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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 24, 2006

'Cats' actors create their characters

See actor Taylor morph into Macavity

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

"Cats," the popular Broadway musical, is set in a junkyard (in this case, a military junkyard; as the felines gather to send one of their cohorts to the next life, called the Heaviside Layer.

Gene Allen

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An Army Community Theatre presentation of a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber

7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through March 11

Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter

$20 and $28 general, $15 and $22 children

438-4480, www.squareone.org/ACT

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Bryan Furer, far left, standing, checks the makeup of Shayne Taylor as some of the "Cats" cast apply their faces backstage at Richardson Theatre.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Cameron Krainin is Demeter, Elizabeth "Bit" Harrison is Bombalurina and Shawna Masuda is Jemina in "Cats." They do their own makeup.

Gene Allen

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Sarah Markovits, a University of Hawai'i music faculty member, plays Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, who sings "Memory."

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"Cats" fanciers may notice that the normal junkyard that is the essence of the musical now at Richardson Theatre is deliberately re-imagined as an Army junkyard. The journey to the Heaviside Layer will be incorporated, of course, but the Jellicle Cats cavort in debris from a real Army dump.

Instead of an old, oversized car with a working trunk, the Army's "Cats" boasts the carcass of an abandoned Jeep. Ammunition boxes are part of the decor, plus a gas can or two or three. A steel basket, normally used to transport the injured from ground to helicopter, stands at one side of the stage. Steel drums provide cover and entrances and exits for the cats. A couple of "towers," used in the chopper scene from last season's "Miss Saigon," also have been dispatched for active duty.

'"We just went out and picked up what we needed from the junk pile," said director Vanita Rae Smith. "And we turn in all the scrap metal when we're done."

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"Cats" is all about faces eyes, noses, whiskers.

All painted by the actors and actresses themselves, after a crash course.

With "Cats" in residence at Richardson Theatre (the musical bowed last night), getting to look like a Jellicle Cat had been a backstage priority the past month. Army Community Theatre is the first community stage group in Hawai'i to do the show, although touring companies have paused here over the years. And in the "Cats" tradition, the players learned to put on their feline faces before strutting into the junkyard alley.

Under the scrutiny of veteran makeup artist Bryan Furer, actors have been stationed in front of mirrored and lighted counters to master the transformation. Faces are the canvases for the meow mix: Male and female, elderly and youthful, and in ACT's version, even kittens played by kids.

Add wigs and skin-tight leotards festooned with catty details and you get a litter of felines you'll likely recognize if you've sat through "Cats" before. If not, you'll discover a parade of purr-fection.

Shayne Taylor, a student at Hawai'i Pacific University, is making his Island stage debut as Macavity, the mystery cat, who resembles Darth Maul, the Sith villain from "Star Wars." You know, the menace with a black-and-red face.

Lines and patches of red, black and white dominate Taylor's Macavity. It's not the cutest face in the crowd, but it defines a bad dude.

On a recent Saturday, Taylor, a dancer and a cheerleader at HPU, settled in at the makeup table, which boasted brushes to his right, a sketch of the Macavity face to his left.

"I've never seen a live production of 'Cats,' " Taylor admitted, proving that the Andrew Lloyd Webber concoction, based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," always reaches a new generation of viewers (and, in this case, performers, too) with every incarnation. Until Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" broke the record Jan. 9, "Cats" had been the longest-running musical on Broadway.

Taylor fancies "Cats" because "it's fun to play the bad guy and antagonize people." Earlier on the Mainland, Taylor portrayed Jafar in "Aladdin" and Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast," so pompous roles were right up his alley. "Besides, I love his song. It's jazzy."

"Macavity," his big number, is a dancing and prancing moment in Act II, in which Macavity's virtues are explored by fellow cats Demeter, Bombalurina and Munkustrap, with the recurring punch line "Macavity's not there." The soulful song describes him as a master criminal, a monster of depravity.

"We used ideas of what the characters looked like on Broadway," said makeup master Furer, whose task was to make each actor self-sufficient in painting up their looks before donning their leotards.

Furer divided the 30 or so cast members into groups of three, and conducted Saturday makeup sessions so each actor could acquire the skills to reinvent his/her own look by showtime.

"Each actor has a different design," Furer said. "It's all an organic process."

Vanita Rae Smith, the Army entertainment director who is directing "Cats," said ACT had a $1,600 makeup tab for this show. In other productions, actors usually bring their own makeup and make do; "Cats" required a range of shades and hues, and Smith was inventive in budgeting, stealing from last year's coffers to absorb the cost.

Paints are used instead of traditional stage greasepaint, allowing the actors to dab their faces without ruining their makeup if excessive perspiration becomes an issue. Greasepaint would run and be ruined.

Next to Taylor, Stephanie Chang was prepping to primp up as slinky white cat Victoria.

"I have so much on my plate now, I had to make time for this show," said the ballet dancer who also never had seen a "Cats" production except on DVD, "and I'm going to be 32, so physically, I can do the role now, but I don't know when the next opportunity will come."

She danced the Laurie ballet in "Oklahoma!" several years ago and has been a dance wannabe since she was 8. A graphic design student enrolled at both Kapi'olani Community College and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, Chang also works at the Koa Gallery in Waikiki.

As she whitened her face around black lines, she sighed: "I look like Andy Warhol," acknowledging the artist's bleached appearance. "I feel like a kabuki actor, too." Her entire face looked like spilled milk.

She wondered, because of her Asian heritage, if she should put a little more slant in her eye lining and Furer said to give it a try.

What's a cat if not impulsive?

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.