Building Character: Michael Urie
The “Ugly Betty” star tackles one of Chekhov’s most interesting characters
He doesn’t have the most lines or the most stage time, but Epikhodov is one of the most interesting characters in the The Cherry Orchard.
Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece follows the final days on a faded Russian estate, where the former owners have lost their money and a former peasant has purchased the land. There’s an existential melancholy in these changing fortunes, and the world itself seems to pity how this Russian society has lost its way. At one point, the sound of a snapping cord shivers in the air, and in the famous final moment, an old servant, unknowingly left behind, lays down to die as the cherry trees outside begin to fall.
In the midst of this change, we meet Epikhodov (pronounced “yep-ih-HOE-dawv”), the estate’s hapless clerk. He pines for a young noblewoman, and he’s so clumsy that everyone jokingly calls him “Master Disaster.”
“He’s a sad clown,” says Michael Urie, who’s playing him in the current revival at Classic Stage Company. “The things that he does are funny, but he has absolutely no intention of making anyone laugh, ever.”
Epikhodov is also a powerful symbol. Unlike most of the characters, he exists somewhere between the world on stage and the world in the audience, delivering speeches that seem to be for our benefit. Like Charlotta, another “clownish” character who provides comic relief, he invites us to chuckle at the grand foolishness of the melancholy, even when he’s sad himself. For instance, when he shows us his pistol and swears he’s going to shoot himself, we know he’s not serious, that he’s too ineffectual and too desperate for attention to really commit suicide. The moment is funny and lonely all at once.
The CSC revival, which is directed by Andrei Belgrader and also stars Dianne Wiest and John Turturro, underlines Epikhodov’s role outside the action. He and Charlotta interact directly with the crowd, which is unusual for Chekhov productions. “We have embraced the idea that we go and talk to the audience when there’s no one else to talk to, and I love it,” says Urie. “I’ve worked on other Chekhov where those kinds of speeches come in—they’re just inward—and it’s so hard to just talk to yourself. I find it very difficult to talk to one’s self on stage, so to be able to look at [the audience] and say it to them is so much more fun.”
Still, it’s not easy for a performance to hover between realism and interactive clowning. When Epikhodov trips and falls or slams his finger in a chest, the actor has to make the pain seem believable while winking at the audience about his latest accident. “It affects the timing,” says Urie, who’s perhaps best known for starring in TV’s Ugly Betty and will soon make his Broadway debut in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “When I look at people [in the house], they’ll have a reaction or they’ll laugh, or when I fall down, they’ll laugh, and it really affects how things are timed out.”
Urie’s pratfalls are carefully constructed. Near the end of the play, when a character talks about how people “live blindly,” Epikhodov smacks into a wall while carrying packages. “That was a million different things,” says the actor. “We had to figure out, ‘Can everyone see this? Is it in the light? Are people going to look over? Does it need to happen immediately after ‘blind’ or is it going to happen two beats after ‘blind?’”
He enjoys answering these questions: “It’s very fun to play. It’s very fun to aim for funny but always end up sad.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg