It’s hairy playing the Beast in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”
Mika Duncan, the Beast in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s current production, has a hectic schedule even when only one performance is scheduled.
Duncan applies his own makeup two hours before each show, which runs 2 hours and 40 minutes. On days when there is a matinee performance as well, Duncan is makeup-free for only about 10 minutes between shows. He’s locked in, in more ways than one, as the Beast. “Two shows a day are a big deal,” he says. “It can be 10 or 11 hours nonstop.”
Who could blame him if he acted the part of beast when food comes around to the rest of the cast before the evening show? Duncan must take his nourishment through a straw. “I can’t chew when the prosthetics are in place,” he said.
“He never sits down,” says co-star Holly O’Brien, who acts the role of Belle.
Yet the 27-year-old Duncan looked far from beastly during a recent afternoon interview several hours before curtain. In his first Rep appearance, the Vermont native talked about the well-received Rep production of the classic fairy tale given a Disney twist.
Duncan had never performed in or seen the stage version of “Beauty and the Beast,” but learned through his Los Angeles agent of the Rep’s New York casting audition.
“Several colleagues had worked here before and I’ve been to the Jean Cocteau Rep in New York, where Bob [Hupp, the Rep’s producing artistic director] came from,” Duncan said. So he tried out.
But the music Duncan was expecting to get for his audition ended up going to Los Angeles, and 90 minutes before his audition was to begin he still hadn’t seen a note of “Beauty” music. So, he hit a popular Times Square music store, Colony Music, learned his songs quickly, then ran to the Equity Building in time to meet the Rep’s Brad Mooy, the musical’s director. (O’Brien was chosen for Belle based on a DVD she submitted to the Rep people.)
The Rep’s Rafael Castanera gave him an early lesson in how to carry off the physical part of his ferocious Beast.
“It was an evolving process. I made a cast of my face and FedExed it to them here and they made the prosthetics. The casts they made for me are glued on. Rafael showed me how to put them on and then left me to figure it out,” Duncan said. “I love to do it but there are some times that it’s uncomfortable, with the large amount of glue and grease needed.”
O’Brien, 26, an Oregon native who worked her way east and settled in New York after college in Connecticut, is playing Belle for the third time.
“I’ve been in New York for three years, and I’m still playing younger roles,” O’Brien noted, cast as Cinderella, Louisa in “The Fantasticks” and Liesl in “The Sound of Music.” She starred off-Broadway in “Love for Judy,” where she played a 14-year-old orphan.
“I also play the dumb blondes and Marilyn Monroe types,” O’Brien said. She dyed her brown hair blonde for a year after Martin Charnin chose her for the role of Goldie in a workshop of Charnin and the late Richard Rodgers’ “Two by Two,” which is being revived for Broadway.
O’Brien followed an older sister into dance classes at age 3. “From there, I just never got out of acting, just never quit doing plays” in school and community theater, she said. She’s traveled to such towns as Crossville, Tenn., and Bangor, Maine, where she taught children’s acting classes and directed some high school musicals during the time she acted in “The Fantasticks.”
“I’m trying to build up my resume, meet as many people as I can and network and take work wherever I can get it,” she said. “I enjoy regional work best. Regional theater is more collaborative and there is more community involvement. On Broadway, it seems like everybody there is only trying to make money.”
Duncan concurs. “The collaborative feeling is alive and well in regional theater now more than New York,” he said.
Duncan grew up in a family of masons and as far from musical theater as possible. He sang in a boys’ choir in sixth grade and acted in community theater in high school before going to Ithaca College in upstate New York for its forestry program. Theater and its disciplines won out over trees, he said.
His national tour work includes “Trumbo,” a two-man play directed by Peter Askin that included rotating celebrity actors Brian Dennehy and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd’s “an actor’s actor,” Duncan said, “nothing like what you think of him from ‘Back to the Future.’ ”
He also was the “Trumbo” understudy on Broadway. Duncan performed off-Broadway in “Blues for Mister Charlie.” Other credits in a short career that has featured “a lot of experimental stuff,” he said, include a musical based on “Sarah Plain and Tall,” “True West,” “The Fantasticks,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Charley’s Aunt.” His TV credits include daytime soaps “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.”
In the Rep’s production, Duncan and O’Brien are joined by Leslie Becker as Mrs. Potts — she gets the musical’s highlight song, “Beauty and the Beast” — and Jonathan “Goose” Burgard, who has drawn raves from audiences for his Gaston. Becker and Burgard also are making their Rep debuts.
The unsung star, though, may be Castanera and the 90 costumes he designed under Disney’s specifications.
“The costumes are Broadway quality,” O’Brien said. “My family said it’s the most amazing regional production they’ve seen me in.”
O’Brien adds, “The kids don’t seem to distinguish reality from what they’re watching. At the stage door, even if I’m in my jeans and out of costume, they are calling me Belle.”
“There are a lot of highlights for me in the show. A powerful part is when Belle gives up her freedom for her father so he can live. It’s a huge testament for family. And in the beginning, Belle is a princess and all about princess things but realizes that it’s what’s inside that counts. It’s a timeless message.”
Duncan said his favorite moment is “listening to [O’Brien] sing ‘A Change in Me.’”
“Awwww, that’s sweet,” a surprised O’Brien says. Just like Belle might say to her Beast.