Ogunquit Playhouse‘s production of The Da Vinci Code marks actor Charles Shaughnessy’s (The Nanny, General Hospital) third visit to the Maine theater. He has appeared on its stage twice before, both times as King Arthur in Spamalot. This season at the playhouse, Shaughnessy plays historian Sir Leigh Teabing in Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel about a secret in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
I spoke with Shaughnessy on Zoom one morning to chat about da Vinci, heroes and villains, and The Da Vinci Code rehearsals.
Do you have a favorite work by Leonardo da Vinci?
There’s a sketch … of a warrior with a helmet. I love his sketches and I just love that one. All of his sketches have a unique quality. I think his paintings are beautiful, too.
So he’s been a fun element of this play. My character gets to explain the codes and everything inside The Last Supper. I feel close to Leo nowadays!
If you had done things differently in real life, how would you have been as a historian?
I’ve always loved history. I wasn’t necessary good at it at school and I always struggled to get good grades. Sometimes I put that down to—I loved it so much that I’d come up with my own theories! I wouldn’t stick to the textbook answers and I argued around the standard answers.
I remember a question on the First World War: Why did it last so long? The correct answer was about von Schlieffen’s plan and defenses in Belgium. I said it was the machine gun. Technology produced the perfect defensive weapon. There was no offensive weapon to match it until the tank came along. Everything got bogged down in the trenches with no one advancing.
I failed the essay. Then decades later, one of the great First World War historians wrote a book about the machine gun being responsible for why the war lasted so long!
On Returning to Ogunquit, Maine
Two years ago, you did the Spamalot run in a tent. Today, you’re back indoors.
Still looking for the Holy Grail! That’s the ironic thing. This is my third time in Ogunquit trying to find the Holy Grail. There’s something about it that doesn’t go away.
The tent was different and interesting. It was a lot of work. We all felt like we were almost spinning out of control when rain nearly flooded the place. Hannah Cruz, who plays Sophie, came in after us with Young Frankenstein. We both shared the tent experience.
On Heroes and Villains
Does your family get a bigger kick out of you playing a hero or a villain?
I certainly get a kick out of being a villain, especially more of a layered villain that has a sense of humor. That’s my favorite kind of role. I seem to be sort of in my later career finding a niche in … the classic James Bond [type of] villain with a sense of humor. I enjoy that.
My family enjoys it. When I’m doing something fun and different, they’re happy with it.
Heroes tend to be boring. I played a hero for eight years on Days of Our Lives. He was such a good guy. It was annoying after a while. Too sugary!
On Making a Stage Adaptation
What’s a challenge in adapting a novel to the stage?
My first reaction was how do you put that on stage? It was hard enough adapting it to a two-and-a-half-hour movie, where you have the freedom to take cameras everywhere.
I got the script. We read it [on Zoom] and I went, “Oh, very smart. I see how this could work.”
The production is so imaginative and moves at such a speed. It uses a lot of TV techniques like quick cuts, sound cues and music that it does work like a movie on stage.
Are these tricks evocative of say, the 1960s and Hitchcock’s work?
I’ve noticed that it’s coming back. There was a show called 2:22, a ghost story. It was in England and then came to Broadway for a while. It’s a thriller that uses the same sort of techniques: sound cues, atmospheric music, and lighting cues. The way it, and this, is constructed going with snap cuts scene to scene is a modern trend. It speaks a TV vernacular on stage and it’s live.
Particularly younger audiences can immediately grasp the language of what they’re watching. It’s not the old-fashioned three-act play with long set changes. No, there are people running on and off the stage. Bang, bang, bang.
On Originating the Role, and Rehearsals
Is there any pressure on you because you’re originating the role on the U.S. stage?
I don’t feel any pressure. Dan Brown himself has been very present. He’s great, making a point to be very supportive and enthusiastic. Also he said, “This is not my medium. These two writers have written a script and someone is directing it. I’m not going to intervene in any way.”
He’s been watching over our shoulder and coming to see our show. But no, I haven’t felt any extra pressure. It adds to the excitement that the project has never been done before here. This is a seminal work that everyone seems to know.
Tell us more about the rehearsal process.
Because it’s new, the rehearsals are semi-workshop as much as rehearsing. We were lucky to have one of the writers, Rachel Wagstaff, with us in New York for scenes and dialogue work. Leigh Toney, our director, always insisted on keeping an element of fun, which I completely identify with. It may be an English thing that theatre has got to be fun.
We would start each day playing games. It was work. We were really digging into it with each other, but it meant we all got to know each other in the sandbox. Everyone got to play with everyone else. There’s no hierarchy. It meant for a very strong sense of unity and ownership as a cast.