Performing Arts


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a homicide trial is retold in a five-movement ballad. But first, in "Antony and Cleopatra," the queen of Egypt decides to end her life with the bite of an asp. There's an extra bit of drama in the production of Shakespeare's tragedy that's now running at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. The part of the snake is played by a real snake.

I'm joined in the studio now by Dani Rose, a stagehand who is also the snake wrangler, and the stars of the play, the snakes. We have two of the ball pythons who play the role of the deadly asp. Dani, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. DANI ROSE (Stagehand, Shakespeare Theater Company, Washington, D.C.): Thank you.

SIMON: And to spill a little bit of the drama, because we've met these snakes a few minutes ago, they're in our hands as we're speaking and they're absolutely adorable and affectionate. I mean, I'm getting little snake kisses from Cassini, right?

Ms. ROSE: Yes.

SIMON: So how do you train them to act like deathly killers on stage?

Ms. ROSE: Well, one of the first things we had to do is get them used to people grabbing them out of the tank and letting them crawl through hands, as opposed to through branches or long grass, which is what's their instinct. So once we did that, we basically just rehearsed the action that they need to do for the show. We rehearsed over and over and rewarded them with affection and love and attention and disciplined them with just more work, which they don't necessarily like to do.

SIMON: Well, they are snakes.

Ms. ROSE: Yeah. The other thing we had to do was train them with the light a little bit so they would be responsive to the stage lighting. They're normally nocturnal and therefore active when it's dark, and we had to teach them not to hide from the light but to show off in the light.

SIMON: Now, it's much more common to have like a rubber snake, like a joke-shop thing.

Ms. ROSE: Yeah. There's a rubber snake, too. But Suzanne Bertish, the woman who plays Cleopatra, really wanted to establish the danger and the fear of working with a live animal. I think it's actually really effective. We get a lot of gasps and cries from the audience when they come out.

SIMON: The snakes are about 20 inches long. Did you have casting call audition?

Ms. ROSE: Actually, Motimer is now almost about 24 and a half inches long. When we got them, they were only about 17 or 18 inches long, so they've done a lot of growing with us. But the props department went to a showing for a Maryland reptile farm, and these seemed to be the most responsive to human contact and the cutest, probably, so they were chosen.

SIMON: What's the life expectancy of these guys?

Ms. ROSE: They can live from 20 to 40 years. They're going to be old, that's why I say they're just babies now. They're not even a year old.

SIMON: And how big might they get?

Ms. ROSE: Usually their species only gets to about four feet. Every once in a while you hear of a captive snake getting to about six feet, but four feet is usually their normal, and our dear Motimer is already halfway.

SIMON: How do you decide which snake is going to get his or her star turn?

Ms. ROSE: Well, they have to rotate based on their feeding schedule, if one of them is shedding. Sometimes they have moody days. Sometimes they have lazy days.

SIMON: Well, they're stars. They're people in the theater.

Ms. ROSE: Right, just like any other actor. And Suzanne and I have a conversation because we keep the snakes in the wig room. When Suzanne comes to get her wig on...

SIMON: Suzanne is Cleopatra?

Ms. ROSE: Yes. She'll ask me how they're doing and how they're behaving and if the rehearsals in the morning went well. And if one of them did a great job for her the night before, she'll always want them again the next day.

SIMON: Do you think the snakes like the attention?

Ms. ROSE: Absolutely. I think they love it.

SIMON: Well, so what's going to happen when the show run ends?

Ms. ROSE: There's actually people who've offered to adopt them, people that have worked on the show and have met them and worked with the snakes.

SIMON: So they don't go back to some swamp where they are just expected to be snakes.

Ms. ROSE: No way. I don't think we'd ever let that happen. They're family now.

SIMON: And look, they've got "Antony and Cleopatra" in their resume at this point, right?

Ms. ROSE: Yes, exactly. They're star snakes. We need to keep them around. I'll get them an agent.

SIMON: Well, Dani Rose, nice to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Ms. ROSE: Thank you. Thanks so much.

SIMON: And Cassini and Motimer, nice to have you. Oh, here we go. Nice to have you here.

Ms. ROSE: They really like to coil around all of this equipment.

SIMON: They want to meet Dan Schorr. I understand that would be a big moment for them.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: That was Dani Rose, snake handler at the Shakespeare Theater Company of Washington, D.C., and the company star snakes, Motimer and Cassini. You can see pictures of the performing pythons and a video of Dani showing me how to handle the snakes...

(Soundbite of slapping)

SIMON: On - what's that on my neck? On our web site,

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