Clothes make the man — or, woman — for this Jewish actor
When David Abeles dons the costume, the hair and the make-up of Agatha Trunchbull, a metamorphosis occurs.
That’s when Abeles transforms from redheaded Jewish actor to the enormously breasted, muscular villainess “the Trunchbull” in “Matilda the Musical.”
The Tony Award-winning show is currently being staged at the Benedum Center as part of the Pittsburgh CLO 2016 Summer Season and PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh 2015-16 Series, and runs through June 12.
This is the first national tour of “Matilda,” which is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel of the same name. The story is centered on Matilda, a young child with telekinetic powers who loves to read but who is despised by her feckless parents. She is also despised by Trunchbull, the headmistress of the school to which Matilda is sent, who hates all the other children as well.
“It’s a delicious role,” said Abeles. “It’s a gift of a part, and I have so much fun doing it.”
That fun is apparent. Abeles’ Trunchbull — a former hammer-throwing Olympic champion — is over the top and hysterically mean, punishing children for mild infractions by locking them in Chokey, a dark cupboard filled with glass shards and nails, and spinning around a little girl by her pigtails, then throwing her across a field.
This is the first time Abeles has played a woman — albeit a pretty masculine woman — and finds the challenge “an amazing experience.”
“The minute I get into all that costume, make-up and hair, a weird physicality comes out of that,” he said. “Things that are not me. I love doing roles like that, roles that are so much informed by the costume and design elements and where I can disappear into the character.”
Abeles also had to learn how to navigate the character’s trademark gigantic breasts. During one particular number, where Trunchbull is “daintily” performing a ribbon dance, Abeles had to learn to hold the ribbon a little farther away from his body.
“They are not as heavy as they look,” he said. “But they are a little bit of an obstacle.”
Abeles was born in New York but grew up in northern California, attending a school where he was one of only a handful of Jewish kids. Still, Judaism was an important aspect to his family’s identity, he said. His sister, who is an opera singer, married an Israeli, and Abeles has spent time in the Jewish state.
He is particularly proud of the contributions that Jews have made to the theater arts as songwriters and Broadway personalities.
“Especially considering we are such a small percentage of the population, we have contributed so much,” Abeles said, adding that through his stage performances, he also “hopes to contribute in a meaningful way.”
Abeles has performed on Broadway in “Once,” as well as “Million Dollar Quartet.” He has also performed in many shows off-Broadway, and in the national tour of “My Fair Lady” as an understudy for the role of Henry Higgins.
In fact, it was “My Fair Lady” which last brought him to Pittsburgh in 2007, although he never made it on stage.
“The actor who was playing Henry Higgins never missed a performance in six months of performing that show,” Abeles said.
Abeles concluded his turn as Trunchbull on Sunday and is headed back to New York to spend time with his wife, but he thoroughly enjoyed his time on the Benedum stage.
“Pittsburgh audiences are fantastic,” he said. “I know that sounds like a line, but they really are.”
The role of Trunchbull is now in the hands of Dan Chameroy, a two-time Canadian Screen Award nominee.
“Matilda the Musical” is directed by Tony Award winner Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage”), with book by playwright Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australian comedian, musician and composer Tim Minchin.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.