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A Backstage Ballet...An Actor and his Dressers


John Rapson in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder."

Photo by Joan Marcus.

While serial murder is not often considered fertile ground for comedy, when one actor plays all eight of a play’s ill-fated characters, as in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (which plays the Ahmanson Theatre through May 1, 2016), the potential for comedic virtuosity becomes endless. But what are the logistics of playing eight characters—many of whom are constantly entering and exiting for the entirety of the play?

Center Theatre Group Discovery Guides explore the plays on our stages from an educational standpoint so that young people can learn more about and enter into the world of the show. In this excerpt from the Discovery Guide for A Gentleman’s Guide, this meant unpacking a trunk of backstage quick-change tricks that are just as impressive as the theatrics happening in front of the audience.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard…but dying comically in a comedy about a young man bumping off all his relatives? Is it polite to laugh? Is it in good taste? Of course it is! A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a musical comedy about a potentially dark subject that gives us permission to laugh until our sides ache.

To ensure the audience is along for the ride from the very start, the creators of A Gentleman’s Guide made several important artistic choices. The music and lyrics are upbeat and rollicking. The dying D’Ysquiths are delightfully revolting—a veritable parade of snobbishness and bigotry, who were unforgivably cruel to our main character’s mother. Their actual deaths are over-the-top—more Wile E. Coyote than tragedy. Most importantly, though, one actor plays all eight murdered! No sad endings here!

One Actor, Eight Deaths–John Rapson’s Tour de Force!

To play the entire D’Ysquith family tree requires a level of virtuosity delightful to behold. Like a whack-a-mole on a conveyor belt, combining a bafflingly wide range of different voices, different walks, and elaborate costume changes at breakneck speeds, the D’Ysquith of the moment makes an entrance, makes us laugh, kicks the bucket, exits into the wings, and comes back again ready for more.

The physical dexterity Rapson demonstrates on stage is matched by something the audience will never see—the backstage ballet with his team of dressers. The timing, coordination, and near psychic level of communication required to pull off those costume changes would put any circus act to shame. The transformation from deceased D’Ysquith to about-to-be-deceased D’Ysquith must take place in seconds, in nearly complete darkness and silence so as not to disturb the action of the play onstage.

Every time Rapson steps offstage, he is in the care of a team of dressers who have plotted the course of every zipper, fat-pad, shoelace, and false beard, timing it all down to the second. The ingenious costumes (which earned Linda Cho the Tony Award® for Best Costume Design) are designed and constructed to be taken off and put on in split seconds. But detail is not sacrificed. Man or woman, old or young, each character takes the stage dressed from head-to-foot in finery that matches their unique and over-the-top personalities.

During 12 costume changes, sometimes in the wings, sometimes in the dressing room below the stage, sometimes in darkened secret compartments built into the set, the dressers and actor operate in complete calm and unity, like a pit-crew of mimes, mindfully executing a series of precise and rapid wardrobe maneuvers. Julian Andres Arango, the star dresser for the Broadway production explained: “You can never put Gentleman’s Guide on autopilot. Never, never, never. You can’t. It’s about being agile, alert, grounded, a troubleshooter…always prepared to execute any situation without taking [the actor] out of his moment.”

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