"The Merchant of Venice"

Through July 18

The Shakespeare Theatre

Tickets: 202/547-1122

"Her sunny locks hang on her temples like a golden fleece," Bassanio says of his beloved Portia in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." And lo and behold, when we see Enid Graham in the role of the rich young heiress, her long blond hair is simply gorgeous, with fine braided strands intricately woven throughout.

It's all fake, of course. The Renaissance-style tresses are the creation of designer Denise O'Brien, but the wig's daily upkeep falls to Heather Volkman and Ariel Butner. They put in more time at the theater than most of the actors, showing up at 4 and staying the length of the show to get Graham and several other actors into and out of their wigs. There's a strict procedure for wig donning.

"Most actors come in with their hair in pin curls and we apply the wigs for them," Volkman says. The hairpieces have a lace edge, which is glued to the forehead with spirit gum. Woe unto any actor with the urge to scratch. "We never allow the actors to pull at the lace," says Volkman, darkly.

Aside from Portia's plaits, the wigs were pretty straightforward, Volkman reports -- styled simply and needing washing and restyling only about once every two weeks. Graham (pictured above) has two identical wigs, since hers need to be rebraided and cleaned more often.

Eighteen wigs are used in this production, which is about three times the number Volkman is used to handling. But then this is a rare period production for the theater, which is more accustomed to nontraditional settings of the classic plays. Also, many wigs were required to cover up the unusual prevalence of bad hair among some of the cast members -- those who had just finished up the theater's run of Euripides' "The Trojan Women," in which concentration-camp cuts were part of the concept.

"Most of the men had to be wigged because they had military haircuts," says Volkman, "and the ladies had to be wigged because they were bald."