When not appearing on area stages, Dennis Rolly can be found serving customers at Pellegrino’s Italian Kitchen in Tumwater or riding scooters (a Taiwanese SYM 200 and an Italian Piaggio 500) with his wife, Gail, or traveling cross country. The latter is an every-other-year excursion, usually going to Kentucky, where Rolly has in-laws. He sometimes veers off to other destinations: New Orleans, across the northern border to Quebec, or to Maine to get lobster “at the source.”
Rolly says he and Gail have five rules for their road trips. First, take two-lane roads to avoid freeways, except in metropolitan areas. Second, never eat in chain restaurants. Third, avoid chain motels whenever possible. Fourth, decide tomorrow morning where you might want to be tomorrow night, and if anything more interesting comes your way, change plans. Fifth, don’t try to drive too far on any given day. Three hundred miles is plenty.
Back to acting. Since playing corrupt county clerk Ezekiel Cheaver in a high-school production of The Crucible in 1969, Rolly has been known for playing larger-than-life roles — from mad King Lear for Washington Shakespeare Festival to Ebenezer Scrooge in Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at Olympia Little Theatre; from obsessed Captain Ahab in Assemblage Theatre’s Moby Dick to the devil incarnate (“Mr. Lockhart”) in The Seafarer at Harlequin Productions.
“I think that my favorite thing I’ve ever seen him do was Mr. Lockhart in The Seafarer,” says Scot Whitney, co-founder of Harlequin Productions. “I had a clear picture of who Mr. Lockhart was. I then saw a spectacular production of the play at Seattle Rep — I drove to Seattle to see it three times — and their Mr. Lockhart was exactly what I had envisioned. He was powerful, imperious and perfect. When I was casting my own production, I figured I’d take a look at Dennis. I needed a mature, gifted actor who could play Satan. He was excited. ‘Oooooh! I love this guy’ was, again, his basic approach. He approached (the devil) as a regular guy in nice clothes coming to a poker party. He didn’t play him as Satan. He played him as Satan in the guise of a regular guy — who was who Satan really wanted to be! He was incredible. It worked beyond all of my dreams for the role. He always surprises me.”
Rolly’s path to the actor he is today was not smooth as butter. He did a handful of shows after high school but considered acting merely a hobby. He gave it up in the early ’70s, only to take it up again with a couple of shows at Pierce College. Then he joined Actors’ Equity Association in 1976. “My one and only Equity show was Once More With Feeling, starring Werner Klempler at the Griffin dinner theater in Lakewood,” Rolly says. “The experience left me so disillusioned and frustrated that I dropped out of Equity and nearly quit acting altogether. Very quickly it became obvious that I was not willing to go through the crap necessary to make a living acting. Playing background on Northern Exposure was unbelievably boring. The third time that I was called as an extra they asked me to stay late. That would have been all right except I had callbacks at Tacoma Little Theatre for Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Northern Exposure people never asked me back, and I didn’t get Atticus. I did get Bob Ewell, and won the Richard Odlin Award for outstanding performance by an actor in a supporting role for a play.”
That was the 1970s. After another brief hiatus, Rolly returned to acting with a part in Neal Simon’s Fools at Olympia Little Theatre. “I hated the show but loved acting again,” Rolly says. “Then Shakespeare happened.”
Since then, Rolly’s name has become synonymous with Shakespeare. He did eight seasons with Washington Shakespeare Festival playing Jaques from As You Like It, John of Gaunt, Lear, Malvolio, Polonius and Shylock. He’s also done many other Shakespeare plays, many with Harlequin. “The Washington Shakespeare Festival was very, very good to me and for me,” he says now. “This was when I began to learn the craft behind acting. Then I found my true home in the theater, Harlequin Productions.” Not that Harlequin is Rolly’s only theatrical home; he performed Captain Ahab with Tacoma’s Assemblage Theatre, Scrooge at Olympia Little Theatre, and did Stop Kiss and Don Juan in Chicago in the Midnight Sun Performance Space.
If Whitney’s assessment is correct, it’s Rolly’s unbridled passion for whatever character he plays that makes him great. “‘Oooooh. I love this guy! I really love this guy! He’s so much fun!’ That’s his approach to everything he does,” says Whitney. “It doesn’t matter what it is. That’s why he’s so great.”
As playwright Bryan Willis puts it, “The man flat-out loves theater and he’s in it for the long haul.”
As longtime actor and director Pug Bujeaud says, “Dennis never fails to bring a strong, unique perspective to any role, be it a comedy or drama. He was brilliant playing a multitude of roles in Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, but my favorite working experience with him was in Inherit the Wind at the Evergreen Playhouse in Centralia. His portrayal of Matthew Brady gave Brady a depth and sympathy that I have never seen in the role before. Not only is Dennis a wonderful and solid actor and director, he is a wonderful and solid human being.”
Rolly’s next stage appearance will be in Cymbeline at Harlequin Productions.
Where: Harlequin Productions’ State Theater,
202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays,
2 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 5-28
How much: $20-$34
Learn more: 360-786-0151 | Harlequin Productions