Corkins saves "King Lear" from near-tragedy
In the theater, the weeks leading up to opening night involve more than enough practice to get a player through his lines and a performance. However, it's the unseen and unexpected that can throw off months of planning and work.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater's season opener, William Shakespeare's "King Lear," almost had a major setback when less than two weeks before opening night the lead actor suffered an injury. This forced The Rep to do some quick thinking, as well as be glad understudies were in place.
"We were just about to move into the theater proper from the rehearsal hall, it was Friday the 25 of August," Mark Corkins, the King Lear understudy, says. "We were staging the last scene of the play where, traditionally, Lear carries in his youngest daughter. We got to that point and Jimmy Baker picked up Cordelia and you could tell something was wrong."
After a trip to the doctor, Baker was diagnosed with a compression fracture in his back. This accident happened just before the entire cast had to do a run through in front of the whole crew. Corkins, a veteran actor here, had to step into the lead role for what he says people call "the Nuremberg run-through," but he had some good news, he was fairly ready.
He says that when he first started acting, he never wanted to be an understudy. Now he was taking over the lead role in a well-known play.
"The first time I heard about it (being an understudy), I said I wouldn't want to do that," Corkins says. "It's asking basically to do your own preparation without the structure of rehearsal schedules. You're left on your own and expected to have it ready if it's needed. It's a theater's insurance policy."
He describes the feeling of being thrown into the role, that was originally someone else'ss, as a mixture of "sheer terror and exhilaration."
"It's the actor's nightmare. You don't know you're dreaming and then you're pushed onstage and you don't know the play," he says. "It's that kind of raw like wow. When it comes right down to do it your ass is on the line and that's a motivating factor."
Prior to being named the new King Lear, Corkins was playing the Earl of Kent, one of Lear's dearest friends who risks his life to keep an eye on the diminishing king. This left another open spot in another lead role.
"It's a thing we call the domino effect," Corkins says. "Michael Duncan was playing the Duke of Albany, Lear's oldest daughter's husband. When I moved and vacated Kent, he moved to Kent and then of course left a vacancy in his role."
For awhile, the position was filled by an intern, but due to contractual and union issues, an intern cannot have a role this large. So the theater had to search for another actor.
"Another Rep regular, Brian Vaughn, just finished a production of 'Hamlet' and he came in," Corkins says. "It's amazing; he spent an hour and a half on stage and then was on stage opening night."
With his own performance, Corkins says he doesn't try to be old; he doesn't try to fool the audience. He says that Baker had that authenticity when it came to playing Lear because of his age. But he says he's true to the character and he does carry Cordelia in the end.
"I don't know if it's tradition, but I wouldn't want to do it any other way," he says. "It's a longstanding joke between Lears: 'how much does your Cordelia weigh?' It's an intense couple of hours and they say ok now pick up that little girl. The breathing is so vigorous that it's said a lot that when you're old enough to play the king, you don't have the physical capability."
Corkins says that the production really saw a turn around after running into all the road blocks.
"It's one thing that Joe Hanreddy (artistic director/director of 'King Lear') said once he saw me go through the show, he thought we were going to fall apart moving me into the lead, moving Michael Duncan and having an intern in such a large role," Corkins says. "We were going to crash and burn, figuratively speaking, but we really pulled it off. And he said, 'it's the first time I saw a sinking ship come back up.'"
Roy Normington said: Just saw this last night and now I'm wondering why I don't go more often! Awesome production with Lear, Cordelia and Edgar as most memorable! A MUST SEE!
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