Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg's web-slinger

Gregory Marrast hasn't been bitten by a radioactive spider, but he'll save a kid's day anyway

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Gregory Marrast has been dressing up as Spiderman, Iron Man, Optimus Prime and Elmo for four years - for parties, summer festivals, the Ex, you name it.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Gregory Marrast has been dressing up as Spiderman, Iron Man, Optimus Prime and Elmo for four years - for parties, summer festivals, the Ex, you name it. Photo Store

So much for that friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man rigmarole; last year, a person posing as the Marvel Universe icon was arrested for slugging a woman in New York City's Times Square.

The fellow allegedly became upset after he posed for a photograph with the woman's two children and she neglected to tip him afterwards. But because the renowned, Manhattan intersection is home to myriad masked men looking to make a few bucks off of tourists, the victim and her revenge-seeking husband had difficulty determining which Spidey, exactly, was the culprit.

After confronting a few different spider-men, the couple was finally able to identify the perpetrator, at which point they began attacking him with their knapsacks. Eventually, police arrived and escorted the guilty party off to the hoosegow before the pair could inflict further damage.

Meanwhile, back in Winnipeg, Gregory Marrast, a University of Winnipeg theatre-school grad who performs as Spider-Man at birthday celebrations, summer festivals and comic conventions says violence should never be the answer to life's setbacks.

A few months ago, Marrast was hired for a children's birthday party. After Marrast introduced himself to the kids in attendance, the dozen or so five-year-olds decided it would be more fun to beat up an arachnid than pin the tail on a donkey.

Marrast put a halt to the fisticuffs by declaring, "I'm not here to fight; that's not what super-heroes do. Super-heroes protect people and the only fighting we do is if there's a bad guy around. But I don't see any bad guys here today, right?"

"Right," the kids replied sheepishly.

"This is a birthday party," Marrast continued. "So let's stop the fighting, blow out some candles and have fun."

Thirty minutes after Marrast is scheduled to meet a newspaper scribe at a Graham Avenue coffee shop, the 24-year-old comes rushing into the room, out of breath and spewing apologies. Know how Peter Parker's days at the Daily Bugle often get the best of him? Same thing with Marrast, who, in his "real life," sells footwear at Payless ShoeSource in Portage Place.

"I' m so sorry I'm late," he says again, removing his jean jacket, which -- natch -- has an image of Spider-Man embroidered on the back. "I had to close the store tonight and for whatever reason, I couldn't get the lock on the safe to shut. It took me like, forever."

Such are the travails facing a person who bills himself professionally as the Winnipeg Webslinger.

Four years ago, Marrast contacted an entertainment bureau that was looking to hire a Michael Jackson impersonator. (Silly reporters; when we ask Marrast if he can carry a tune, he breathily breaks into the first few lines of Billie Jean, causing people three tables over to turn and listen and a female barista to stop grinding coffee beans so she can eavesdrop, too.)

"But one of the other things they were looking for was somebody to perform as Spider-Man," Marrast continues, after the applause has died down. "And because I had the right physique, they asked if I was interested in doing that, too."

The thing is, even Avengers have to foot the bills. So after two years of getting paid $30 for a few hours' work while his employers were charging customers in the neighbourhood of $300 for Marrast's efforts, the Sisler High School alumnus decided to strike out on his own.

From the get-go, Marrast thought the costume his parent company provided was "cheesy." So 10 minutes after handing in his walking papers, he went online and found a get-up almost identical to the suit worn by actor Andrew Garfield in the Spider-Man franchise's latest reboot.

Once his new guise arrived in the mail, Marrast took it to Rosales Alterations on Portage Avenue, where he asked the woman behind the counter to tailor it to fit his 6-1, 167-pound frame. ("I work out four or five times a week," Marrast says. "Spider-Man still has that six-pack going on.")

The next thing Marrast did was establish his own company, which he dubbed Higher Function Productions. He has since added Iron Man, Optimus Prime and Sesame Street's Elmo to his cast of characters.

"In total, I've probably spent between $1,500 and $2,000 on my costumes. I launder them all myself; I have to turn each one inside-out, put it in a pillow case and wash it in cold water. Then I air-dry them so they don't lose their colour."

Last fall, Vickie Shepit hired Marrast-as-Spider-Man for her daughter Karaleigh's fourth birthday party. She first met the impressionist at the Palomino Club, where he was performing as the King of Pop.

"My nephew had an Iron Man-themed party for his birthday two months prior to Karaleigh's, so my daughter was adamant that Spider-Man come to her party," Shepit says. "Greg came to the rescue: he was amazing with the kids and the adults as well. He mingled beforehand at McDonald's, wherethe party was being held, to get afeel for the guests. Then he slipped away and changed into his costume.

"When it came time for Spidey to join the party, he engaged the kids by getting them to do superhero exercises and poses. He also took tons of pictures with the kids."

In June, Marrast will make his Red River Exhibition debut. He is not sure what the powers-that-be expect from him yet; all he's been told thus far is he'll wander the grounds and pose for photos with whoever he runs into along the way.

Marrast says his theatre training helps him stay in character when kids ask him questions like who his his toughest, all-time opponent was -- "Easy, Venom" -- or what it feels like to be bitten by a spider.

"I tell them in Winnipeg, I'm more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes."

When it comes to love interests, a la Mary Jane Watson versus Gwen Stacy, Marrast doesn't hesitate.

"I love Emma Stone. She is a total cutie," he says. (Poor Marrast; after he is grilled about personal paramours, he admits, "Spider-Man's girlfriend dumped him two days ago. Apparently he's too good for her -- that they're two different people. That 'it's not you, it's me.' ")

And as for that whole, with-great-responsibility-comes-great-power maxim, Marrast has a ready response.

"I might not be Spider-Man for real, and I might not have any great powers of my own. But you can't convince me that with no power comes no responsibility," says Marrast, adding he recently auditioned for a web series. (Uh, we'll write the web jokes around here, thank you very much.)

"Everybody still has a responsibility to be a good citizen -- to make a difference when they see an opportunity where a difference can be made. When I'm at work selling shoes and I see a kid who's crying or misbehaving, I say, 'Hey bud, let's calm down a little bit.' Then I wink and hand him a Spider-Man sticker and say, 'Maybe this will tide you over till your parents are finished shopping.'

"Hopefully I've made a little bit of difference in his life, even when I'm out of costume. I know how much Spider-Man means to kids when I'm playing that role, so I always try to be a small representation of that, even when I'm just plain, old Gregory."

For more information, go to www.facebook.com/HigherFunction.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 D11

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