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Editor's Note: "Stage Write/Stage Wrong" is an occasional series by Madison Magazine theater reviewer Aaron R. Conklin about those occasions when live performances do not go entirely according to the stage directions. Most actors, directors and designers have the grace and style to appreciate and/or survive dropped lines, stumbles and misbehaving props, but it's the confident ones who are willing to relive and share those experiences with us.
As you might expect, Charles Pasternak is having a blast playing the eventual Emperor of France. Pasternak, a veteran actor who is new to the American Players Theatre cast this summer, plays a young Napoleon Bonaparte, matching wits with Cassia Thompson's mysterious woman over a set of stolen dispatches in "Man of Destiny," a bite-sized George Bernard Shaw play being staged in the Touchstone this season.
"This is such a puzzle of a play," says Pasternak, who has performed with companies across the country. "And it's such a beautifully intimate part, with long Shavian speeches and half-page sentences that never end. It's a great joy to get into his mind. There's a lot of Shaw in Napoleon."
Pasternak was kind enough to set aside his sword and bowl of risotto to talk about some of his stage highs and lows.
It's clear Pasternak is a huge lover of classic theater. His favorite stage memory comes from Shakespeare's underrated and dramatically underperformed "Henry IV: Part 2" — the "Empire Strikes Back" of the Bard's Henriad. The bridge play lacks the epic throwdown between Prince Hal and Hotspur that defines "Henry IV: Part One" and it also lacks the legendary "We Happy Few" speech that everyone remembers from "Henry V."
One thing it does have — at least when Shakespeare Santa Cruz performed it in its entirety in 2015 — is a touching scene toward the end of the play in which a group of older soldiers sing together about the end of old England in an orchard before heading off to battle.
Pasternak got to experience that in "Henry IV: Part 2" firsthand while playing Prince Hal. He had just completed the scene in which Hal vows to his brothers that he won't become a wastrel king when he ascends the throne. He had run offstage to change costumes for a subsequent scene in which he renounces Falstaff. That put him in a great backstage position to appreciate the scene.
"It's not only a gorgeous scene," he says. "But to see those older actors giving their love for the theater, playing it out on stage, it was just beautiful."
The moment of physical injury is an awful one for pro athletes, but it's just as bad for actors. Pasternak knew the instant he hurt himself when he bounded and bounced on stage as Mercutio in Indiana Repertory Theater's 2018 production of "Romeo and Juliet."
Pasternak was in the middle of what he dubbed his "Tigger entrance" for the character's dramatic fight and death scene. But as he leapt on stage during a student matinee performance, he badly rolled his ankle on the landing.
"I could hear the succession of pops," Pasternak recalls with a shudder. "I was in these huge, red flat shoes, and it just rolled."
Even though he knew he might have just badly broken his ankle, Pasternak knew he had to make it through the scene — even though it involved a physically demanding knife fight, and the actor playing Tybalt was about to come onstage with no idea Pasternak had seriously injured himself. Pasternak tried to communicate to his co-star with eye contact and by gesturing toward his foot with his knife. Luckily, the connection was made.
"It was a positive moment of my connecting with an actor who knows that something's not right," he says.
Pasternak made it through the scene and discovered that his ankle was badly sprained, not broken.
Even now, he can still recall his specific thought process. "It's amazing what your brain can do in crisis," he says. "I'm thinking, ‘Is it broken? Will anyone notice? Will I be OK?' I'm having a full body check-in as I'm speaking the lines."
Pasternak insisted doctors not put him in a cast. Amazingly, he completed the remainder of the show's three-week run.
"It was a limping, pimp-walking Mercutio for the next few weeks," he quips.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.