By Liz Nicholls@12thnight.ca
The hero of Going, Going, Gone! Jana O’Connor’s new 30s-style screwball comedy, is an antiques dealer: “shy, uptight, uncommitted, afraid to make a wrong move in life” as the amused playwright describes him.
Everything, in short, that his creator is not.
There is something pure screwball — a zest for spontaneity? a delight in surprising turns? — in the escalating logic of the comedy career that’s brought O’Connor to the premiere of her first full-length mainstage comedy.
This is happening at Teatro La Quindicina. Of course. It only makes sense. If you had an original ‘30s screwball comedy burning a hole in your pocket, as O’Connor did — first a scene about a suitcase mix-up, then a first act in which the hero’s pursuit of vintage candlesticks begins to unravel his life — really, where else would you take it? Teatro, after all, is the natural home for comedy of every shade and degree of intricacy. And O’Connor and Teatro go back; their history together has a screwball vein running through it.
The actor/ improviser/ playwright made time for chai last week between comedy genres, so to speak. Her day had already included TV: she’d been holed up writing sketch comedy with the all-star team that creates and stars in APTN’s Caution: May Contain Nuts.
In the evening it would move on to radio. CBC Radio’s The Irrelevant Show, the sketch comedy hit for which O’Connor writes and performs, would be on the Maclab stage with a best-of show, as headliners in Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza comedy festival.
“This time last year, I’d been thinking ‘what’s my dream next step?” grins O’Connor. “Yup, writing for TV. Visual jokes! Finally!” She’d already gotten a gig “punching up jokes” in Caution: May Contain Nuts scripts, a specialized branch of dramaturgy she’s dubbed “com-iturgy.”
O’Connor’s TV debut as a performer? A Caution: May Contain Nuts sketch in which she was a mom in an Old West town, offering orange slices to kids who are having a fight,” she says. Dana Andersen, directing that episode, was so amused that Orange Slice Mom turned into a recurring part on the spot.
So the brave new world of TV writing, with its hidden portals and secret passwords, has opened at last. “I didn’t see it coming! I’m so thankful for it!” beams O’Connor, who retains an appealing wide-eyed appreciation for mentorship. “It’s so different from radio or theatre…. The stage directions don’t tell the actors what to do!”
“Finally I’m at a place in my career where I have confidence to come into a new field and not feel like I can’t handle it,” she says cheerfully.
There’s an appealing spirit of improvisation and free-association about O’Connor; she embraces turns in conversation with delight: “interesting you should say that!…” It seems to apply to her own arrival in showbiz, which has a certain hilarity all its own.
As is the case with so many theatre artists in this town, first came improv at Rapid Fire. Then came The 11:02 Show, where Teatro’s Stewart Lemoine and Jeff Haslam took a turn directing and spotted her unusual comic talent. That’s where The Irrelevant Show creator Peter Brown saw her. And that’s where she met her future husband actor/playwright Chris Bullough. “The Varscona,” she declares emphatically, “is where EVERYTHING happened for me.”
Back to Bullough. “It was a scene about a baker. My character has feelings for him, and I was being dramatic, pretending to rip my shirt open to show my heart.” She’d forgotten her shirt had snaps instead of buttons and it flew open, much to her moritification. “Everyone in the theatre saw; the only one who didn’t was Chris! He had his back to me, downstage.”
Originally there was a whimsical stab at standard employment. “Did I tell you about my little foray in ‘visual communication’? Yes, I took window display at MacEwan, and worked in retail.” She does one of those silent “I know, eh” eye rolls, amused by the memory of those tableaux vivants. Her first job, at Tip Top Tailors, came with so many instructions from head office that she quit on the spot.
Then, as she explains, O’Connor got a job — at the place she went to for advice about getting a job: when does that happen? At the Youth Employment Centre O’Connor and Mark Meer, who’d met just out of high school whilst improvising, developed a two-hander about career-planning; it had a game show concept. And they took Game Show on the road to questing youth across the province. O’Connor smiles. “It reinforced the idea that there is no path, it’s a meandering sum of all of you.”
She has fond memories, though, of road trips through Alberta with the laid-back amiable Meer, “listening to music, riffing on Simpsons references.”
O’Connor’s MainStage Teatro debut was in the 2008 Stewart Lemoine screwball A Rocky Night For His Nibs, in which she played the perky mistress of a University of Calgary prof arriving at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton, AB. for a dirty weekend. Meer played a cab driver.
“Everything significant and important in my career, Mark has been part of,” grins O’Connor. It is only right and proper that he would be in the cast of her new screwball comedy. In Going, Going, Gone!, fresh from the title role in Teatro’s revival of The Salon of the Talking Turk, he is Other Man — an eight-character assignment that includes a bellhop, a train porter on the Boston/New York line, a father, a lover of the hero’s mother, a gardener and (as the press release says mysteriously) “the world’s smallest auctioneer.”
In the O’Connor archive are short plays. Fringe audiences in 2013 saw her Lonely Hearts, a startling anatomy of a serial killer. Before that, with her Panties Production pals, she wrote a Jane Austen spoof called Nonsense and Insensibility. For Concrete Theatre, Early Bloomer, O’Connor’s charmer of a play for kids about being a misfit, has been touring again.
Encouragement and support from the Teatro gang has threaded its way through all of it, she says. And the premiere production of Going, Going, Gone!, directed by Dave Horak of Edmonton Actors Theatre, has been assembled in a way she calls (with exclamation mark) “deluxe!”
For the character “Drew was always the voice in my head,” O’Connor says of “the wonderful comedic leading man” Andrew MacDonald-Smith. Fresh from a double-city run of the Citadel’s Crazy For You, he stars as Grant Carlyle, the increasingly beleaguered antiques dealer, opposite his own life partner Rachel Bowron. She’s the blithe adventurer, “carefree and bold,” who introduces havoc into his well-ordered life, and “they find themselves increasingly tied together, having to invent lies. It unlocks something in both of them…. In a way it’s two people who have found the right person to improvise together! I told Chris yesterday ‘I think I’ve written a play that is a tribute to … us!’”
Is Going, Going, Gone! a Teatro show? “I hope so!” says O’Connor, who’s been in an assortment of Lemoine comedies since Rocky Night. “Stewart has an amazing way with language, and dialogue. Everything wonderful comes from that!”
Com-iturgical skills, incidentally, might be hereditary. Six-year-old daughter Olive came to a live taping of The Irrelevant Show in April. At a particularly hilarious moment, Olive turned to the producer, and explained helpfully “It’s funny because….” With reasons. Olive’s 18-month-old baby brother Gus seems to have the comedy gene too, since he instinctively knows to laugh at a punch line.
“Having that ability to laugh at yourself, and know the world can be so ridiculous…. It’s stood me in good stead.”
Going, Going, Gone!
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Jana O’Connor
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Rachel Bowron, Celina Dean, Davina Stewart, Mark Meer
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through July 1
Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com