Embedded is a play about the buildup to the Iraq war, with characters modeled on Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and other members of the Bush administration. ¶ On the first day of rehearsal, Jobsite Theater director David Jenkins introduced the cast of Embedded to the elements that are key to the play: caricature masks of the famous figures. "Everybody grabbed a mirror and put them on. I just said, see where it takes you, see what the mask does to you, see how it starts to affect your voice,'' Jenkins said. ¶ Masks, which have been used in theater at least since the ancient Greeks, take some getting used to by an actor. ¶ "Because most of the top half of the face is covered, acting with the rest of your body becomes much more important,'' Jenkins said. "What you do with your neck, how you move your head, your shoulders. You have to become a lot more aware of your whole body and you can't just rely on facial expressions.''
For example, the director said, Chris Rutherford, the actor in the Cheney mask, "has come up with a voice that is somewhere between Dick Cheney and Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons.''
Jenkins found the masks for the Jobsite staging of Embedded, which opens this week at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's 130-seat Shimberg Playhouse, while surfing the Internet to research productions of the play, written by actor Tim Robbins. The masks were first used by Prop Thtr, a Chicago company, and designed by actor and maskmaker Richard Henzel.
"I'd seen some versions of the masks that were more abstract or had sort of a Noh feel to them, but these ones are very much caricatures of the real people,'' Jenkins said.
Henzel, who made the masks from Neoprene, a synthetic rubber, and painted them in orange and brown tones, drew inspiration from political cartoons. "My favorite mask is Rove, with that little piggy face of his,'' he said. "Richard Perle may have been the toughest one because people don't know what he looks like, but I felt like I caught him almost better than the others.''
There is a photo gallery of Henzel making the masks on his Web site at richardhenzel.com.
Incidentally, Henzel, whose acting resume runs for four pages of roles from Mark Twain to Willy Loman to Agamemnon, is best known for playing one of the DJ voices that wake up Bill Murray over and over in Groundhog Day. He reeled off his spiel in the movie over the phone from Chicago.
"Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties, because it's cold out there. . . . Do you think Punxsutawney Phil's going to come out and check his shadow?'' Henzel said.
"That's it, that's my career. It's the one thing I've done that everybody knows.''
Embedded, which Robbins' company, the Actors' Gang in Los Angeles, premiered in 2003, is a political satire that examines the war in Iraq through three sets of characters: the Bush officials who are given names like Rum Rum, Gondola and Pearly White; soldiers (including a young woman named Private Ryan, meant to resemble Jessica Lynch); and the embedded journalists who covered it.
A review in the New York Times described the play as a "series of Brechtian sketches . . . presenting a United States in which not only the war, but also the reporting of it, is carefully engineered by an elitist Washington cabal.''
Robbins' production of Embedded was filmed at New York's Public Theater and is available on DVD. "We saw the DVD first,'' Jenkins said. "As political junkies, we liked it, but there are some things we chose to do differently than Robbins did. We take a less heavy-handed approach, especially with the more politically oriented stuff. We didn't feel it needed to come down with a sledgehammer. We've tried to soften things that we felt were a little too finger-wagging.''
Robbins, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Mystic River, was slammed for Embedded. A 15th anniversary celebration of Bull Durham, in which he starred, was canceled by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jobsite has a history of doing political theater, having staged The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, both by leftist Italian playwright Dario Fo. The company chose the Robbins play as its contribution to the presidential election debate.
"We felt that regardless of where your politics lie, regardless of how you feel about this conflict, it was important to remind people of how we got where we got,'' he said.
Embedded, which is dedicated to the late Clash guitarist and lead singer Joe Strummer, includes songs such as Bob Dylan's Masters of War (performed by Lorna Bracewell) and Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth (Joe Popp). During the run, Jobsite is collecting donations for care packages to send to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.