Weeks before beginning rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra , while still in previews for Henry VI , actress Helen Carey was already thinking of the relationship that lies at the core of Shakespeare's Egyptian tragedy. "The strength in the play," she explained, "is in what these two learn from each other. It's one of the few pieces of literature in which love and power are so beautifully balanced."
As Carey describes it, Cleopatra and Antony's story is an event-full journey for the characters, the actors and the audience. "Initially," she said, "there's a wonderful, sensual attraction and gamesmanship between them. They know how to push each other's buttons. Cleopatra, though, goes from being hedonistic and self-centered to being able to recognize the larger-than-life nobility of Antony. He is more than a lover. He embodies the love of country, honorable actions. She sees how he reacts in the face of failure. She sees that what is important is the final accounting of one's life."
It is clear from the passion with which Carey speaks that she is already deeply in love with the play. "These two, Antony and Cleopatra, bump the play up onto almost a spiritual plane," she said, looking into the distance for a moment before returning to the conversation. "The rocket that takes them there must first go through those lower layers, the button-pushing and hedonism, but all that falls away as the play progresses. These two fulfill each other spiritually as the play matures."
In preparation for this difficult role, Carey will spend hours with the text. "I read it and read it and read it," she said. "Just for the sense of being familiar with the words. Then I start to question, 'Why did he use that word? Why did he choose that image? What does this particular word cover up, what does it reveal?'"
From that point, the actress puts her own imagination to work, answering the questions posed by the text. "I begin to make up stories. I'll decide that she used one image instead of another because it was something she saw as a child, something that stayed with her."
As eloquent as she is about Shakespeare's words, Carey is equally passionate about the movement that must accompany those words on stage. "An audience today has difficulty digesting all the verbiage of Shakespeare's language," she explained. " I think of it like watching a conversation through a restaurant window. You can understand everything that's being said if the people are invested in what they're talking about. Actors do the same thing with a look, a nuance, a hesitation, the use of a prop."
Carey has been known to spend countless hours researching a role and historic period. "I read for two months before starting rehearsals for Lady Macbeth," she said. "What counts, though, is the chemistry that you and a particular actor or group of actors create on a stage. That chemistry can only occur in the flesh, on your feet."
Carey's own journey to Cleopatra has been an eventful one. A busy early career working at such prestigious places as The Guthrie Theater and the Stratford Festival in Canada became more sporadic with the welcome addition of husband and family. Married to a diplomat, however, Carey seldom had the chance to put down any artistic roots.
"My career is one that's been plugged in and unplugged numerous times," she said with a smile. "It was frustrating sometimes bouncing back and forth but anytime you live in another culture, another language, you get a chance to look at things differently. Each time I came back to the theatre, I found that our travels had been an enhancement to my work."
Carey was especially fascinated with the lessons she learned from speaking different languages and from hearing English spoken by foreign tongues. "Different languages have different lilts," she said. "Slavic is harder, right behind the tongue. French is more lilting. You gain a greater sense of the musicality, or the potential musicality, of English by hearing it spoken in different ways. There's a heightened awareness of the weight, of how words hit the air. You learn that you can say a word and make it mean something else."
It wasn't until recently, with eight and a half uninterrupted years in Washington, that the actress has had the luxury of consistently pursuing her career. Appearances at Arena Stage and The Shakespeare Theatre won rave reviews and audience accolades. Frequent collaborations with director Joe Dowling resulted in great artistic success in productions ranging from Macbeth to What the Butler Saw and a recent production of The Cherry Orchard back at The Guthrie Theater where her career began.
"I have a sense of what time does to an actor," she said. "There's something that comes with staying in the profession, stretching the muscles. I don't want to be thought of as just a classical actress. I had so much fun in What the Butler Saw , wearing two inch heels and a slip and carrying a gun. I'd like to do a new play. I'd like to create something. You get so spoiled doing the classics because you know they'll work as long as there is humanity to see them. I would love the challenge of something new, to start from scratch."
Eyes full of passion with thoughts of Cleopatra's long journey through rehearsal, previews and performance, Carey is already looking beyond to the next turn in the road.