Ham actor wallows in role in tale of muddy Mississippi


With a shrill squeal of what could pass for the delight of anticipated stardom, a 3-week-old piglet has answered the casting call for a part in Theatre on the Hill's production of "Big River."

Mistersippi, a foot-long Hampshire named for the musical based on life on the Mississippi, left the competition in the mud and won his part hams down.

"Will we have to mike him?" asked the sound engineer.

"No, a pig knows how to project," said producer Ira Domser.

Mistersippi, the male runt of a large litter, left his champion sow and siblings in Upperco last week and moved to the Hankins farm in Hampstead.

Before he could get acquainted with his new stymates, Cleopigtra and Tammy Swinette, he was thrust into the limelight.

"I hardly got to know him," said his 16-year-old owner, Megan Hankins.

In exchange for the use of the pig, the "Big River" crew offered Megan a position as technical adviser and free tickets to opening night.

Megan immediately advised. During the first photo opportunity, Mistersippi, with cornmeal clinging to his snout, refused to smile for the camera.

When an actor grabbed the pig from his bowl, Megan predicted the ensuing brouhaha.

"Pigs don't like meals interrupted," she said.

As the actor held the squiggly black and white bundle, Megan quickly readjusted the grip, but not before Mistersippi made muddy tracks across the actor's chest.

"Don't let his feet dangle," Megan said. "He prefers cuddling to standing on your chest."

In landing his role, Mistersippi made no petulant salary or accommodations demands. A lone silver star identifies his cage backstage. The company provides pig chow, water and conversation.

"He prefers the barnyard," said Megan. "But, he will be OK as long as he has food, water and someone to talk to."

Mistersippi will share the stage and billing with Brian Jacobs, who plays Tom Sawyer in the Tony-winning revival of Mark Twain's tale.

Producer Ira Domser thought a pig would add comic relief to a scene in which Tom Sawyer sings, "How About a Hand for the Hog?" Mistersippi may have a brief walk-on, or he could enlarge his role by stealing the scene.

"The number was not funny by itself," said Mr. Domser. "So, I came up with the animal idea."

The producer's one other experience with an animal act backfired.

A puppy, rescued from the local pound, played Toto to Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." Mr. Domser said there was no chemistry between the stars.

"Toto [wet] on Dorothy every time he took the stage," he said.

Two years later, Mr. Domser said he was willing to try again. But he reserves the right to recast.

"If the pig is too much trouble, we'll cut him," said Mr. Domser.

That may raise the pig's hackles.

"Don't use that word around him," said Ken Hankins, Megan's dad. "It means to castrate him."

Until the show opens the end of this month, Mr. Jacobs will take time out from rehearsals for three shows to bond with the pig.

"He is going from 'Leader of the Pack' to leader of the pig," said Mr. Domser. "Are you bonding yet?"

Mr. Jacobs said he plans to keep the pig at arm's length.

Pigs will learn to walk on a leash, said Megan.

"Hopefully, we can have a friendly professional relationship," said Mr. Jacobs. "As long as he doesn't poop on me, we will get along fine."

If Mistersippi cooperates, Mr. Domser sees other stage opportunities for his porcine ingenue.

"Maybe we could work him into our other shows," he said.

In "The Emperor's New Clothes," another coming attraction at Theatre on the Hill, the lead could have a pet pig. But what could Mistersippi do in a New York City apartment in the theater's production of "Barefoot in the Park?"

"We may have to keep his weight down a little, too," said the producer.

Mistersippi weighs about 5 pounds now, but will grow to a half-ton -- about the size of a Volkswagen, said Mr. Hankins.

The piglet won't expand that much in the next three weeks; runts don't grow as fast as bigger pigs. This little piggy should stay spry while he runs the show.

But how will the Hankins family keep him down on the farm, after he has seen the stage lights in Westminster?

"The taste of stardom won't change him," said Mr. Hankins. "He'll fit right in at our place. We have a bunch of other hams."

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