Torsten Johnson has been astounding audiences over the past few years with performances in roles that reveal mysterious dimensions of masculinity. He played the leading role in the two productions that were named Lavender‘s Best Production of the Year in 2014 and 2015. In Colossal at Mixed Blood he played a white football player who deliberately throws himself into a catastrophic injury to protect the fellow black player he is in love with. In One Arm with New Epic, Johnson played a former champion boxer and sailor, who is compelled to sell his body and sexuality after losing his arm.
Currently Johnson is playing the title role in New Epic’s production of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Lab. This story of manly honor in the ancient Roman military resonates with our own war-driven time and economy. I asked Johnson about what he has been learning in his character exploration.
You have shone in roles about men with very macho characteristics in Colossal and One Arm. What have you been made aware of in playing the role of Coriolanus?
Torsten Johnson: I do think that my other “macho” roles have built toward the epic scale of this one, a high tragedy that revolves around battle prowess and questions of honor. It’s certainly possible to frame my work over the past couple of years as a “project” examining maleness and masculinity, particularly as they manifest physically and in violence. I think this is largely a product of where I am in my own life, the fourth of Jaques’ seven ages (in Shakespeare’s As You Like It): “Then a soldier / Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, / Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, / Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.”
What’s funny is, I don’t even think of myself as fitting this archetype very well, and it has come as quite a surprise that I keep playing these roles. I think that’s what makes this feel like a “project” for me. I’m investigating an often ugly part of what it means to be masculine, the pride and violence that exist within all humans, and which can be so destructive. I’m interested in delving into that ugliness. It is my hope that by openly embodying the intricacies of the “macho” archetype on stage I can reveal something of humanity within it. And with that empathy may come an understanding that can help to bring people together. Some people can’t understand where violence comes from, and others can’t understand what is wrong with using physical force as a tool of power. It is my project to make the issues more complicated, more human, and allow all of us to heal past wounds, to grow as people, and I think the empathetic power of theater can help.
Coriolanus in repertory with The Normal Heart
Through April 16
Lab Theater, 700 N. First St., Minneapolis