Actor Tony Vierling could not have chosen a worse day to ignore the Guthrie Theater’s wardrobe guidance. The veteran Twin Cities dancer and singer was playing a buccaneer and policeman in the ensemble of 2004’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” a dance-heavy, physically demanding production.
“For modesty and protection, they gave us these dance belts, which are like G-strings, and some black biker shorts to wear over them,” Vierling recalled. “But the shorts were kind of uncomfortable.”
For one performance, he went partly commando. As he executed an acrobatic number in the show, rolling over on his back and throwing his legs in the air in a split, Vierling and everyone else heard a loud RRRRIP!
“My costume completely split — the whole crotch gone,” Vierling recalled. “My entire white rear end made its Guthrie debut.”
The costume catastrophe occurred at the top of the first act, so Vierling had to keep going, even if it got a little breezy down there.
“In the thrust [stage], there are people on three sides of the stage, so I tried to keep my back to the fourth side, but I was completely exposed,” said Vierling, also a regular at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. “There was a lot of giggling that particular performance as about eight boys danced along in navy blue and one with this shiny rear end that showed every time.”
Singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake arguably were involved in the most famous wardrobe malfunction of all time during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Timberlake peeled off Jackson’s costume, exposing a shielded nipple to a live audience of tens of millions.
Costume mishaps happen in the theater frequently. Wigs and petticoats fall off during a dance. Mustaches and beards slide off faces while people are talking. And zippers regularly get caught in fabric. Besides, a pregnancy belly may fall out of place or an ingénue might unwittingly walk out of her dress. The question is: What does a performer do when she or he has a costume fail?
In real life, when something goes awry with clothes, people cope with the malfunction in three ways, said Faye Price, producing artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre. They get deeply embarrassed and start to panic. They pretend something didn’t happen and play it off. Or they acknowledge what has transpired and deal with it.
“In theater, the audience can’t unsee what they’ve just seen, so you can’t pretend that it didn’t happen — it did,” said Price, also an actor who has experienced a costume malfunction. “So, you have to use it.”
Use it, baby
Hugh Kennedy certainly did. Kennedy was playing a suitor in 2013’s “Pride and Prejudice,” also at the Guthrie, when his opportunity, er, mishap happened during a Sunday performance, the last of an eight-show week.
“It was my big ... final scene in the show, when all the couples propose,” Kennedy said.
Christine Weber, Kennedy’s scene partner, recalls it vividly.
“I had my back to the audience — to him — and as he goes down on his knee, I was supposed to turn,” Weber said. “Everything was timed for us to hit at the same time. As I turned, I just heard this huge rip.”
While Weber didn’t quite know what had happened, she knew something was amiss because of the rictus of panic on Kennedy’s face. When her eyes drifted lower, Weber got an unwitting, polka-dot eyeful. Kennedy’s pants had split from stem to stern.
“The next thing we know is that he takes off his top hat and holds it down there for the whole scene,” Weber said. “The audience starts cracking up. I start cracking up and he starts laughing.”
Onstage, actors have no place to hide.
“We live in a realm where if you try to pretend you didn’t make a mistake, it makes everything worse,” Weber said. “It hinders the ability to move forward if you don’t acknowledge the fact that something ridiculous has happened. Then there’s that other thing where if you laugh at yourself first, it’s not so bad when others laugh at you.”
How Kennedy handled that incident can be likened to the stages of grief for theater artists. He went from shock and embarrassment to reveling in the moment.
“At first, I didn’t know what to do — nothing had ever gone that badly for me before,” Kennedy said. “But then I wondered, what would my favorite actors do? Mark Rylance [the Tony and Oscar winner] had a quote that said something like, ‘Why get one laugh when you can get 10?’ It was on the thrust stage, which means only half the audience saw what happened. So, I had to give them the Guthrie turn.”
That would be walking up the set and circling back so that everyone saw it. It was a victory lap.
If the Kennedy and Vierling costume fails gave audiences an impromptu taste of burlesque, what happened to David Anthony Brinkley at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in 1992 put them in the mind of a horror show, albeit a humorous one.
Brinkley, who was playing Capt. Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” had a quick costume change before he was to hold forth in the big wedding scene. But, he admits, “I didn’t check myself before entering the scene and all of the nuns that were stationed behind Maria and I were audibly giggling.”
There was a clothes hanger sticking out of the back of his dark blue coat, making him look like a escapee from “Friday the 13th.”
“Once offstage, I asked one of them what was so funny,” Brinkley said. “She reached behind me and pulled a white hanger from the tail of my coat.”
He was the last to know.
From burlesque and horror to flashing
Sometimes a theater can be the scene of an unexpected streaker or flasher.
Leslie Gatterdam Brown was playing a lamppost-leaning call girl in “Me and My Girl” out at Chanhassen in 1991 when her scene partner, a replacement actor newly brought into the long-running show, missed a cue.
“He was supposed to go offstage and come right back but never did,” Brown said. “The scene starts, and the first line is from me to him. But he’s not there. The music dies. The people milling about the scene leave. The stage is empty, dead quiet. I run all the way back, whisper-yelling, ‘Where’s Paul Boesing?’ ”
The alarmed, frightened actor runs out in a trench coat. He had been changing. He does the scene, no clothes under his coat.
“This kind of stuff puts everybody into a kind of frenzied joy almost,” Brown said.
Sometimes the costume mishap is not an accident at all. Actors often play pranks on each other, especially during shows with longer runs. In “The Sound of Music,” the two men playing Nazi guards put in Dracula teeth, unbeknownst to Molly Sue McDonald, who played Maria.
“It was during a very scary scene, with Maria trying to get away from the Nazis, and as I turned to leave, the guards ever so slightly smiled with their vampire teeth,” McDonald said. “It took everything for me to not crack up.”
Elizabeth Desotelle recalls that she’s been onstage with ripped dresses, and, mercifully, she’s had a dance partner each time to help her keep it together by holding the back of her dress closed.
“You just keep dancing, even if you’re losing your clothes,” said Desotelle, who played Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street” at Chanhassen, once in 1988 and the other time in 1995. “And you smile, smile, smile, and hope they’re looking at your face!”
In both versions of “42nd Street,” she was stalked by a bra. In the first, she had a quick change into a ballgown.
“I come out with my partner in a tuxedo displaying me to the audience,” Desotelle said. “I glance down and there’s a bra hanging on the front of my dress for all to see.”
In the second snafu, a bra was attached to the hem of her dress.
“That fricking bra,” Desotelle said. “Things rip and fall and you figure out how to keep shuffling along. You hope that you never quite get as naked as Tony [Vierling] was.”