Eric Avari's northern star guides veteran actor back to Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — If his face takes you by surprise, his unmistakable voice leaves no doubt.

Veteran actor Erick Avari has returned to Shakespeare & Company after an over-30-year absence to perform a bevy of roles, including the Duke in Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" playing this week through Sunday in the Tina Packer Playhouse.

While his name may not be familiar, his ambiguous ethnic origin has seen him play 33 different nationalities — including two aliens — in a long, notable career in film, television and theater that includes "The Mummy," "Mr. Deeds" and "Stargate."

This summer in "Two Gents" and "The Merchant of Venice" he played a Moroccan king, Spanish prince, two Italian dukes, and Rialto walk-ons as a Jew and Nepali-speaker.

Whether prancing through a marriage contest or hopping across the stage trussed like a chicken, Avari commands every scene he inhabits.

Lenox represents a return to his theatrical roots, he explained on a scorching day in the cool Bernstein Theatre lounge.

In 1984, Shakespeare & Company co-founder Tina Packer saw him in his first Equity role.

"I played this central character who went in and out of the action and spoke to the audience," he explained. The technique of direct connection anchors Packer's performance philosophy, and "stood me high in her estimation," he said.

She gave him an 18-month contract performing "Romeo & Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at The Mount and in schools.

It was a life-changing experience, Avari said.

"My formal training as an actor was a result of this," he recalled. "We had all these resources, Kristen Linklater who wrote the book on voice, Tina Packer directing both shows, and this long rehearsal period."

Avari was no stranger to the Bard, thanks to his British boarding school-style education in his native Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills near Nepal and Bhutan. His Parsi ancestors had fled Persia to escape persecution of their Zoroastrian faith; and his close knit community lived apart from the northern Indian populace.

As a result of not accepting converts to their faith and discouraging intermarriage, Parsis are dying out, he notes, with fewer than 120,000 left.

His parents wanted him to be an accountant or join the army; but the allure of stage and screen won out. After all, his maternal grandfather was a renowned Indian film mogul, and his paternal grandfather owned the only two local movie theaters.

"It was like 'Cinema Paradiso,'" Avari said, "we lived for the movies, it was the central meeting place of the town."

While a teenager, he apprenticed with the Kendall family troupe of traveling actors in India, the inspiration for the Merchant-Ivory film "Shakespeare Wallah," playing pages and walk-on messengers. "I'd handle props, sweep the stage and, every day, watch and learn," he said.

He toured with them in England during winter school vacations, and, after college in Calcutta, crossed several oceans to come to America.

"I've always been a gypsy at heart," he explained, which is why he said no to a second season at Shakespeare & Company — until now.

He has played many different characters during his long, varied career. Being bald and bearded with a deep voice lent an aura of authority, and being able to handle a large piece of text certainly helped in Hollywood. The playing field was large — until 9/11.

In an instant, Avari discovered that being an actor of ambiguous nationality now attracted less desirable roles, including aggressive racial stereotypes he was not inclined to indulge.

While he still found work in independent films and on stage, after some frustratingly forays into TV series, he decide he needed to move on.

"I wanted work that means something to me," he said. "That became abundantly clear, and that's when I made the break."

He sold his Los Angeles home, fired his agent, packed his life into an RV and, with just four and half days to get there after shooting a movie in New Zealand, drove to Lenox with his 12-year-old boxer, Tootsie, for company. Next week, he will be on the road again, attending 'Stargate' fan conventions he never had time for before, and exploring horizons and projects, including a dream of filming Shakespeare.

"He's my northern star, that's why I wanted to come back [to Lenox]," Avari said. "I need to realign my sights and my vision again, I've been so sucked away from truth and honesty.

"Hollywood has certainly afforded me this luxury now," he quickly acknowledged. "I don't want to bite the hand that's fed me, but it's time for me to take my lunch to go."

ON STAGE

What: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy

Who: Shakespeare & Company

Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox

When: Closes Sept. 4. Evenings — Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinee — Sunday at 2

Tickets: $80-$20

How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person on site at Shakespeare & Company


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