David DelGrosso, actor/stage manager with Aquila Theatre Company, knows that some audiences will be drawn to The Man Who Would be King because of the popular movie version of Rudyard Kipling’s short story.
The film, which starred Michael Caine and Sean Connery in what were arguably the best performances of their careers to date, inspired the stage adaptation.
DelGrosso, however, is quick to point out that the play runs much closer to the original tale.
“The short story is more fluid, less chronological than the film,” he explains. “We tried to capture that sense of fluidity in time.”
He adds: “I feel the film skirts around the [subject of] Masonry [the highly secretive organization to which the main characters belong] — we do more with that.”
This season, the New York City-based Aquila is actually gearing up to bring two highly charged shows to Asheville — the other one being a production of Othello.
“As artists,” says DelGrosso, “our first and foremost responsibility is to tell the story, to explore what Othello is trying to say, not to ask what we’re trying to say.” The goal, he notes, is “to communicate all the layers, shades and moral questions as it was written 400 years ago in such a way that the audience can understand.
“Rather than trying to make a play serve what we’re trying to say, we have to serve the play,” DelGrosso maintains. “To really affect people, we have to lead them to ask their own questions.”
Back to the future
Kipling (who was born in India) penned “The Man Who Would be King” in 1888, at the height of British imperialism.
The story is set in the mythical land of Kafiristan, which was said to lie north of the Hindu Kush, the mountainous region dividing pre-partitioned India from Afghanistan. According to legend, Alexander the Great once occupied the harsh region, ruling over a people who believed him to be a god.
That myth was proved true in 1902, when French archaeologists unearthed the remains of a large Greek city in an area that had only recently been incorporated into Afghanistan, its people forced to convert to Islam.
In 2000, however, the Taliban regime bulldozed the archaeological site.
Kipling knew of Kafiristan only as a fable, but that was enough to spark his tale of two British rogues who plotted to conquer that untapped area and install themselves as kings.
Crafted as a metaphor for British India, Kipling’s story holds a poignant message for today, as U.S. forces occupy the very same war-torn Afghanistan the story’s ill-fated heroes sought to subjugate more than a century ago.
Combining Othello and King will make for an especially timely playbill, says DelGrosso.
“These plays speak to each other very well. … The main characters in both are soldiers,” he points out. “The life of soldiers is a big part of this ‘mini-season.’
“Peter Meineck [Aquila Theatre Company's creator, producer and artistic director] was a Green Beret,” DelGrosso reveals. “So he has that history to draw on — he believes that many [other companies] that do these plays don’t spend enough time on the set of values soldiers have versus those of civilians.”
Othello, created three centuries ahead of King, is a tale of a Venetian army mercenary who secretly marries his sweetheart. In the face of Othello’s successes, his ensign and trusted friend, Iago, is overcome with jealousy and uses his position to plant seeds of mistrust. While Othello is the story of war at a very personal level, issues of trust, power and betrayal inevitably rise to the surface.
“Some of the moral questions in these plays are very current, which is the hope when doing classics,” says DelGrosso. “Much of The Man Who Would be King takes place in Afghanistan, which is now very current, but there’s also the sense of danger and mystery that was there in Kipling’s time. It’s very much an adventure story.”
Despite the grand scope of their productions, Aquila’s touring unit uses the same nine actors in both plays.
“Our style is to get the most storytelling value out of the sets,” DelGrosso explains. “We travel light and rely on the storytelling of the play and the expression of the actors. The company was founded on touring, and it’s great training for the actors — it strengthens their craft. Every night is opening night.”
Last year, the group paired Shakespeare’s whimsical A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Oscar Wilde’s comical The Importance of Being Ernest. According to the stage manager, Aquila typically looks for two plays that the same group of actors can carry, which tends to result in each season having a theme of sorts.
The company actually comprises several groups — a home-based troupe that’s currently rehearsing Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy Agamemnon, featuring Olympia Dukakis; a Young Audience Company that performs shortened versions of the plays in New York schools; and the touring cast.
Founded in 1991, Aquila’s first home was in London. In ’99, Meineck relocated to NYC, where the company has already staged eight productions, not to mention traveling to more than 60 major performing-arts venues across the country.
Aquila’s ambition is apparent even in the Latin origin of the group’s unusual name — a choice that also subtly reflects Meineck’s martial background.
“[It means] ‘eagle,'” DelGrosso reveals. “It’s also a military symbol; the vanguard of the army. For us, it symbolizes being both a leader and on the cutting edge.”
Diana Wortham Theatre’s Mainstage Series presents Aquila Theatre in Othello at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 14 and The Man Who Would be King at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 15. Tickets for each show are $28/general, $26/seniors and students, $10/children. For reservations and more information, call 257-4530.