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Of Black Cats and Old Friends

posted by James Carpenter on Wed, May 13, 2009
in Backstage buzz

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The Universe seems to have been prodding me in certain directions this year and now, through the devious workings of Dame Fortune, I find myself once more working with Berkeley Rep. It's been a few years since I've done a show here and it's always a huge pleasure to return. To top it off I get to portray Donny in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Berkeley Rep's latest offering -- a mad, hysterical, bloody good Irish play, and a feast for any Actor.

To prepare for the role, I've become thoroughly disreputable-looking.

I've allowed all the hair on my body to grow unchecked. I've put away the razor, the scissors, my tweezers, the battery-powered rotary nose hair trimmer bought by my wife (who now bleats at me from time to time mocking my goatish appearance), and now resemble someone you'd find on a late-night Sunday BART train.

The rehearsal process of The Lieutenant of Inishmore was glorious fun for me; I'm not often cast in this character type and I don't often do roles that are purely or mostly comic in nature but I fell into it with an amazing ease and have laughed more in this short span than I have in years. Les Waters, our Director, would shake his head in delighted wonder and say "It's so stupid! And I laugh every time!"

And it's all the more fun for its excellent special effects -- guns, blood, exploding cats, various bladders which ooze, squirt and burst, and devices which blast various formulas and viscosities of blood either away from you or at you.

We even have a Blood Mortar...I've never done a show with a blood mortar...

The term "Blood Mortar" was a little daunting to those of us who were to experience its effects, but we were blessedly introduced to those effects early on in the process; our three Irish thugs all got life casts of their faces (which is an experience vaguely akin to being buried alive) before rehearsals started and Steve Tolin, our special effects man and super-hero, made frequent appearances explaining the way the bleeding bodies came apart, where blood packs would be and demonstrating the Gore Cannon on himself.

Steve would stand in front of a 15' wall that had plastic sheeting affixed to a height of about 9' with himself duct-taped into a clear plastic skirt which covered his lower half but left torso and head exposed, and press a red button. The first time the mortar didn't fire. The second time there was a moose-like honk from the mortar and Steve was, in a microsecond, blasted in the face with a spray of blood which went a good 11' up the wall. It's tricky onstage -- one person fires a gun and the other tries to trigger the cannon at exactly the same instant -- ideally, the firing guns cover the "PHAARnnnk!" from the device.

I must add a note of praise for our most excellent crew here -- we could not do this show without their focus and expertise: they stand backstage before the scene 8-9 shift for a full minute with their eyes closed before rushing on in the blackout to strew blood, body parts, and dismembering implements liberally across the stage as the actors are splashing themselves with stage blood in the dark -- terrifying the first time I saw it, even with the lights up. But it's a testament to their skill that no one's been hurt and all elements are magically there every night. This same group then cleans up the 30-some gallons of blood, brains, body parts, and sodden clothing every night after the show requiring an additional hour of cleanup and laundry. Many, many thanks to them. You are stage ninjas all.

In the course of rehearsals and performance we have become one of those blessed events -- a finely-tuned, supportive cast and crew made up of fun, funny, and talented people who all care for each other and work their uttermost to make the show succeed, making it all the harder for me to leave...

Shortly after we opened Inishmore, I started rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at Cal Shakes, but Inishmore has received such good press that it's now extending -- into my tech week for R & J, knocking me out of the extension week. My fellow actors are very professional about it -- they'll go into rehearsals with the understudy who seems a fine man. Padge. I hear he's terrific and to top it off, he's really Irish. The very least I can say is Thank You Les, Karen, and goodbye you bunch of Goobs; the most I could say would take far too long to write. I love yez and I'll miss yez. To Padge, I raise my glass and shout "Fill yer boots, Man!" I wish you joy in the role and people.

For the curious, Bella, our show cat who plays Wee Thomas, has an understudy as well and she happens to belong to me, or rather, I to her; my plump, round and black as a cannonball Princess sits with me as I compose this blog/goodbye/note of thanks, her head stuffed deeply into my armpit, purring happily. She knows that I have "Bella sessions" and that I play string with cats other than herself, yet has endured my consorting with other female black cats (and the practising of my lines by means of cooing into her ear in an Irish accent) with a certain studied disdain; she, I think, is not sorry I'll be leaving the show. And though she makes only the rare appearance -- usually in our neighbor's potted plants -- she's let me know in that certain way that felines will, that were SHE ever to go on for the other black kitty...she would be bloody breathtaking.

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