Continuing my series about U.S. regional theaters, I’m spotlighting the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. One of their summer shows is Spamalot, directed by BT McNicholl. The Broadway musical is based largely on the popular film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur must rally his Knights of the Round Table to find the Grail, a perilous quest filled with hilarious adventures and obstacles. Charles Shaughnessy (The Nanny, The Magicians, Days of Our Lives) makes his return to the Ogunquit Playhouse to reprise his role as Arthur. He joined me on a call this week to talk more about the show, which runs through Saturday, July 10.
Which food do you recommend to folks visiting Maine for the first time?
One would normally say lobster, but I’m going to avoid that. In fact, I’m not even going to say seafood. I had one of the best pork chops I think I’ve ever had in a restaurant here in Ogunquit.
If you could be King of the Britons in real life, how do you think that would go?[Laughs] I think they’d probably take it as seriously as the Knights take King Arthur. That’s the fun thing about this show. There’s this authority figure that no one pays any respect to at all. I think the same thing would probably happen if I declared myself King of the Britons now. I don’t know! The whole idea of monarchy is an extremely controversial one in England anyway.
Would Mr. Sheffield have passed on Spamalot like he did with Cats?
Probably. I don’t think he would have got it at all. I don’t think Mr. Sheffield would have been much of a Monty Python fan. It would have gone completely above his head. He’s kind of the butt of the Monty Python jokes, so I don’t think he would have appreciated it.
What’s a lesson you learned early in acting that stuck with you during your career?
The most important thing I think is I don’t define myself as an actor. It’s what I do. I think one of the dangers in this business and for any artist is if you define yourself by your work, then you kind of live and die by the amount of work you do or the amount of appreciation for that work. I’m very careful to define myself as all sorts of other things: a husband, a father, a guy in the world who does different things and happens to act for a living. I think that keeps me sane.
Who is your biggest influence when it comes to theater?
When I was about 10 or 11, I wrote an essay in school. You had to write your own obituary. I wrote an obituary for Sir Charles Shaughnessy, who became a famous actor because of someone in England called David Warner. [Warner] was in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, but I saw him in a TV series called The War of the Roses, which is about Shakespeare’s history plays. I’d say David Warner probably inspired me to go into acting professionally.
This summer, the Playhouse moved performances outdoors. Do you enjoy doing open air theater? What are the unique challenges of that type of space?
It’s a hybrid. It’s a big hangar – I wouldn’t even say tent – with flaps opening up. It makes for a different environment sound- and light-wise. The audience is a lot further away and scattered. Outside can have its charms, but it’s also got a lot more challenges than being nicely snug inside a theater. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt at the moment: we can’t be inside theaters yet. It’s the best option and it works surprisingly well, I have to say, a lot better than I feared. The audiences seem to be having a wonderful time in the space we have right now. No complaints.
What’s your first memory of watching Monty Python?
My clearest memory is that we would go and stay with my uncle and aunt in Cornwall. They lived a very elite sort of existence. There’d be dinner at eight with butlers and everyone would dress for dinner. It was very formal. After this very formal room with butlers, candles, and wine, we would go up to the nursery and watch Monty Python. My darling Aunt Diana, who really looked and sounded like the Queen, would just collapse in a heap in front of the TV with tears streaming down her face. She thought it was so funny, particularly the gynecologists versus the Long John Silvers soccer match, where all the Long John Silvers were standing on one leg and playing football. She thought it was absolutely hysterical. I think that goes down as my favorite sketch.
In this production’s press release, you’re quoted as saying, “As a Monty Python purist, I wanted nothing to do with Spamalot at first.” Which aspects of the musical led to your change of heart?
I was afraid that it was going to be just a series of rehashed sketches taking advantage of the nostalgia for the series. What I wasn’t prepared for was a very touching story arc about this man, Arthur, and his determination to do something special. It’s crazy and it’s got all sorts of Monty Python madcap stuff, but there is a very sweet throughline story about his relationships with Patsy and the Lady of the Lake. [There’s] his desire to unite the knights around a common goal. I didn’t expect that to be as successfully woven into the piece and so central. It ends up being a very satisfying play with great numbers and very funny Monty Python humor. When I saw that in the script, it changed my mind. I’m glad it did because it’s a really wonderful piece.
Do you have a favorite scene from the musical?
They are all pretty fun. I love the scene with Patsy where we sing “Bright Side of Life.” As I say, it’s a very sweet scene about their relationship. There’s a line in the play – because Arthur seems to completely abuse Patsy and takes her for granted, as played by the adorable and wonderfully talented Jen Cody. In one scene the Lady of the Lake says, “But you know Patsy’s been with you all the time.”
He looks at her and goes, “Yes, but Patsy is family.”
It’s so sweet. He hasn’t really been taking her for granted. He’s just assumed she’s family and that she’s okay. It’s touching and that’s what I mean about very sweet moments written into it as a play.
Are there other challenges in doing Spamalot?
The challenge is that I’m 10 years older than I was when I first did it. There’s quite a lot of jumping around, horse galloping and things, and dancing. That was a challenge definitely. I’m working with a bunch of extremely talented and much more youthful actors, so it was a challenge keeping up and keeping a smile on my face, to look like I was doing it effortlessly.
What’s it been like working with a different director this time?
BT was one of the original – he was anointed almost by Mike Nichols to sort of continue the legacy and do the production as it went out from central. Since he wasn’t available the last time, Scott Taylor, who was also part of the original set-up and tour, took over it. The vision is very similar to the original vision and intention. There’s not a huge amount of difference.
The big difference was the environment and staging. We have a huge set. The last time I did it, it was inside. It was a small set in a small and enclosed space. It was more on top of the audience, whereas now it’s blown up into this much bigger spectacle. I think the sheer dimensions are the biggest difference.
What do you find fulfilling about doing regional theater?
You always find yourself working with an exceptional company of actors and performers. They are just always incredibly multi-talented and multi-faceted. After one rehearsal and a shared cup of coffee, you kind of feel like you’ve known them all your life. It’s a tight-knit group for the three or four weeks you’re together, before you move on. I think that’s the most exciting thing for me, is this camaraderie and common purpose. You become a little army engaged in having this campaign. Then you all go your different ways and maybe you’ll meet again one day, maybe you won’t. It’s those very hot, fast-burning relationships that I treasure. [Also] we’re bringing theater to places like this that don’t necessarily see it. It’s exceptionally exciting now because no one has had theater for two years.
When I interviewed your former The Nanny co-star Daniel Davis a few weeks ago, he said he’d like to do King Lear again. Looking ahead, is there a role from one of the great plays that you still want to take on?
Not really, no. I don’t have a particular role that I’m itching to do. There may be a role out there that I don’t know about that will be my favorite role. Do you know what I mean? I’ve done Henry Higgins three times and I’ve probably done it as much as I can squeeze anything out of that particular orange. If I was asked which Shakespeare role would I want to do, it would be Richard III again. I did once when I was a kid. I think Richard III is one of the most fun and interesting characters in Shakespeare because he’s an archvillain, but he’s written in such a way that the audience can’t help but root for him.