The Imaginary Invalid
Season 07-08 Season

Man of a Thousand Faces

AKIVA FOX
LITERARY ASSOCIATE

Renè Auberjonois. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

René Auberjonois comes to STC

You know René Auberjonois. But you may not know that you know him.
 
His distinctive face and voice have made Auberjonois one of America’s best-known character actors. Over a more than 40-year career in theatre, film and television, he has played some unforgettable roles: from Father Mulcahy in Robert Altman’s film MASH, to the officious chief of staff Clayton Endicott III on the hit series Benson, to the shape-shifter Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, to managing partner Paul Lewiston on the ABC drama Boston Legal and even the voice of an over-eager French chef in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. But the life of a character actor brings with it an unusual kind of fame. “People recognize me all the time on the subway, but they can’t quite place me,” he laughs. “Sometimes they think I might be their dry cleaner!”
 
Though René Auberjonois is best known for his work in film and television, he calls his work in theatre “the foundation of it all.” He returns to the theatre this summer when he comes to the Shakespeare Theatre Company to play the hypochondriac Argan in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid. By sheer coincidence, his professional acting career began in Washington, D.C., where he joined the company of Arena Stage straight out of college. “It was like a graduate degree in acting,” he remembers. “I was doing 10 shows a season, playing roles that covered the whole repertory, from Shakespeare to O’Neill. I spent three years playing against my age and against my type and against everybody’s better judgment.” Those three years at Arena Stage (and three more in the company of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater) helped make him “the kind of actor who doesn’t project his own personality so much as recede into the character.”
 
Since the director Robert Altman cast him in four movies in the 1970s, Auberjonois has been a constant presence on film and television. Even on screen, however, he has gravitated to projects that depended on ensembles rather than on stars. “I was working on television series with actors who I had worked with in the theatre,” he says, “and I always enjoyed being part of a company again.” Nor did he leave theatre behind; the Tony-winning actor returned frequently to stages in New York and Los Angeles whenever his schedule allowed.
 
And it was this love of the theatre and of ensemble work that brought him back to Washington. After watching his daughter Tessa Auberjonois star in three productions at STC for director Keith Baxter—The Country Wife, The Rivals and Lady Windermere’s Fan—René Auberjonois found the company he had been looking for. “I kept seeing this wonderful deep bench of actors,” he observes. So when he and Baxter began to discuss collaborating on The Imaginary Invalid, both realized that there was only one place to go. “I may be playing the title role, but it’s only going to work if every actor who walks on stage with me steals the scene from me. And I know that this company has that kind of acting resources.”
 
So when he joins the STC this summer for one of Molière’s comic masterpieces, Auberjonois will feel at home again in an ensemble. “I trust the company,” he says simply. That devotion to working with other actors in the theatre makes Auberjonois a rare breed: a humble star. Not to mention the best actor you didn’t know you knew.

Akiva Fox, Literary Associate

5/28/2008

 

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