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Ian Merrill Peakes was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Resident Play three times before he finally took a trophy home last year. It was in the Outstanding Supporting Actor category, for playing The Player in the Folger Theatre’s 2015 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. So: An award for a supporting part, in a play named for two minor characters from Hamlet, for a role playwright Tom Stoppard didn’t even bother to assign a name. Don’t let it go to your head, Guy!
Still, this low-key, long-overdue honor befits the unassuming 48-year-old, a changeling of an actor who has appeared in about a dozen productions at the Folger in a slightly greater number of years. He’s as persuasive playing a cocksure swaggerer like that Player as he is exuding calm and reason as the prime minister of England—his part in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s King Charles III earlier this year. He doesn’t have a type, not even within the Shakespearean canon, where he has portrayed loveable ruffians, like Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and indefensible shits, like Iago—or like Angelo, the hypocritical, sexually exploitative usurper who cultivates an outward appearance of piety in Measure for Measure.
His latest D.C. gig is the title role in Robert Richmond’s futuristic gloss on Timon of Athens, a play that’s about as obscure as Shakespeare gets. Timon concerns a wealthy man who squanders his fortune on lavish gifts for his friends. Once he’s broke, they abandon him, leaving him to go insane and plot revenge. One of the liberties Richmond has taken with the text is to make Timon’s revenge more disgusting. Peakes says he doesn’t know exactly what substance he smears on his fellows during the part of the show “we’re affectionately calling ‘the poo party.’” He’s been assured it’s edible and non-toxic.
Of the 37 plays credited to William Shakespeare, Timon lands somewhere in the thirties, recognition-wise. It’s rarely performed, and unlike its more famous siblings it has not generated any turns of phrase that remain in common usage by people who may not realize they’re quoting a 400-year-old play. Over a late breakfast at a bakery near the Folger the morning after Timon’s third preview, Peakes speculates much of the audience will be Shakespeare completists checking a deep cut off their list. You could’ve said the same about Henry VIII, which Richmond directed Peakes in at the Folger in the fall of 2010. But even professional stage actors don’t know Timon.
“I’d seen it once, with an old guy,” he says. “But there’s no mention of Timon’s age. He just has to be old enough to have amassed a great deal of wealth and have been a soldier.”
In performance, Peakes has given the character a peculiar tic: He dislikes shaking hands. When an attendant presents him with a tablet device to “sign” with his palm print, Timon wipes his hand off after touching the device, then tosses his flunky the used handkerchief.
The actor is quick to shoot down the suggestion he got this bit of business from another high profile germophobe given to boasting about how rich he is. “I think people will probably take stuff away, based on what’s going on in our ridiculous government right now,” he says. The Folger is situated right behind the U.S Capitol, inviting the temptation to read everything through a political lens.
Most scholars now believe much of Timon was written by Thomas Middleton, though just how much back-and-forth collaboration there was between its two authors remains a subject of debate. It’s generally accepted that Shakespeare left his contributions to the play unfinished, with the puzzling climax being one of many traits that mark it as an outlier.
Michele Osherow has worked with Peakes on a number of shows as Folger’s resident dramaturg, but she’s also been on stage with him, having appeared in that 2006 Measure for Measure. “He made me look really good” she laughs. She credits Peakes with much of the inspiration for the Folger Timon’s bold second act, which may or may not be located mostly within the character’s roiling psyche. That was suggested by questions the actor asked of her early in the creative process, Osherow says, pointing out that it makes the show less a social critique and more of a character study.
Peakes’s father co-founded the BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing, Michigan in the late 1960s and ran it for decades. (The BoarsHead shut down in 2010.) Though the actor grew up watching others ply their trade there, he has no formal training as a performer. He went to Michigan State on a golf scholarship. “I was going to try the pro tour in Australia,” he says over breakfast at a bakery near the Folger. “But this is pre-Tiger Woods. It was [a] very white, homophobic, Christian [world]. It was everything that I wasn’t.” He decided to return to acting. He says he still sometimes unconsciously practices his swing during rehearsal breaks.
For a few years after college, he subsidized his stage career with a job at a long-defunct software company. But for almost two decades now, he’s made a living at the job he never trained for, performing 40 to 45 weeks per year. He doesn’t even record audiobooks or appear in industrial videos. “I haven’t done anything other than [work] onstage since ’99,” he says.
His wife of 17 years, Karen Peakes, is a finalist for an Audie award this year. The duo have appeared in at least 15 shows together. In that 2006 Folger Measure for Measure, Karen played Isabella, who Angelo tries to blackmail into giving up her virginity to him.
Ian mentions that his wife was just cast in four shows without being asked to audition. “I think we’re getting older and we’re outlasting the competition,” he says. They have a house in Merchantville, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Ian says that by avoiding the “star trap” of moving to New York or Los Angeles he’s instead managed to put together a modest, creatively fulfilling career. He’s booked for the next 18 months, playing Sherlock Holmes, Macbeth, Jacques in As You Like It, and “one of the Three Musketeers—one of the evidently very old Musketeers,” he laughs.
“Philadelphia is an affordable city, and there’s a ton of theater,” he says. He’s done about 20 shows at the Arden Theatre there and eight or nine at the Walnut Street Theatre. “You become a professional actor, and you have two choices: You can go to a big market and try to become famous, or you can go to a medium-sized market and work a lot. I chose Option B.”
Option B has now brought him to what might generously be characterized as a B-list Shakespeare. But he’ll be back to the A-list soon enough: This time next year, he’ll be at Chicago Shakespeare doing Macbeth again.
He says he and Karen asked their eight-year-old son, Owen, if he was interested in a small part. “He said, ‘I’ll have to see the script first.’”