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For Understudies, There's No Substitute for Patience

Theater: Backing up the regulars involves hard work, little fame and lots of waiting, but the prospects of a big break often inspire them.

February 19, 1996|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The play is called "Three Tall Women." But for Lois Markle, the standby for two roles in the current Mark Taper Forum production of the new Edward Albee play, the title should be "One Tall Woman and a Couple of Medium-Height Men."

Markle, a New York-based actress, has never appeared onstage in "Three Tall Women" since it opened Jan. 11 at the Taper--and may never get a chance to before the play closes Saturday. She has never rehearsed with the show's three regular performers, Marian Seldes, Michael Learned and Christina Rouner. In fact, she hasn't stepped before an audience since the show's national tour began four months ago in Boston.

Yet Markle is at the Mark Taper Forum for every performance and each week has two rehearsals: one for the Seldes role, a 92-year-old dowager, and the other for the Learned role, the elderly woman's middle-aged caretaker. In those rehearsals, Markle works with either production stage manager Mark Wright or stage manager Gregg Fletcher, each of whom will read the other women's roles. Since Markle understudies both Seldes and Learned, "you are constantly playing against yourself," she says, laughing.

Michael Piontek, standby for the Beast in the Shubert Theatre's musical "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," has had the opportunity to go onstage for a stretch of five performances while permanent Beast Michael Barbour attended a wedding during the first few weeks of the show, and for three more performances since. But like Markle and hundreds of other standbys and understudies in productions all over the world, he spends most of his time waiting.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentification--A Monday article misidentified the actor who portrays the Beast in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" at the Shubert Theatre. He is James Barbour.

Contrary to the cliche, standbys are not "waiting in the wings"; they are usually sitting in a dressing room, at home or simply available by beeper or cell phone. Being on standby away from the theater is more common in New York, where actors can walk or take cabs to the theater without the risk of L.A. traffic.

The rules vary by production; some productions have no understudies at all, usually for financial reasons. Arnold Mittleman, producer of the comedy "Bermuda Avenue Triangle," which opened Feb. 4 the Canon Theatre after three months at the Tiffany Theatre, reports that stars Beatrice Arthur, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna have had no unscheduled absences. Last week Mittleman hired the show's first understudies for those lead roles; they will merely be required to call in before the show rather than standing by at the theater.

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Markle is required to be at the theater half an hour before the show and may leave once the second act is underway (but never does). Piontek must arrive at the Shubert an hour ahead because it takes that long to apply the elaborate Beast makeup--and he is required to stay through the second-act "transformation" scene, in which the Beast rises into the air and turns from hairy to handsome. Piontek does not get into makeup before every performance because of the expense of applying about $100 worth of non-reusable prosthetic devices each time.

"It has never happened during this show that the Beast has gone down," Piontek says. "They are going to have a problem if he does, because the show is going to have to stop for at least half an hour because there is no way the makeup can be put on in any less time than that."

The transformation, which requires an elaborate harness, is a horror, Piontek says. "You are wearing a brace that is locked into a little piece of metal. If you are just slightly not vertical, the metal pinches and you can't get off the brace. My nightmare is, I wake up in a cold sweat, I'll get stuck out there and not be able to get off the thing."

When called in to play the Beast after 2 1/2 months off, Piontek insisted on a last-minute harness rehearsal, which caused the show to start 10 minutes late.

But he learned his lesson about being prepared when technical gaffes almost cost him his first job on Broadway--as understudy to the big, bad wolf in "Into the Woods." The role naturally required a wolf suit; the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Piontek was squeezed into costumes and prosthetics designed for 6-foot, 170-pound Robert Westenberg.

"The wolf suit is an elastic thing that was too small, and the prosthetic had a foam bridge that went across my nose so I had to suck air through my mouth, which you never do as a singer," Piontek says. "Halfway through the number, I literally started to see stars. . . . I thought my theatrical career would be over . . . as an understudy, or a cover, you have to learn to protect yourself."

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