Meet Melissa Veal, wig maker at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

On the shelves beneath The Wig were even creepier objects, canvas heads filled with cotton and cork, resembling punching bags. Maloo explained they were blocks, used for shaping a wig to an actor's head. Each block is a mold (first step, wrap the actor's head in plastic), and most of her blocks are the molds of Chicago actors' heads.

Who has a bad head, I asked.

"Every head is good," she said.

But, really, whose head stinks?

"Nobody! But there are people, I shake their hand and the whole time I am sizing up their head. Taylor Travis, who was Lord Farquaad (in "Shrek The Musical") and Beast (in "Beauty and the Beast") here, has a big head. Michael Shannon: Never worked with him, but I will see him and think 'My God, that man is size 26!'"

On the other side of the room was Miguel Perez, Maloo's apprentice for the theater season. He was carefully threading hair through a block. "How's it going, Miguel?" Maloo asked, and Miguel said: "I'm really … excited about it?"

Maloo smiled broadly. Good enough. She is very polite and Canadian and patient. She sat behind her desk and gestured for me to drag over the barber's chair that sat in front of a theatrical mirror studded with makeup-friendly lighting (Maloo does makeup too). "My story is this," she said, "I grew up in Ontario. In the white bean capital of Canada. A small town. I didn't know anything about wigs, didn't know anything about theater. But I have always been a hair person and I had an aunt who was a hairdresser." Also, a close relative (she asked that I not say who), has alopecia, "which subconsciously probably has something to do with what I do."

At the National Arts Center in Ottawa (where she acquired her nickname from an actor, though she has never entirely understood what it meant), she met a wig-maker who later left for the vast and acclaimed Stratford Festival, where she offered Maloo an apprenticeship. Maloo spent the next 10 years at Stratford, coming to Chicago when a Stratford production of "School for Scoundrels" played at Chicago Shakespeare.

She returned for another show. Then another.

In 2003, after years of commuting between Stratford and Chicago, she became Navy Pier's go-to theatrical wig-maker. "My first show was 'Julius Caesar,' so mostly male wigs, and a lot of blood. There was blood everywhere. The wigs would be a mess. And that was the idea! Did you see our (2009 production of) 'Twelfth Night,' which used a swimming pool for the set? As everyone fell in love, they would fall in, and people asked me if this made me sad, but no, the wigs were made for water. In fact, the show originally wanted this actor to fall in and have his wig come off and float around. They were like, 'At some point, we want him to be able to put the (wet) wig back on too.' So, yea … But, yea! You can't buy a floating wig. I love the MacGyvery part of this job! I got this foam that kids play with and made a toupee using it, and the toupee was light but would not show any secrets if it flipped in the pool. Next time we met about the play, they didn't want it, but I had done it: I floated a toupee for five hours. Just to be safe! Nobody needs a toupee to float for five hours."

The point being, wig-making, like life, is about learning.

And cataloging.

"Do you want to see the big book of mustaches?" she asked.

Above plastic containers holding many of the company's wigs were a handful of black photo albums. She pulled one down and flipped pages: Held beneath sheets of plastic were so many clumps of hair, in so many varieties — red, blond, black, thin, thick, curly, burly, drooping — the book could provide nightmares.

"We have a good facial hair stock," she said, replacing the book with an even thicker volume holding beards, goatees and sideburns: "I love this piece. We used this in 'Aladdin.' Here are 'Shrek's' eyebrows. We don't get to do eyebrows too often. Some pieces of hair in here, by the end of a show's run, look truly disgusting."

She put the book away.

She had to get back to work. The next morning, a few members of the cast of "Midsummer Night" would be shooting a theater-in-the-park promo commercial with Mayor Rahm Emanuel; she would put the wigs on the actors herself, imploring Puck (Steve Lee Johnson) to go easy on eyeliner ("Nobody wants to look like a two-bit whore"), promising Titania she would improvise something out of "feathers, bits and bobs" since the actress (Lanise Antoine Shelley) had changed her hair and the Titania wig would be a tricky fit for a one-off. Indeed, the day before — the morning I visited — Maloo anticipated that Shelley had changed her hair. She ran about her wig shop gathering up strands of white hair, black frilly puffs and a crown ornamented with a fake bird skull, anything that could be hastily arranged into a fanciful, elaborate headdress.

"Miguel," she said.

"Yes," he said.

She held the array of hair pieces like a demented bouquet in her hand, considering its quality. Perez was threading hair. She crouched down and held long white strands beneath his ears. As if a modeling gene had kicked in, Perez stopped what he was doing and looked in the mirror ahead of him. The new hair gave him the vague look of a guitarist from a 1980s hair band.

"I've seen people who look like this," he said.

"In my hometown, it's called hockey hair," she said, looking at him, quickly removing the strands and shivering again. "It feels sacrilegious to put these on someone else! OK? Enough of that, Miguel! Moving on!"

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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