Talking with Edward Gero on the phone is an odd experience. It’s in that cluttered no-man’s-landscape of familiarity and geniality, a lived-in voice you’re hearing among the back and forth of memory and questions and answers.
This is something that happens fairly often when you’re engaged in conversation with an actor of whatever status. There’s a feeling you’re dealing with a lot of people at once, or, as Whitman poetically bragged, “I contain multitudes.”
Gero is hardly a braggart — he’s much too engaging a fellow — but by now whenever he talks there’s an invisible but felt parade trailing behind him, proving Shakespeare’s contention that “one man in his time plays many parts.”
That’s certainly true for Gero, who has played many, many parts — built brick by brick, line by line, man by man, performance by performance, memory by memory, the majority of them Shakespearian — in a long career, much of it spent formed and performed on Washington stages. In this city and region, he has also played the ongoing role of husband, father, teacher and citizen.
Now, he has the fame-found centerpiece role of a rotund, life-full knight in a play about an English king, whom he has also played. Gero will be Sir John Falstaff, the bug-of-belly soldier, roustabout, kind of tutor to the young heir to the English throne, in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part One” at Folger Theatre. The show runs from Sept. 3 to Oct. 13.
Gero’s presence in this production, directed by Rosa Joshi, founder of Seattle’s Upstart Crow Collective, marks another significant part of this actor’s life.
“It’s a homecoming, sure, absolutely,” Gero said. “This is where I started in Washington, and pretty much what made me stay here. It’s where I Iearned so much about being an actor, being part of a community and about Shakespeare,” he said, just before he was set to join a morning rehearsal.
The part and the play seemed to have been waiting for him all of this time.
“But the thing is, the play, and all the roles over time in the history plays, when Michael Kahn took over the company, you feel you’re also part of this family, the family of the kings and princes, the usurpers and Henrys and so on,” he said. “That’s a different family, and you pick up different members of the family along the way.”
His first foray into the Shakespeare wars was in 1988 as Henry Bolingbroke, the gruff usurper in “Richard II,” for which he won a Helen Hayes Award. The elderly John of Gaunt is a principal character in that play, and Gero, who is of Italian descent and a New Jersey native, saluted his father, who had passed away, saying this award was for Sal of Jersey.
He repeated the same role playing opposite Richard Thomas in another “Richard II” in 1993, playing the man who would eventually morph into Henry IV.
In 2014, Gero teamed up with good friend Stacy Keach for the two parts of “Henry IV,” in which Gero played Henry and Keach took up the dissolute Falstaff. The play was a kind of familial what-goes-around-comes-around. In an interview, he said then that “things get circular. I’m the father, I was the son [in a production of “Henry V”], I was the usurper and became the king.” Keach and Gero were also in the Chicago-originating production of “King Lear,” co-produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company here in D.C., with Keach in the title role.
“I think I’ve been in every Shakespeare play, in big roles and little, at one time or another. He’s the master of the human experience and that’s what happens to you when you’re in one of the plays,” Gero said. “Being here — I haven’t been at the Folger in a number of years — and playing Falstaff is special to me, especially since they’re renovating the theater and the space.”
Gero in some ways embodies the idea of the Washington theater community, where many actors and theater artists have built a solid career and monument of roles in their time, with many making their homes here. People know, applaud and respect each other’s work, from artistic directors to the third tribune in “Julius Caesar,” and when talking about each other use first name references, as in Holly (Twyford) or Chris (Wallace), trodding the stage at the Lansburgh, Arena, Woolly, Round House and others.
Actors are special that way and Gero understands this. “It’s a great honor to be able to have the life I have and do what I do. I think Falstaff has been hovering in my mind for a long time. It’s time.”
Gero has done a lot of Shakespeare, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a purely Shakespearean actor. In fact, he’s played memorably, majestically large roles, locally and elsewhere.
For instance: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the play “The Originalist,” which gave a broadly human view of the conservative justice not loved by liberals. “I had the opportunity to spend time with him, and the experience on personal and human levels was great, and I wanted to bring out the human being,” he said. The result — often funny — which featured discussions between Scalia and a liberal intern, was indeed a humanist approach to a controversial American figure.
“I guess you could say some of the people are iconic or bigger than life.” He’s played a long run of seven portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge in Ford’s Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” the artist Mark Rothko, Horace Vandergelder in both “Hello Dolly!” and Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” and Richard Nixon.
Gero does contain multitudes — including his family, his wife Marijke Ebbinge and son Christian, an award-winning sound designer — as well as all the roles he’s played, nights and matinees and rehearsals.
I remember talking with him before, but also the sound of his voice onstage, because, as audience members, we remember and bear witness. On the phone, or, I’m guessing, questioning as Falstaff the nature of honor, Gero always sounds natural, in the here and now, centuries ago.