Inside D.C. entertainment

For Washington Shakespeare Company's 'Richard III,' Joe Palka's head is in his hands

November 15, 2010 - 02:47 PM
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Part two in an occasional series about actors holding their prop severed heads. Previously: Salome: Inside the Head of Daniel Sumegi

Joe Palka doesn't often handle the bag that contains his prop severed head in the Washington Shakespeare Company's Richard III. So it took him a while to come to terms with the gruesome remnant of his character Hastings' death.

"It didn't occur to me that it was me in this bag," he says. But it occurred to his wife, Fox 5 weather reporter Sue Palka, right away. After his head is buzzed off by a (pantomimed) chainsaw, she was very disturbed to hear everyone clapping for her husband's death, says Palka.

"I'm rendered incapacitated by these female killers, lesbian temptresses. There's no better way to die on stage," says Palka.

That's a departure from the way the play is usually performed, and not just because of the sexy assassins. "Hastings is traditionally beheaded offstage ... It's so much more interesting to have his death take place on stage," says Palko. "You can't forget Hastings — he becomes an integral part of the action."

In the WSC's Richard, shortly after Hastings' lesbian buzzkill, if you could call it that, his head is brought onstage in a plastic bag. Prop manager Abby Woods borrowed the head from the Shakespeare Theatre.

"It may have been taken from the Scottish play, which I'm not allowed to mention," says Palka. He means MacBeth — saying the name of the play in a theater brings bad luck, according to a longtime theater superstition.

Handling his head before Thursday night's performance, Palka observed that the prop head weighs only a little less than a real one probably does. "It makes a good clunk when they throw it on the ground," he says.

"He looks like a boring guy," says Palka, who also revealed that he went to Boy Scout camp with my father when they were kids. "I think I'm sexier than him." Nevertheless, "I'm envious of his nose. It's very distinguished."

"Why all this gray hair? I have jet black hair," he jokes. "At the age of 58, it is difficult for me to reconcile that I have gray hair."

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