Backstage

The Actor's Wheels Are Always Turning

Rob McQuay with Jennifer Anderson, far left, and flanked by Mollie Clement and Doug Sanford in Imagination Stage's
Rob McQuay with Jennifer Anderson, far left, and flanked by Mollie Clement and Doug Sanford in Imagination Stage's "Seussical." McQuay, who plays Horton, says he likes challenging directors to use his disability and wheelchair as metaphors to deepen characterizations. (By Scott Suchman -- Imagination Stage)

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

When the musical score peals out an elephant's trumpet call in "Seussical," Horton, the faithful pachyderm who hatches the egg and hears the Who, executes a wheelie in his wheelchair. It was an easy rehearsal choice, says actor-singer Rob McQuay, and far more interesting than pretending his arm is a trunk.

Imagination Stage in Bethesda is presenting the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical, based on the stories of Dr. Seuss, through Jan. 15.

McQuay demonstrates in Imagination Stage's lobby cafe how he plans to indicate Horton's lumbering gate, pushing his chair one wheel at a time, first right, then left, instead of going forward full-tilt.

"Over 15 years, I can think, off the top of my head, of only two characters I've played that were disabled," McQuay says. He has garnered three Helen Hayes nominations, for playing Jesus in the rock musicals "Jesus Christ Superstar" for Open Circle Theatre and "Godspell" at Round House and Tateh; and for playing the immigrant filmmaker in "Ragtime" at Toby's Dinner Theatre. He also earned a nomination for co-directing another "Godspell" at Toby's.

McQuay, 43, has used a wheelchair since a body-surfing accident in 1990. The actor says he relishes the idea of challenging directors to use his disability and chair as metaphors to deepen characterizations.

"Once we start working on a character, the chair brings all kinds of subtext because there are just so many things you can find underneath this whole disabled issue," he says.

Offstage, McQuay is working toward ordination in the Reformed Episcopal Church (he is also licensed as a Methodist clergyman). He is a parish assistant and staff pastor at Bishop Cummins Memorial Church in Catonsville.

"I look for the spirituality in every role," he writes in an e-mail. " 'Superstar' and 'Godspell' are, of course, obvious examples. But Horton is just as spiritual. . . . Horton is the one who hears and believes without seeing."

A Stylish Swamp

The swamp where best friends Frog and Toad live in their little houses, have their adventures and celebrate their friendship is framed by a kind of portal decorated with ferns and other vegetation. It looks for all the world like a Tiffany lampshade run amok.

Scenic designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. is delighted that someone has noticed the allusions to Tiffany glass in his set for "A Year With Frog and Toad." The family musical by Robert and Willie Reale, based on the beloved children's books by Arnold Lobel, runs in Round House Theatre's Bethesda space through Dec. 18.

"There is a kind of color-coding to Frog and Toad of browns and greens, very muted earth tones, and we wanted to try and sort of explode that into a more fanciful palette. And the idea of a Tiffany lamp, and its sort of comforting antique feel, was something that seemed to just sort of fit with the show," Musumeci says.

The designer says he won't "give away the secrets" of the actual material used in the portal. He credits lighting designers Daniel MacLean Wagner and Harold F. Burgess II with giving it a stained-glass glow.

Costume designer Rosemary Pardee had the assignment of dressing the characters using human accouterments that suggest their animalness. "Part of the challenge was finding a way that we would instantly recognize it as the animal it was supposed to be," without being literal, Pardee says.

Frog (Will Gartshore) and Toad (Steve Tipton) wear mostly green or brown, respectively, as per their species, and they dress rather like prep-school boys, circa 1920.

"Because they're friends, I put a little bit of Frog's green on Toad and a little bit of Toad's brown on Frog," Pardee says. "Because we always carry a part of a best friend with us."

For the colorful supporting roles, she set about trying to "define each character's particular gift." Songbirds wear tailored robin-red suits with feathers in their hats.

But the duds that get big laughs are Pardee's concoctions for Snail and Turtle. Snail wears an old Army backpack, topped with a bedroll courtesy of Army surplus. His music is kind of Pony Express in tempo and tune, she says, and as actor Bobby Smith played him in rehearsal, "it became really obvious that he became a prospector or hiker . . . a forty-niner on his way to Californee."

For Turtle, played by Sherri L. Edelen, Pardee put together an old, oversize catcher's chest protector and a lightweight reproduction of a World War I helmet. And, of course, Edelen wears a turtleneck. As with Musumeci, Pardee credits Round House's costume shop supervisor, Denise Umland, and costume apprentice Emily Dere for taking her ideas and sewing and dyeing them to order.

"When Bobby Smith did his first entrance as the Snail . . . it was just sheer perfection. When it comes together and it goes from hanging on a hanger and then on the actor's body . . . it doesn't get any better than that."

Follow Spots

Didactic Theatre Company will perform Nicky Silver's "Beautiful Child" at the Warehouse Theatre's Black Box on Dec. 2-18. The troupe will perform Sam Shepard's "God of Hell" (March 3-19) at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, and Rebecca Gilman's "The Glory of Living" (May 26-June 11) at the Warehouse. Visit http://www.didactictheatre.com .

Performers and artists interested in participating in the Capital Fringe Festival in July can download applications from http://www.capfringe.org .

Christopher Scott Stokes, husband of Washington playwright and actress Allyson Currin, died of a brain tumor Nov. 20. Stokes, 44, was an attorney who specialized in international trade law. A memorial service will be held Sunday at 3 p.m. at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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