By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There will be a moment this evening when an actor who has spent a great deal of time in her career providing perfectly vintage handbags to the casts of period comedies will get the ultimate pay-off.
Leona Brausen will deliver the immortal exclamation “A handbag?!” from the stage — and get the laughs that invariably go with it.
The play is Oscar Wilde’s high-Victorian comic masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest. And Brausen, the long-time Teatro La Quindicina star, muse, and costume designer, will be playing the redoubtable Lady Bracknell, adamantine repository of social proprieties. “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it has handles or not,. seems too me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”
In Teatro’s summer season, the eight-actor production directed by artistic director Jeff Haslam replaces Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, a switch inspired by the sudden unavailability of North American rights for the Simon canon. And by an uncanny (and in itself hilarious) alignment of stars, the cast of the American comedy classic has been re-purposed for Wilde: the Oscar and Felix, Mark Meer and Ron Pederson, are Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff; the Pigeon sisters, Louise Lambert and Shannon Blanchet, are Gwendolyn and Cecily.
But you can’t possibly consider doing The Importance of Being Earnest without real stage presence in its implacable centre of gravity. And in recent years, Brausen, who’s been part of the Teatro ensemble since its very birth at the 1982 Fringe, has been onstage less (with the exception of comic improv) and backstage (designing costumes) more. She had to be cajoled, she admits, with her usual breezy, self-deprecating good nature. “I’ve never read it; I’ve never seen it,” declares Brausen, from whom actor jargon or theatrical pretension of any kind have never been heard. “Jeff told me Lady Bracknell had hardly any lines…. He lied.”
So The Importance of Being Earnest was ready for Brausen’s discovery. “Wait a minute! This play is really funny!” she says cheerfully, “1895, and it’s like Carol Burnett! The Marx Brothers, Three’s Company. Bugs Bunny!” She grins apologetically. “They are all my references.”
Earnest, she has discovered is “just way more work, and really long sentences! Wordy but eloquent! So clever, so biting!” There are ripples, she finds, from the Downton Abbey season of Die-Nasty, the weekly improvised soap opera of which she’s been, till this season, a core member. She played an imperiously snooty matriarch, à la Maggie Smith.
Wilde’s is a kind of sparkling and articulate comic wit Brausen recognizes as having similarities with the playwright with whom she’s worked the most. And for his part, Stewart Lemoine, a huge Wilde admirer, considers The Importance of Being Earnest “a perfect comic construction. No need for a mysterious new interpretation; it’s perfect as it is.” He regards Earnest as exemplary in its “impossibly convoluted plot that lines up and makes perfect sense…. Everyone’s splendidly articulate, even in confusion.”
This makes absolute sense to Brausen in thinking about Lady Bracknell, “a snob, a name-dropper, a dragon, obsessed with society, with manners, with what other people think.” In the society conjured by Wilde, “to raise an eyebrow counts.”
It was 36 years ago that Brausen found herself in All These Heels, a new comedy by her old high school friend Lemoine. “I was a lady spy. I smoked, of course.”
Nothing was the same after that. A theatre company named after the brothel in Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt was born in that debut production. And so was an actor. Brausen, who had an instinctive (and, as she says, untaught) grasp of Lemoine’s witty and articulate playfulness, starred as a variety of exotically literate characters — heiresses, opera divas, society hostesses, eccentric literary agents … and their sidekicks. For at least 30 of those 36 years, she’s been both actor and purveyor of striking and authentic costumes for a theatre that, like Brausen herself, often gravitates to the decades of style between the ’20s and the ‘80s.
Brausen’s house is a repository of vintage shoes (the shoe department is in the basement), frocks, suits, hats, frocks. There are wigs on decapitated heads everywhere. And, ah, hundreds of purses. One of her favourites, “a deerskin ‘30s purse,” has appeared in so many Teatro shows it’s been dubbed “the Teatro acting purse.” And doilies (“it looks like grandma lives there”).
Lately, she’s been collecting vintage perfumes. “You used to wear Rive Gauche didn’t you?” she says to me, remembering a defunct French scent from years ago. “They changed the formula,” she says disapprovingly.”They did that to Chanel No 5 too.”
It’s so crammed chez Brausen — especially since one of her three kids has moved back home, into a bedroom-turned-wig room — that she’s having a shed built for the overflow.
In a town with a gigantic Fringe, producers show up at her place armed with nothing more than a bright idea. Actors come to be kitted out in style. “I’m a soft touch,” she laughs. “It’s like playing with dolls,” she says modestly of costume design Brausen-style. “It’s not your usual costume design; I don’t draw pictures…. It’s more like recycling.” For her, shopping is “therapeutic; it’s what I do to de-stress….”
She’s modest, too, about a startling natural expertise in period style. “I don’t know why I know things,” she shrugs affably. “Turner Classic Movies?” Brausen tries to assess her affection for the 20s and 30s: “they’re very eccentric; people would put anything on their heads.
Brausen is a natural, and fearless, improviser onstage. In Die-Nasty’s ‘Paris in the ‘20s’ season, she played Gertrude Stein with Davina Stewart as Alice B. Toklas. They’ve taken the characters into a new improv show every month at Grindstone Theatre’s new Comedy Club.
She laughs. “It’s like Jackie Gleason. ‘Hey Alice, what’s for dinner?’! Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt are our upstairs neighbours Fat Frank and Little Dickie…. Instead of salon nights, we play hearts. Ha! We haven’t figured out what sitcom this is!”
And now, there’s a comedy of extreme intricacy, and lines that glitter with epigrammatic wit. Brausen, who’s designed epic numbers of costumes and wigs for the Mayfield’s Christmas show and Elvis revue All Shook Up among other assignments across town this past season, is looking forward to wearing someone else’s gowns for a change (they’re designed by Robert Shannon) as Lady Bracknell.
“Look what happened,” she laughs. “I never made plans. I’d say I’m livin’ the dream. But I didn’t have dreams….”
The Importance of Being Earnest
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Oscar Wilde
Directed by: Jeff Haslam
Starring: Mark Meer, Ron Pederson, Leona Brausen, Shannon Blanchet, Louise Lambert, Julien Arnold, Cathy Derkach, Mat Busby
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through July 28