Corpse actors at MetroStage knock 'em dead

 

By Maura Judkis

May 3, 2011

 

The role of a lifetime, for four men, involves playing dead. That's it, for the whole 75-minute-long play: No lines, no movement, no deep breathing, just 75 minutes of motionlessness, while MetroStage's The Real Inspector Hound happens on the stage around them. And according to the four corpses, it's the best role they've ever played.

 

"I feel like I won a prize on a quiz show," says Larry Levinson. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

 

Levinson is sharing the role of a dead body with Jim Epstein, Bryant Centofanti and Devin Shadid. And while lying still under a couch seems like a remarkably bad deal for actors accustomed to the limelight, these four mid-career actors have turned a deadly boring role into a career revival. For all of the men but Epstein, this is their first role in an Actor's Equity production, so they'll become eligible to work towards membership in the union through their role as a corpse.

 

"It's very fun for us to have an opportunity to work with and offer roles to non-Equity actors out there," says MetroStage artistic director Carolyn Griffin. "It works well for everybody We didn't set out to cast four, but I said to the director, let's share the wealth here."

 

To gain an Actor's Equity card, which entitles actors to higher salaries and a 401(k) among other benefits, he or she must work 52 weeks in productions at Equity theaters. Because the four corpses will be splitting the role during the six-week run, they'll each get a week and a half towards their card. And because the actors are in their 50s and early 60s, the possibility of a union card opens up opportunities that Levinson felt may have already passed him by.

 

"I forked over my $100 and I am now an Actor's Equity Membership Candidate," says Levinson. "I'm 63. For the longest time, I considered myself a niche actor But now, I feel like my best work's ahead of me. My confidence is at its highest level."

 

But the role of corpse is not one that these four men are merely tolerating to get their foot in the door of Equity membership. They're really into the physical and psychological challenges of acting like a corpse, and have spent hours practicing on hard dining room floors, and watching medical dramas to emulate the pros that play corpses there. The criteria for auditioning were a little more superficial than that: Griffin was able to make preliminary cuts from the dozens of actors who responded to her casting call based on body type. A good corpse would be short, slender, and older.

 

"I had some heavy actors, but [the corpse] had to fit under a sofa with the legs already raised two or three inches," says Griffin. "Higgs, he's the senior critic, so it can't be some young recent drama graduate. I found these four, and they've been a delight."

 

The pleasure is all Epstein's.

 

"Some of my friends expect my best performance from this," he jokes. The actor has plenty of experience with roles in crime dramas, but on the flip side: "I did murder reenactment series on Discovery Channel, and America's Most Wanted," he says. "My specialty is discovering the body."

 

Centofanti, on the other hand, prepared for the role by watching the Japanese film "Departures," about a mortician who prepares corpses for burial according to an elaborate ritual.

 

"During the course of the movie there must have been six to eight corpses who got 'encoffined' and so I saw a lot of actors playing corpses," says Centofanti. "None of them seemed to be breathing, having any eye twitches, or even budging at all. A great standard for me to try to live up to."

 

Other than practicing staying still, rehearsals were pretty easy: "I got all of my lines and blocking down before everyone else," says Epstein.

 

But there are hazards to even the simplest role: Rug burn, neck aches, and stiff limbs being the worst of them. Griffin says that she dealt with the rug burn issue by putting down a piece of soft red cloth under the corpses' faces, to shield them from the scratchy carpet that chafed their faces even when they were lying perfectly still. When they're ultimately rolled over, the fabric subs in as a splotch of blood.

 

"You try to stretch out as much as you can beforehand," says Epstein. "I've learned where my body really hits the ground, as well as my neck and my head. I'm aware of where I need to go to the gym."

 

One gag partway through the play provides a chance for the corpses to move. When Magnus, played by John Dow, comes careening on stage in an out-of-control wheelchair, the corpse actor will lift his legs up partially to protect him from getting run over, but also as a subtle joke for the audience sitting on the left side of the stage. The view of those on the right is blocked by the sofa.

 

"The worst thing is that the weight of your body on your face gets kind of crushed eventually. There's a little bit of an uneasiness," says Centofanti, who has also been in the uncomfortable position of having his jacket bunched up under his ribs for the duration of an entire rehearsal. "When you have the sofa on top, you can slightly readjust."

 

In the last few minutes of the play, the body is rolled over for a startling discovery. Those few minutes provide sweet relief for a neck that has been turned in the same direction for the last hour. At curtain call, the corpses have to be careful not to stand too quickly, or they'll get lightheaded. But when they do rise, says Griffin, "They get the biggest curtain call."

 

Griffin speculated that her corpses might fall asleep during the show. That's only been the case for Centofanti, who at the time of his interview, had not yet performed as the corpse for a live audience, just rehearsals.

 

Lying there for so long, "Your body thinks, this must be the time to sleep," says Centofanti. "Sometimes, I get a little twitch in my arm. I put my hands under my legs to stop them. The muscle would just flinch a little. You could fall asleep, if you didn't get sleep the night before."

 

For Epstein, his time as a dead body is hardly passive. He's managed to multitask even when he's not able to move.

 

"There's some tai chi breathing," he says. "I do listen to the story during different parts of it ... sometimes I'm running lines for another show in my head."

 

The corpses have only come together for the first read of the script, but some have had a chance to see each other's work, and they've been sending tips to each other via email. When Levinson told the group that he was having trouble with his breathing while lying on his stomach on the hard floor, Shadid emailed him some tips for taking shallower breaths.

 

"As an actor, you never get to see what the audience sees," says Epstein, who praised Levinson's turn as the corpse in a production he attended. "It's wonderful to be able to see this show from the audience."

 

In addition to earning his Equity points, Centofanti thinks that his turn as the corpse could lead to a whole new career path for him as a Standardized Medical Patient, an actor who must pretend to be injured or dying to prepare medical students for complex situations.

 

"You might have to play a guy who's come in and he's been shot, and he's frantic, and his wife's been shot too," says Centofanti. "You'd be in some TV show or film or just training film. There are a fair number of people who rotate between these."

 

Levinson, though thrilled by the role, isn't sure that a career as a corpse is for him.

 

"Next time, I hope I have a couple of syllables to share with everyone," he says.