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The Face of Scar

From his first walk-on to his climactic battle scene, classical stage actor John Vickery plays the kind of villain that 'Lion King' fans will happily boo.

October 18, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Apparently the last thing John Vickery needs is another gadget.

On a recent evening, the veteran stage actor was going through his eight-times-weekly ritual of having his face painted to play Scar, the villainous, cowardly usurper to the throne who drives the action in "The Lion King."

This time, there was a new high-tech dimension to the procedure: A laptop computer had been set on his dressing room counter, with his Scar visage staring back at him from the screen. The image was from the previous night's show, but with some new virtual-reality eyebrow squiggles added to make him look even more sinister.

Vickery asked makeup artist Tiffany Hicks whether she really needed the computer image to get the details right. She didn't, so he snapped the laptop shut with a loud click. One less device to contend with.

"The Lion King," which opens Thursday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, has been praised for its breathtaking stage imagery, a good deal of it created with mechanical and electronic devices. These range from the simple (bird puppets flying from the end of poles that actor-dancers whip around like fly-fishing rods) to the ingenious (actors enmeshed in or attached to apparatuses that turn them into animal characters) to the gargantuan (Pride Rock, throne of leonine power, which rises from its moorings in the basement of the Pantages to a height 15 feet above the stage).

With equanimity, Vickery admits to being, figuratively speaking, "a very small cog in a very big machine." But he also is enmeshed in apparatus in a very literal sense.

His Scar costume consists of 34 separate pieces that weigh a total of 45 pounds. Heavy black electronic boxes fit into pockets on each thigh; wires from them run through the sleeves of his vest and down his right hand. That's how he controls the 2-foot-tall mechanical lion mask perched atop his head. The mask tilts and extends at various junctures to help create the stage pictures that are the hallmarks of director Julie Taymor's production. The show gets more confining for Vickery as it goes on: For the big finale, he dons a harness and wire that enable Scar to fly off Pride Rock to his doom in a climactic battle for the throne with Simba.

On this preview night, the harness wires that fly Scar and Clifton Oliver's Simba get crossed, putting the kibosh on the stunt. The actors improvise by fighting it out at stage level.

"This is a very high-risk show," Vickery says the following afternoon, sitting in the balcony of the Pantages as dancers rehearse below. "The capacity for mayhem is pretty high. But then I think that's part of the point--you don't get much of a return unless you risk things."

The 6-foot, solidly built actor has a line of bruises running up his left arm from having it out with Simba each night. Other bruises, hidden beneath his T-shirt, come from the tight flying harness.

Vickery did not have to deal with such things in the decade and a half he spent as a highly regarded classical stage actor before he originated the role of Scar on Broadway in 1997-98. He has played Prince Hal in "Henry IV, Part 1," both Malcolm and Macbeth in different productions of "Macbeth," and the title character, Alceste, in Moliere's "The Misanthrope" (one of three roles Vickery played at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa from 1991 to 1995). On Broadway, he has performed in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and "The Sisters Rosensweig" by Wendy Wasserstein. Earlier this year, at L.A.'s Matrix Theatre, he was Estragon in Samuel Beckett's was Estragon in Samuel Beckett's landmark absurdist play "Waiting for Godot"--a stark, bleakly comic piece as far removed from "The Lion King" in style and tone as Pluto (no, not that Pluto) is from the sun.

Andrew J. Robinson, who directed Vickery in "Godot," describes him glowingly and--in the wake of the recent death of fellow "Godot" cast member David Dukes--elegiacally, as a member of an increasingly rare breed of actor:

"They have been trained to bring their expertise, their intelligence, their intuition to any material, whether it be 'The Lion King,' probably the most commercial production in the history of the world, or something as difficult and dense as Beckett. They're not specialists; these guys are renaissance actors."

Vickery will mark his 50th birthday on Nov. 4 by performing two shows as Scar. He says he was astonished to be recruited for "The Lion King" back in 1996, when the show was in its embryonic form and actors were needed for workshops in which the script was honed and the innovative puppet and mask combinations were still being devised.

Before that, his only musical role came in the early 1980s, when he played the titular World War I German flying ace in "The Death of Von Richthofen as Witnessed From Earth."

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