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'Pippin' gives a new meaning to 'stage hands'

February 21, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Alexandria Wailes' hands

Each evening just before curtain, Alexandria Wailes makes her way through a dark maze of wooden beams under the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. The 5-foot-8 actress hunches forward to avoid knocking her head against the ceiling, which is less than 5 feet high.

When a red cue light flashes, Wailes, who is hearing impaired, raises her hands through a pair of holes in the stage and performs the opening number of “Pippin” in sign language. Her disembodied song of seduction (“Join us / come and waste an hour or two”) is one of many scenes in which a pair of isolated hands steals the spotlight in this revival of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s musical, running through March 15.

A low-tech but high-concept visual effect, the constantly reappearing hands play a multitude of roles in the show: sign-language interpreter (this is a Deaf West Theatre co-production); keeper of the rhythm (they occasionally snap to the beat); and any number of sight gags (a “severed” arm delivers some the production’s biggest laughs).

But theater buffs will recognize those hands as an hommage to Bob Fosse, the legendary choreographer who staged “Pippin” on Broadway in 1972. Fosse began his production with a pair of white-gloved hands emerging through a curtain of light — an image that has become the musical’s trademark symbol.

Alexandria Wailes at work Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun says he wanted to reference the “Fosse hands” without copying them. “It was the first idea I had,” he explains. “Fosse had the hands coming at you in a horizontal configuration, so I thought it would be interesting to have them emerge vertically from under the stage.”

Initially, he wanted the hands and arms to be clad in red, from elbow to fingertip. But lighting tests revealed that the red sleeves made the sign language difficult to read. He also envisioned a minimalist production dominated by shafts of light (another hommage to Fosse) but eventually opted for a more concrete approach with elaborate sets.

“Pippin” — which tells the story of Charlemagne’s young son, who strikes out on his own after rejecting his father’s tyrannical ways — is a musical steeped in optical illusion. (“Magic to Do” is one of its most memorable songs.) The crew’s resident magician is Tobin Ost, the scenic and costume designer. Ost devised a series of stage holes 8 inches in diameter that the cast can open and close from below using a simple hinge mechanism.

The crew collaborated with Deaf West to ensure that the holes were large enough to enable actors to sign in a comfortable and intelligible way. “We couldn’t have done this before the Taper renovation,” Ost says. The refurbishments added an extra 2 feet in height to the 576-square-foot space beneath the stage, enabling several actors at a time to move around. During performances, a stage hand is always present to act as traffic controller. (The crew keeps ice packs handy in case of head injuries and other collisions.)

Michael Arden, left, and Tyrone Giordano with the hands For the scene in which Pippin comes across a Visigoth’s bloodied head and arm, actor Aleks Pevec sticks his head through one of the holes, while next to him beneath the stage, Wailes lends her arm to the scene. To coordinate the spoken and signed dialogue, Pevec, who can hear, squeezes his castmate’s hand to alert her when she should begin signing. The below-stage area also contains several closed-circuit monitors so deaf actors can watch the conductor and the orchestra during the musical numbers.

For the show’s famous orgy sequence, Calhoun and his crew constructed a special bed with latex masking so actors can hide underneath while their hands and arms poke through to caress Pippin’s body. The original Broadway production featured a bed full of writhing actors, but again, Calhoun didn’t want to copy Fosse’s staging.

Calhoun hopes to add more hand and arm choreography if “Pippin” transfers to Broadway. “You just can’t have dancing, because that would invite comparisons to Fosse,” he says. “It’s daunting to work under his shadow. The hands are meant to honor the sign language, but they’re meant to honor him as well.”

-- David Ng

Top: Alexandria Wailes' hands emerge in "Pippin"; middle: while under the stage, Wailes uses production notes and monitors as cues; bottom: Michael Arden, left, and Tyrone Giordano, who jointly portray the title character, rehearse with the hands. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times