- Photo by Andrew Beaujon
When Chris Dinolfo's character Berlioz is violently beheaded by a streetcar in Synetic Theater's The Master and Margarita, he often gets an unexpected reaction.
"Sometimes people laugh," says Dinolfo. "I don't know if it's intended to be funny, but it is because my character is such an asshole. He's a puppet of the KGB. He believes that he is the smartest person in the room and he'll tell you what to think. I think there is a payoff as an audience member when you see his head get popped off."
Of the three prop severed heads seen on Washington stages this fall, Dinolfo's might be the least realistic, with its bugged-out eyes and mouth open in a perma-scream.
"I think it looks absolutely nothing like me," says Dinolfo. "We had a magic advisor on the show, his name is David London. He told me he looked at over 400 fake heads. I don't think they had it in their budget to create one — it's very expensive."
But even though the head is cartoonishly fake, Synetic goes where none of the other fake heads have gone before — an on-stage severing. They pull this off with a neat magic trick that involves a headless body double hiding behind some scenery. Prop doors in the show stand in for the streetcar, and they're wheeled quickly across the stage. Behind them is company member Shana Greenbaum, the shortest actor in the company. She wears identical clothes to Dinolfo's, except with a built-in headless armature that rises eight inches above her shoulders to cover her own head. When the streetcar hits, Dinolfo hides behind the doors, and Greenbaum, as headless Berlioz, takes his place, with the severed head rolling across the floor.
"It took practice to work out the kinks for it to move and look really smooth," says Dinolfo. "If you misstep or mess up, the entire illusion is ruined. When it works, which it has all the time in performance, it sells."
His isn't the only beheading in the play, either — Richie Pepio, who plays an emcee in a devilish magic show, has his head lopped off by Satan's minions. But through a clever costuming trick, that beheading didn't require a fake — and the minions spare him and bring him back to life.
Dinolfo wishes they could have gotten a more realistic severed head for his character, but the one he thought to borrow from the Shakespeare Theatre was actually already claimed for Joe Palka. Turns out, severed heads are in short supply in the Washington area.
"It's definitely sought-after," he says. "It's such a weird commodity."
After a production of Titus for which the Shakespeare Theatre created a slew of realistic body parts, they're the place to go if you need an arm or a leg or a skull. But it's rare that there would be so many productions that would require a severed head at the same time. Dinolfo doesn't think it's a broader severed head trend, but a funny coincidence.
"I don't think there's a grand scheme going on," says Dinolfo. "I guess October/November is the time to do spooky stuff, and this play is at the tail end of the spooky fall season.... Now that we're sort of going into the holiday season with Christmas lights, it's funny that we're doing this super-intense play."