think we are slightly perverting Shakespeare's intention [with the casting]. In your 60s, we hope we'll bring a weight and poignancy to some of the choices we made."
For Gerroll, older actors can convey characters able to think with minds less addled by hormones.
"These are characters with some history," he said. "We don't know what that is, but they've known each other, and the choices are grounded in the text."
Decades with Dowling
The two actors have known Dowling for decades. Molloy (whose first named is pronounced DERV-la), first met the Guthrie head when both were about 18. The young actors toured Ireland's western seaboard, alternating performances of two plays in Gaelic.
Molloy went on to spend two years at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"I do have the distinction of being at the RSC for two years and never speaking a word of Shakespeare," she said.
She did her first Shakespeare, playing Lady Macbeth, in her 40s, in London. Admittedly "terrified" about doing it, she was able to call on a very important friend, Judi Dench, for advice.
"She's very stylish, and we'd meet for breakfast at Harrods [department store]," said Molloy. Dench gave her a set of 10 rules that she accepted on the condition that she pass them on to others. The rules include "obey the meter," "earn your pause" and "negotiate with humor."
While Gerroll has not performed Shakespeare professionally, he, too, has a history with the Bard, including going to shows with parents and grandparents at the Old Vic in London, and memorizing passages from "The Tempest" and "The Merchant of Venice" for school.
Molloy and Gerroll take particular satisfaction in working at the Guthrie and for Dowling, not just because they are friends. Both actors had stories of working for directors whose styles are didactic and dictatorial, unlike Dowling.
Molloy recalled being in the company of "The Seagull," helmed by acclaimed German theater and opera director Peter Stein.
"It was one of the most exotic jobs -- we spent a week at Chekhov's house in Russia then we came back to Peter's castle in Tuscany and rehearsed in this palazzo on a hill," she said.
The problem for her was that Stein wanted to show her how to walk, how to say her lines, how to do everything, she said.
His way of working made her feel "non-Western European," she said. "If somebody makes your body move completely differently, and changes the rhythm of your speech, I don't know if it's Russian, but it felt like something entirely different."
For his part, Gerroll turned down playing Hamlet in his 30s precisely because the director was a tyrant. "Actors are among the most intelligent, creative people you will meet," he said. "Why would you want to deny that imagination?"