Shakespearean Success for Former Cape Actor
WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 – P.J. Sosko left Cape Cod early last summer so he could fall in love. Now, dressed in a bomber jacket and khaki pants, he does just that, six days a week and four times on weekends.
Tuesday through Sunday, armed with a quick wit, Elizabethan vocabulary and a World War II-era pistol, Sosko wrestles with his feelings as Benedick in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” This production of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, which is set in post-World War II England, began its run in October and goes through the Thanksgiving weekend.
In one of Shakespeare’s most renowned comedies, Benedick returns from war to a verbal battle of wits with former fling Beatrice, played at the Folger by Kate Eastwood Norris. Emotions clash until a trick their friends devise unleashes the torrent of their true feelings.
“Kate and I are trying to fall in love on stage,” Sosko said. “It’s like a high-wire act every night.”
But before he took on Beatrice’s sharp tongue, Sosko enacted some post-9/11 racial profiling as Will in “Crazy Eyes,” at the Provincetown Repertory Theater. The play, set in New York City in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, follows Will’s descent into insanity and his murder/kidnapping of two Middle Eastern men he believes were engaged in another terrorist plot.
“Crazy Eyes,” written by Provincetown’s own John Buffalo Mailer, son of Norman Mailer, ran from late May to mid June, receiving varied reviews.
But what Sosko got from his time on the Cape was more valuable than any critic’s opinion.
Working at the theater there allowed him to experience acting in a historic place and the traditional expectations that come with it. This prepared him for work at the Folger.
“You’re learning something in every play that you take on to the next,” said Sosko, who also has acted in New York and Russia. Sosko puts much stock in the development of emotion, he said, and learned to harness anger and rage in “Crazy Eyes.”
Sosko’s strengths are his natural timing, emotion and intense devotion to a project, according to friend and “Crazy Eyes” co-star Dana Watkins. They lived in the artistic director’s house in Truro with Sosko’s dog, Dodger, and would run through lines on the deck after a full day of rehearsing.
“Him and his dog, they are exactly alike, bounding with energy and incredibly friendly,” Watkins said. He is currently looking after Dodger while Sosko is in Washington.
Sosko was born in New York, but when he was in the third grade his family moved from Queens to a small town in the Catskills, where he grew up. In a town where Sosko described cow-tipping as a real sport and baling hay as one’s first job, the community theater was “just something to do.”
He participated, but high school shifted his focus to running. At one point Sosko was ranked 22 nd in the nation for high school cross-country runners. Running took Sosko to the University of Rochester, but the theater became his focus there, where he played Hal in both parts of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.”
After graduation in 1993 Sosko joined a traveling production of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” The troupe took the play, performed in English, on a tour through Russia.
It was there, in a newly democratized and freshly chaotic Russia, that Sosko discovered the emotional connection people make to literature.
During a visit to Dostoevsky’s grave, “little old babushka ladies” would take visitors by the hand and laud the writer, sometimes shedding tears, Sosko recalled.
The three-month trip also gave Sosko insight into the changing world. His troupe was locked in a train car from the outside during a 64-hour ride across Russia because of the danger to Americans. They were in Moscow during the attempted coup against then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Tables used as props in their play were stolen and then reappeared in the midst of the chaos.
The chaos seemed to follow him back to New York: Within three months his apartment burned down. The six large stacks of music cassette tapes, (he refused to convert to compact discs), that covered a wall of his living room had melted into a wall of plastic.
“I felt erased,” Sosko said.
After years of adversity and an international journey, Sosko is now comfortable. He has made a good living doing commercial voiceovers for such products as Sudafed, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the restaurant Ruby Tuesday’s. He also appeared on the television show, “Law and Order.”
But theater is clearly his passion.
“It’s such a random life and career,” he said. “I’ll never leave theater.”
His dream, he said, is what all actors want: to open a play on Broadway while his movie is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
Until then, Sosko sees the Folger as a benchmark because of its reputation as the gold standard in Shakespeare productions. This show has garnered positive reviews from such publications as Washingtonian magazine and Roll Call.
After a show, someone called Sosko’s Benedick a combination of Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. After that compliment, he said, he just went to bed because his job was done.
For now, “Much Ado” and Benedick have Sosko’s full attention, and the audience’s.
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the Folger production is Sosko’s interaction with the audience and his ad-libbed onstage gestures. During a squabble with Beatrice, Benedick turns and walks away from her across the stage. Sosko, in a portrayal of modern male frustration, rolls his eyes and mouths the words, “I can’t win.”
“He has a very good grasp of Shakespeare’s language, and a great ability to communicate with an audience,” said “Much Ado” director Nick Hutchison in an e-mail message from London.
One night Sosko, as he usually does with a Benedick monologue, bowed and focused his attention on a woman in the audience. After he uttered the line, “If I do not love her, I am a fool,” the older woman nodded and said yes.
“He played up the aspects of the love/hate courtship with Beatrice that are common to almost anyone who’s falling in love,” said University of Virginia graduate student of English and New Bedford native Tim Zajak after seeing the play. “The mix of being completely enamored and completely frustrated really came through. . It was equally charming and hilarious.”
Sosko’s charm and mastery of words is apparent off-stage. He can sit, hashing out theories on Shakespeare, over a burger at an outdoor café and smoothly transition the conversation to excessive alcohol consumption in Washington, D.C.
“You can’t help but love P.J., and everybody does,” Watkins said. “He’s just great with people.”
The Folger troupe occasionally puts on private performances for student groups, who are then treated to a backstage meet-and-greet. Sosko and the rest of the cast compete over who gives out the most autographs.
“It’s my time to feel like Tom Cruise,” Sosko said, adding that he usually wins.
He enjoys playing Benedick because he says he connects with the character.
“It’s an iconic role. This is my Benedick,” he said. “The way I see him is the way you see him. I have a kinship with the guy, I understand where he’s coming from.”
But emotion is not something Sosko sees as easily attainable.
“You don’t want to push for emotion,” he said. “The language is so beautiful. More and more you learn how to get out of the way.”
Whereas in “Crazy Eyes” Sosko was free to give vent to the character’s rage, Shakespeare draws out the actor’s love.
“There are times when tears come in the wedding scene and you don’t know why they’re there and [Benedick] doesn’t know why they’re there either,” he said.
By letting the emotion come he is able to engage the audience and take them on Benedick’s emotional rollercoaster.
If a man laughs when Sosko makes one of Benedick’s snide misogynistic remarks, he acknowledges him with a nod. When Benedick tells Don Pedro to get himself a wife, he elicits laughter by focusing on a woman in the audience and repeating the line while eyeing the embarrassed theatergoer.
Audience reaction, Sosko said, is “the strongest drug in the world.”