Apparently the last thing John Vickery needs is another gadget.
On a recent evening, the veteran stage actor was going through his eight-times-weekly ritual of having his face painted to play Scar, the villainous, cowardly usurper to the throne who drives the action in "The Lion King."
This time, there was a new high-tech dimension to the procedure: A laptop computer had been set on his dressing room counter, with his Scar visage staring back at him from the screen. The image was from the previous night's show, but with some new virtual-reality eyebrow squiggles added to make him look even more sinister.
Vickery asked makeup artist Tiffany Hicks whether she really needed the computer image to get the details right. She didn't, so he snapped the laptop shut with a loud click. One less device to contend with.
"The Lion King," which opens Thursday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, has been praised for its breathtaking stage imagery, a good deal of it created with mechanical and electronic devices. These range from the simple (bird puppets flying from the end of poles that actor-dancers whip around like fly-fishing rods) to the ingenious (actors enmeshed in or attached to apparatuses that turn them into animal characters) to the gargantuan (Pride Rock, throne of leonine power, which rises from its moorings in the basement of the Pantages to a height 15 feet above the stage).
With equanimity, Vickery admits to being, figuratively speaking, "a very small cog in a very big machine." But he also is enmeshed in apparatus in a very literal sense.
His Scar costume consists of 34 separate pieces that weigh a total of 45 pounds. Heavy black electronic boxes fit into pockets on each thigh; wires from them run through the sleeves of his vest and down his right hand. That's how he controls the 2-foot-tall mechanical lion mask perched atop his head. The mask tilts and extends at various junctures to help create the stage pictures that are the hallmarks of director Julie Taymor's production. The show gets more confining for Vickery as it goes on: For the big finale, he dons a harness and wire that enable Scar to fly off Pride Rock to his doom in a climactic battle for the throne with Simba.
On this preview night, the harness wires that fly Scar and Clifton Oliver's Simba get crossed, putting the kibosh on the stunt. The actors improvise by fighting it out at stage level.
"This is a very high-risk show," Vickery says the following afternoon, sitting in the balcony of the Pantages as dancers rehearse below. "The capacity for mayhem is pretty high. But then I think that's part of the point--you don't get much of a return unless you risk things."
The 6-foot, solidly built actor has a line of bruises running up his left arm from having it out with Simba each night. Other bruises, hidden beneath his T-shirt, come from the tight flying harness.
Vickery did not have to deal with such things in the decade and a half he spent as a highly regarded classical stage actor before he originated the role of Scar on Broadway in 1997-98. He has played Prince Hal in "Henry IV, Part 1," both Malcolm and Macbeth in different productions of "Macbeth," and the title character, Alceste, in Moliere's "The Misanthrope" (one of three roles Vickery played at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa from 1991 to 1995). On Broadway, he has performed in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and "The Sisters Rosensweig" by Wendy Wasserstein. Earlier this year, at L.A.'s Matrix Theatre, he was Estragon in Samuel Beckett's was Estragon in Samuel Beckett's landmark absurdist play "Waiting for Godot"--a stark, bleakly comic piece as far removed from "The Lion King" in style and tone as Pluto (no, not that Pluto) is from the sun.
Andrew J. Robinson, who directed Vickery in "Godot," describes him glowingly and--in the wake of the recent death of fellow "Godot" cast member David Dukes--elegiacally, as a member of an increasingly rare breed of actor:
"They have been trained to bring their expertise, their intelligence, their intuition to any material, whether it be 'The Lion King,' probably the most commercial production in the history of the world, or something as difficult and dense as Beckett. They're not specialists; these guys are renaissance actors."
Vickery will mark his 50th birthday on Nov. 4 by performing two shows as Scar. He says he was astonished to be recruited for "The Lion King" back in 1996, when the show was in its embryonic form and actors were needed for workshops in which the script was honed and the innovative puppet and mask combinations were still being devised.
Before that, his only musical role came in the early 1980s, when he played the titular World War I German flying ace in "The Death of Von Richthofen as Witnessed From Earth."
"Frank Rich of the New York Times said I had a powerful yet unpleasant voice," Vickery recalled with a laugh. The actor says he is much more suited to the declamatory baritone required of Scar than to the lyrical singing he attempted as the Red Baron.
Taymor saw and admired Vickery as Von Richthofen and was quickly sold when he auditioned for "The Lion King."
"If you don't have an actor with the power to play the heavy, the stakes aren't high enough," Taymor says, adding that he had the patience to serve as what she calls "a guinea pig" during the play's development.
"I appreciate John's ability to see it was worth it, instead of feeling upstaged by the mechanics or feeling that he couldn't act anymore," she says. "It's an amazing thing to get beyond the difficulties the costume can bring to an actor."
"It's definitely Julie's show," Vickery said. "The star is the ensemble, the singing and dancing that creates the extraordinary pictures."
Vickery and Taymor have agreed that this time around he will tone his acting down from his performance on Broadway, which he says he partly modeled on Cyril Richard's Captain Hook in "Peter Pan." Scar is a humorist as well as a villain, and Taymor says she wants the laugh lines played "dry and very straight," in the Los Angeles production.
There has been a tendency for all the actors who play Scar to go a bit over the top, Taymor said--"they feel they're in a large-scale musical and they have to be bigger than they need to be."
"Yeah, it was huge," Vickery says of the scale he used to project his part on Broadway. "I thought I had to match the size of the production. So there's a lot more ease and a lot less effort this time, which actually feels better."
Painting Scar with smaller strokes doesn't mean Vickery gets to take it easy.
"I liken it physically to playing a football game. I go home and take a hot bath." He also avails himself three times a week of the physical therapist who is on call for the cast.
Financial and personal issues figured in Vickery's decision to play Scar again: Through at least next June--and longer if the show is extended--he will have a steady gig two freeway exits from his home, where he can be an everyday presence for his 10-year-old daughter and for his girlfriend. He also likes the sheer physical challenge of donning that 45-pound costume each night.
"He's just going to get totally trashed by this show by the time it ends, if it ever does end," says Robinson, who has played opposite Vickery in stage productions and on the "Star Trek" television spinoff "Deep Space Nine."
For his efforts, Vickery knows he will reap boos at every curtain call. Instead of taking a bow, he feigns a snarl and swipes a claw at the audience.
Actually, he says he couldn't take a bow if he wanted to, because his flying harness makes it impossible to bend over.
"I presume I'm doing a good job if they're booing. It's a badge of honor," he says. "It's such a celebratory show, somebody's got to be the sourpuss."
* "The Lion King," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays 2 and 8 p.m, Sundays 1 and 6:30 p.m., with occasional Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. Ends June 30. $12-$127. (213) 365-5555 or (714) 703-2510.