Pig stars in Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘The Heir Apparent’

September 30, 2011

Like any other stage parent, Frank Robinson Jr. arrives at the Shakespeare Theater after the curtain falls on each performance of “The Heir Apparent” to pick up his little star. Unlike any other stage parent, Robinson carries little Cordelia home in a ventilated crate. Cordelia is a 6-week-old piglet (equal parts Old German, Yorkshire Swine and wild boar — “That’s the diva part in her,” says Robinson) who landed a meaty role: She makes an appearance as a gift from a long-lost pig-farming relative of an ailing heir who is about to write his will.

She’s also the newest generation in a burgeoning acting dynasty. Cordelia is the piglet of Amelia, a sow who briefly had a role in Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” last year, along with a goat and some chickens. Amelia’s scene was cut when the show was in previews, but the Shakespeare Theatre approached Robinson about the role after hearing of Amelia’s turn in the spotlight, and he was able to give them the pick of Amelia’s first litter.

“Rin Tin Tin is on like the 12th generation so who knows? We might have pig royalty,” says Robinson.

Cordelia will be replaced this week with 2-week-old Peanut, who is not related to the two. But with three pigs in theatrical roles, Robinson, an actor himself, now presides over a sort of porcine Barrymore family. Backstage at the Shakespeare Theatre, he reflected upon breeding theatrical greatness at family-owned Serenity Farm in Benedict.

“A pig’s ingenue days are very, very short. If she gains a few more pounds, it will be hard to lift her and hold her up. So that’s why we’re transitioning Peanut in. It’s kind of like “All About Eve,” you’ve got the fawning understudy waiting in the wings to take your place. [Cordelia] weighs between 25 and 50 pounds, but I’m a bad judge of weight. She’ll get to be like 300 pounds once she has a litter. Her figure’s going to go to hell.

“Animals are animals, so they’re never necessarily going to do what you want them to do. You hope that they will, and you can train them to do it, but at the end of the day, if she took it in her head to do something else, she’s going to do it, so that’s the roll of the dice. We did want it to be a female pig because they’re a little easier to work with — a male pig can get aggressive. She was kind of the luck of the draw. When we brought her in for her audition, she was less than a week old. If you get them very young, they’re going to have their own personality, but they’re going to be used to people by the time they’re doing something onstage. You can’t really tell when they’re lying there, having dinner, which one’s going to be more amenable than the other, but you can always train them. Pigs are very smart, like dogs.

“They’ll put her in her bag, and she gets a granola bar in her bag, and that keeps her quiet, hopefully, until she gets taken out onstage. Sometimes, she also needs to get out and have some exercise. Last Sunday, I guess she had been cooped up a little too much. She was having none of it. She was getting squealy, so they took her on, did the reveal and took her off. They’re like children, you can’t give them sugar or overfeed them or else they’ll get hyped up. They need their exercise, because that means she’s going to be pliable, ready to play and do her job. Sometimes she will have an accident in her bag. I think that’s the excitement of her knowing that she’s about to go on. They will lay in a Pampers in there to absorb it.

“[As an actor], I’ve worked in Washington, and I’ve also toured. I’ve worked at Ford’s, doing everything from “1776” to “Great Expectations.” James Wilson in “1776” was my favorite. I also worked on “John Adams” the miniseries, and ironically enough, played the same character I played in “1776.” I hope to be working on the Steven Spielberg film about Lincoln that will be filming in the area later this year. I also teach playwriting. In my other life, I’m an archivist at the National Museum of American History.

“My family owns the farm. I grew up on the farm. I go there on the weekends and help out — I’ve never truly left it. We have emus, pigs, sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, rabbits, a couple of horses, donkeys, and we take in some rescue animals if they have a good temperament. We do a petting pen so the things that go in there have to be kid-friendly or at least trainable. Once [Cordelia] is retired from the stage, she’ll be in the pen with everyone else. I think she’ll have enough company at the farm that the sting of leaving the theater won’t hurt too bad.

“My worlds have crossed. Certainly, working on a farm is as hard work as the theater can be. It taught me responsibility — in theater you have to be a responsible person, because a job is required of you and you have to show up and other people are dependent on you. And the life of a farmer, everybody is dependent on everyone else to do their part, so that’s very much like theater.

“For me, it’s really interesting to be in theater in a different way. That’s what I really enjoy, is providing yet another part of the theater experience, one that is very unique. It’s really great when she comes out onstage, and the people aww and laugh — you have that actor’s appreciation that she gets a reaction from the audience, and that’s what theater’s all about: being able to connect with the audience.”

The Heir Apparent

at the Shakespeare Theatre, through Oct. 23. www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Serenity Farm, 6932 Serenity Farm Rd., Benedict.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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