The “star” of one of the most popular plays this season only appears on the stage for a few minutes, has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t take questions from the press. Worse still, this is almost certain to be her only show; so when her run is finished, you will never get another chance to see her perform on stage.
But the fact that her “star” vehicle is an adaptation of a comedy that was written in early-18th century France demonstrates her ability to capture the attentions of audiences. Some of this comes from the sheer surprise of her appearance. If you have not seen David Ives’ adaptation of Jean-Francois Regnard’s comedy The Heir Apparent, now playing at the Lansburgh Theater, and want the full experience, stop reading now, and come back when you’ve seen the show.
Those of you remaining will now be let in on the secret that someone from the Shakespeare Theatre dreaded my revealing. The play, directed by Ives, focuses on the character of Eraste—played by Andrew Veenstra— nephew of the infamous miser Geronte. Eraste desires to marry his true love Isabelle – but has no money. His only hope lies in convincing his uncle to leave at least a portion of his estate to him. But there are rivals, who must be outwitted.
As act one winds down, Eraste attempts to win Geronte’s favor, with the help of his two friends. They learn that the old man was recently charmed by the drawing of a pig sent to him by a niece. The first one presents Geronte with pork sausages; the second trumps him with ham hocks; then it’s Eraste’s turn. The old miser expects the basket his nephew is holding to contain chops or something similar, but Eraste has too much imagination for that. He places the basket before his uncle and carefully lifts the lid…and then…the head of an adorable piglet curiously peeks out.
I won’t be too much of a spoiler and reveal the uncle’s response to the gift, but you can probably guess the reaction of the audience. It is called the “AW!” factor, and is just as powerful on stage as laughter or shock. In cold analysis, it may seem like a cheap grab at the audience’s emotions. Honestly, there aren’t that many people who don’t like animals, especially the littlest ones. That’s why so many famous comedies on television and the big screen have featured animals in key roles.
But, as Veenstra admits, it’s a tougher game on stage: “It’s live theatre. On television or in film you have a wrangler [who trains and supervises the animals], and when anything goes wrong, you can always do another take.” So, it’s no surprise that animals are rarely part of a theatrical production, and unlike television, there are no organizations in DC that supply trained animals for the brave producer who decides to include animals in her show.
So the theatre has to get their animals from the source. Namely, the countless livestock farms that dot the outskirts of every metropolitan area in the world. In the case of The Heir Apparent, the Shakespeare Theatre Company turned to Serenity Farm, a Midwestern-style farm with pastel painted barns, located in Charles County, Maryland along the Patuxent River. “We are a working farm” says Frank Robinson, who runs the farm beside his father and siblings, “we grow wheat and rye, and hay. Corn as well. We raise cattle and eggs [on the 250-acre farm].”
They also operate a petting pen that features goats, emus, llama, and alpaca, not to mention a few pigs. Though Frank is also a part-time actor, the family business had never provided animals for the stage before. The foray begins in the fall of 2010. One evening, Robinson happened to be viewing Arena Stage’s Facebook page, when he noticed that the company was looking for livestock to use in an upcoming production of Oklahoma!. There it began with a simple Facebook posting. “I got in touch with Chuck Fox, the shop manager at Arena Stage. We ended up contributing a pig, a goat, and two chickens to the production. They wanted to use the animals in the overture.”
“They said they wanted a pig that could go in a basket. We had a small piglet named Amelia at the time. She got to be the piglet.”
Amelia and her farm-mates took to the stage during the musical’s preview week, but then the overture was cut from the production, and her acting career was finished. The following summer, she had her first litter.
The Robinsons figured their brief theatrical fling would be a lark, a “remember the time when…” conversation starter. Then, in early August, Frank got an e-mail from the Shakespeare Theatre. “They said they had heard I provided a piglet for Oklahoma!” Frank remembers, “and they wanted to know if I had another available.” Enter Cordelia.
Cordelia du Serenity was born on August 10, 2011, to a stage family. Her mother was the former stage star Amelia, and she had five siblings. Cordelia was in fact, chosen by means more sophisticated than random selection. Shakespeare Theatre wanted a white pig, eliminating the two red pigs in the litter. Cordelia was the smallest of the whites, making her the most practical for a theatrical run that will last awhile. The Robinson’s took her in for audition when she was a week old. “Everybody loved her” says Frank.
Apparently they still do. Cordelia lives on the farm, and is brought into the theater by Frank on the weekends and by his sister Therese during the week. When the play is in progress, she is mostly tended to by the cast, and she has proven quite popular. “[Cordelia] is the most lovable animal you could meet” says Veenstra. And she’s treated well, considering, as Robinson pointed out, animals have to be there for rehearsal just like their human cast mates. “She has her own dressing room” says Veenstra “When she’s not on stage, she’s in her room, where she is always laying down with her stuffed animal. The rest of the cast visits her and feeds her granola and frosted flakes. Those are her favorite treats.”
Yet, there are always problems. Though both Robinson and Veenstra are quick to point out that pigs are one of the most intelligent animals, behind only cats, dogs, bears, apes, whales and humans, they are not human and don’t react to manmade situations in a human, or even predictable way. “Sometimes she’s great, sometimes we have mishaps” is Veenstra’s observation. “It’s a big reveal. It’s a major moment of escalation. How many times do you come to theater and see a live pig? It’s out of left field.
So far, the mishaps are minor, but something can always go terribly wrong. Allegedly, Cordelia has misbehaved a few times, particularly when she’s eaten too much sugar. “We came up with a back-up that has several options, including using a puppet.” We understand Cordelia now has an understudy, Mz. Peanut, who commands a separate dressing room. “We haven’t needed to use [them] yet. Knock wood” says Veenstra, rapping the conference table.
Veenstra has experience with animals, but nothing quite like this. “I’ve worked with horses and dogs before, mostly on television. But usually, they’re trained. I’m sure somewhere they train pigs, but Cordelia not being trained adds an element of spontaneity. I mean, why do we go to live theatre if not for the spontaneity?”
Some things, Veenstra will tell you, are predictable: “Almost every single night, Cordelia goes to the bathroom on me. [At least once when] she defecated on me, it was particularly vile.” But it’s part of the experience: “ On stage she likes to chew on this floral brooch that is part of my costume. She’s chewed that up. For audiences, it’s just one moment in the play, but when they see the extent we go to for one big joke, they ask ‘what’s in store for us next?’”
Veenstra considers it a thoroughly positive experience. “ [As actors], we are always looking for things to stretch you…I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything like this again; I mean there aren’t that many plays that need a live pig.”
With a run scheduled to end October 23, with a possible extension, Cordelia presents an additional problem for the production: pigs grow phenomenally fast. Amelia, a diminutive piglet less than a year ago, is now a 600 pound sow. So there is fear that Cordelia could literally outgrow her role by the end of the run. “That will be the call of the theater” Robinson explains “The carrier will accommodate her for some time. She might make it to the end of the run. We’ll see.”
He adds: “She is half the size of her sibling because she is bottle fed.” Then he rethinks, “Actually she’s being fed from a ceramic bowl. She won’t drink from a metal bowl or a plastic bowl, only ceramic. She’s very high-end. And she won’t drink the milk cold or hot. It has to be lukewarm. She’s such a diva!”
And soon it will end for her. When The Heir Apparent’s run ends, Cordelia will retire to the petting pen at Serenity Farm. “She will transition from ingénue to character roles” Robinson jokes, “the ingénue period is short for a pig.”
Like for Veenstra and the rest of the folks associated with the production, this was a wonderful experience for Robinson, though not one that will likely be repeated. “Let’s face it. It is statistically rare that two shows in one year need a pig.”
So it will be business as usual for Serenity Farm. But before he left me, Robinson made sure that I mention his farm’s Facebook page: serenity farm at benedict/facebook. He particularly wanted me to mention Serenity’s venture—Harvest House—that sells farm-raised beef, lamb, and, yes, pork. Then wait for it. “Don’t worry” he says “Cordelia’s not going to be there!”
The Heir Apparent runs thru Oct 23, 2011 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW Washington, DC.
Everyone loves small animals, piglets included, as Mr. Ives knows. Yet most people, as Regnard knew, have no trouble eating them. The fact that everyone’s reassured that “Cordelia’s not going to be there” — and that therefore, they have no fear they’ll have to contemplate her lifeless hocks, once attached to her adorable face, on their plate — says something about people’s ability to dissociate when necessary. (Or convenient.) As another “Ham” once said: “What a piece of work is man!” Indeed. In both senses of the phrase.