Tony Shalhoub is a little surprised he’s been in such demand.
The Emmy Award-winning actor, best known for TV’s “Monk,” and “Wings,” as well as his many movie appearances, from “Spy Kids” and “Big Night” to “Men in Black” and voice roles in “Cars” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” is currently starring on Broadway in the musical “The Band’s Visit.” He’s also appearing in a new TV series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” due for release on Amazon Nov. 29.
“I thought I’d be less busy at this age,” says Shalhoub, who just turned 64. “But this feels like the right time to be busy, to keep ourselves sane.”
In addition to performing eight shows a week in “The Band’s Visit,” Shalhoub is spending his day off Monday to join his wife, Brooke Adams, and a cast of 11 other actors in a staged, script-in-hand reading of “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,” the opener for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s 2017-18 season.
“Brooke and I are happy to have the chance to work together,” says Shalhoub, “and we’ve known Steve [Maler, Commonwealth Shakespeare’s founding artistic director] for a long time and like to support his work.”
Bertolt Brecht’s first openly anti-Nazi work consists of nearly two dozen short scenes that capture ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances: a Jewish wife who prepares to leave her husband to save his job; a mother who purchases shoes for her daughter but then doesn’t have enough money to send her to the Hitler youth; parents who fear their son has turned them in. The scenes are harrowing in their simplicity, with more than a few resonating with contemporary parallels.
“These scenes are part of theater history,” says Shalhoub. “Our job as actors is to put a fresh patina on them so that audiences can appreciate them today, but we have to approach the text at face value. Viewers need to determine the meaning on their own.”
Commonwealth Shakespeare’s entire season is dedicated to moments when history was in flux, and Maler’s choices, including Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” (Jan. 30-Feb. 11), “Old Money” (March 6-18), “Macbeth” (June 1), and “Richard III” (July-August on Boston Common), all reflect writers’ responses to decisions individuals made at times of uncertainty.
“I suppose it’s hard to do anything right now that doesn’t feel political,” Shalhoub says. But great theater is defined by “plays that are compelling whenever they are produced.”
The musical “The Band’s Visit,” which opened on Broadway last month after a successful run at the Atlantic Theater Company, tells the story of an Egyptian orchestra made up of policemen that arrives in Israel to perform at an Arabic cultural center but winds up in an isolated village instead.
“When we started rehearsing off-Broadway, we thought this was simply a fish-out-of-water story about human connection,” says Shalhoub. “We were in technical rehearsals when the [presidential] election happened and suddenly the play had a different kind of weight and significance because the landscape had shifted.”
Now, one year into the show and playing in a larger, Broadway house, Shalhoub says the audiences continue to respond with comments about how important the play is right now.
“We don’t do it for that reason,” he says. “We try to tell the stories of these ordinary people and the ways in which they respond to each other.”
Although he will have limited rehearsal time for the reading of “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,” Shalhoub says he has lots of experience playing opposite his wife, and the combination of familiarity and the material can add to the dramatic tension.
‘Brooke [Adams] and I are happy to have the chance to work together.’
“We will be flying a little by the seat of our pants,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s good to have that challenge.”
FEAR AND MISERY IN THE THIRD REICH
A staged reading, presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley, Nov. 13. Tickets: 866-811-4111, commshakes.orgTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.