...And for my sins, they gave me one."
That was the line from Apocalypse Now (and probably before that from Micheal Herr's Dispatches, that kept rolling around in my head when I got off the phone with Sean Daniels after he told me I'd be playing Falstaff in his "puppet infused" production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Sure, I wanted the job. I wanted a mission. An actor works, he doesn't just prepare, and I was looking forward to working with Sean again after taking part in his triumphant maiden voyage with Cal Shakes' The Comedy of Errors a couple Summers ago. That was also "puppet infused" and I got to play both Dromios with a life size puppet of myself as my twin. Good Times.
And now Falstaff. Nice.
But as with Martin Sheen's addled Captain in Apocalypse Now, this mission comes with strings attached. I guess that's the nature of puppets.
And not just strings. When they said "puppet infused" they weren't kidding. In fact with the puppet I will be operating (with the help of two other puppeteers) for Falstaff I'm the one doing the infusing. I will literally be inside this puppet. Wearing his massive girth with the aid of a back pack frame and and a few sticks and pulleys. You've done this show before, Ron. You've always wanted to play the big man, even if you aren't "About the waist two yards and more." Well you got your wish. As they said in Jarhead, "Welcome to the Suck."
Back packing with Jack
So I go in for a first meeting with my puppet. A costume fitting they call it but it's not really that. It's more like a birth. Here is this gigantic collection of foam and neopreme tubes and paper mache and strings and netting and air ducts and aluminum rods and triggers and pulleys that I will be trying to bring to life as one of Shakespeare's most recognized and beloved characters Sir Jack Falstaff.
He's hanging from a pulley system waiting for me. I put on his ridiculously over-sized shoes. These indeed are big shoes to fill. Something like around size 60 triple wide. Chris Brown, the genius who constructed this humungous and humorous monstrosity, indicates for me to "hop in" while he handles the pulley that will lower the body of Jack Falstaff onto me. Why do I feel a little like Katherine the Great as I get myself into position? Keep going, Ron. Remember, you wanted a mission. You're going to be playing Falstaff with a Shakespeare company you adore. Just go with it. I twist my body into the shoulder straps and buckle the waist belt stabilizer. Then it hits me. I'm going back packing with Falstaff this Summer. Or rather inside Falstaff. Talk about acting from the inside out!
Of course as with any birth there are complications and the birth of this Falstaff is no exception. Puppet people will tell you there are lots of tweeks that every puppet must go through. The first thing we find out is that I immediately step on my own hands. Not good. Next, there is a bar across the inside of the interior of the puppet that bangs my head. I can't bend my (Falstaff's that is) elbows. I can't see out of the front because of Falstaff's beard. But Chris and Sean and our costumers Lydia and Keri are already on it, measuring and bobby pinning away. They set up some impromptu mirrors for me to get an idea of what the fat knight looks like from the outside. I do a few speeches I've already memorized for just this occasion, knocking over a few chairs and stepping on my own hands with gusto, and the pulley is re-attached and I climb out from under Falstaff's portly belly. I'm out of breath and sore from the weight and I was only in there for a half an hour. What am I gonna do when I have to perform the entire evening? Well, that's what rehearsal is for. And I'm looking forward to it.
The first day of rehearsal.