By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s beyond, (way beyond) coincidence that 4:05 minutes into two plays that both run on the same night, with the same cast, in two different theatres at the Citadel (starting tonight in preview), a scene begins that will last exactly 3:55 minutes.
Kat Sandler flips open her laptop to scroll through a chart, “one of many” she says, a spreadsheet dauntingly crammed with minute calibrations on a double-timeline. It looks like something an astrophysicist or a cardio-vascular surgeon might have on hand. But in a theatre? From a playwright?
The Party and The Candidate, are the self-contained but interconnected new full-length comedies she’s created especially for the Rice, at 150 seats the Citadel’s smallest house, and the 700-seat Maclab. And since, in an apotheosis of lunatic logistics, the same 10 actors are playing in both, simultaneously, “the running times have to match,” she says.
When Sandler says “running” she’s not kidding. The Citadel is big and spread-out. Getting from the Maclab, on the lower floor of the Lee Pavilion, to the Rice (formerly the Club formerly the Rice), scene by scene, is a matter of running up two punishing floors of cement stairs. Then shooting across the public lobby space in front of the Second Cup hoping no one gets in your way and you have your pants on. Then taking the hallways behind the Ziedler and down, as Sandler’s co-director (and Citadel artistic director) Daryl Cloran explains. “There is no secret underground tunnel.”
Hey, no problem. If you have the fitness level of Roger Federer.
Luc Tellier, the youngest member of the cast, is the current record-holder at 45 seconds (without costume changes). The average, says Sandler, is 1 minute 10 seconds, down from 1 minute 20. “People are already fitter…. Daryl and I try to always take the stairs. In solidarity….”
This state of galloping theatrical hyperactivity can be traced back to Cloran. “What we have here is a lot of spaces,” he grins. “We’re at our best when we’re full of different things happening.”
He got intrigued by reading Alan Ayckbourn’s 1999 House and Garden, where the same actors run between interconnected plays in next-door theatres. He offered Toronto’s Sandler, one of the country’s hottest younger generation playwrights, an option. She laughs. “Either adapt a Restoration comedy or … do this crazy two-play thing. And I was, like, let’s do the crazy thing, it sounds like fun. And easier than adapting something! And … it wasn’t!” Cloran shrugs comically.
“I wanted the plays to be in the world of politics,” says Sandler. “And politics lends itself really well to farce!” No one who has even a passing acquaintance with the news will be inclined to argue.
“We knew we wanted them to be big broad fast-paced comedies, with larger-than-life characters, comic archetypes, outlandish scenarios, high stakes, accessible, ripped from the headlines…. You really can’t make up the stuff happening in politics right now.”
Sandler’s muse is comic. And farce sits well with her, as you might guess if you caught Punch Up, her (very) dark comedy about comedy, at last summer’s Fringe. It’s the only one of her plays to be produced here — till now, and “here I am, you guys double-dosed me.” She says “I have roots in old-time-y comedy. My dad had me listen to a lot of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. That’s what what my comedy sensibility is, dark, fun, fast, a lot of patter jokes, ‘who’s on first?’”
Says Cloran, “when Kat decided on the ‘crazy two-play idea’, we toured all the theatre spaces at the Citadel” (running between venues, stopwatches in hand). What appealed to her most were the Maclab and the Rice. “For one thing, she says, “they were the most different. The Rice feels immersive and exclusive; the Maclab is so much bigger, and more open.” Her two comedies are specifically tailored for the spaces they occupy.
“Certainly they’re linked thematically and by story, but the atmosphere and tone are very different,” says Cloran. The Party, which happens first, chronologically, is a birthday party fund-raiser in which two political rivals, vying to be the party’s candidate, are both courting a powerful sponsor. One (Martha Burns) is a career politico, a Hillary-esque figure in a pantsuit trailing the old scandal of a cheating husband. The other is a glossy but not-too-gifted up-and-comer (Jesse Lipscombe), an ex-movie star with a drag queen boyfriend (Thom Allison).
The Party happens in the Rice, with “the actors all around you, maybe sitting at your table,” says Cloran. “You’re in the middle of it. You’re at the party!” In the Maclab,The Candidate takes place nine months later, on the eve of the election, and has to do with containing a scandal whose seeds have been planted at the fateful party. “It’s much more a door-slamming farce.” Sandler grins at Cloran. “I’ve never had this many doors! Thank you for all the doors!” Both plays, she summarizes, have a lot of classic comedy hallmarks — “secrets, hiding, lewd humour, twins. But one is more immersive, and one has doors!”
With its big thrust stage, the Maclab “looks like the kind of space where a presidential debate could happen,” says Sandler. “I envisaged two people at podiums.” So in The Candidate, the audience isn’t just watching the play they’re the audience in the story too, part of the experience, the 11th character, with a role to play.”
Cloran is tickled by the meta-theatrical jokiness of it all. “We have the classic twin gag (Glenn Nelson whips a funny moustache on and off, as required). But if you think about it, the plays themselves are a twin gag.… We’ve created moments when we tip our hand to the audience. And that’s been really fun.” In one scene, for example, a character says “I’m so tired; I feel like I’ve been running up and down for the last two hours.”
“Theoretically, you could come see the farce and have no idea the actors are running between theatres the whole time…. Kat has written a breathless farce. And the characters are going to be breathless!”
Sandler does think there are “big issues and big themes” at play: “scandal, #MeToo, ideas about sexuality, the sacrifices we make for power, social media, a melting pot of stuff…. But it’s exciting to explore them in a way that doesn’t take them too seriously.” She calls it “dark comedy with lightness,” a Sandler signature.
“I take shots at politics, celebrity, Hollywood. I love making fun of showbiz. And politics are showbiz now, too. We’re asking people to think about story a new way.… What I really wanted to explore was cause and effect. In The Party you see wheels set in motion. In The Candidate you see how choices play out in the future.”
“Kat’s been so clever,” says Cloran. “Each play has lot of jokes. Sometimes the set-up is in one play and the punchline’s in the other….” While you can see just one and be happy, “you get a lot of extras when you see both!”
So how on earth does a playwright wrestle down the season’s craziest logistics? “I should have written one play first and then written the other one around it. But I kind of wrote them both at the same time!” declares Sandler, who’s bright and funny, and talks really fast as if she might actually be in a high-speed farce herself.
Under the circumstances there’s no such thing as a simple rewrite. A revision in one play demands a precisely corresponding change in the other, “down to the second.” Every run-through is a time-trial. Q: How many stage managers does it take to run The Party and The Candidate? A: Five, each armed with a stop-watch. “And the stop-watches never quite agree. It’s weird,” says Sandler.
“We’re asking so much of the actors,” she says of the emotional and mental aerobics” that go with the physical work-out. “We’re asking them to run a lot for two hours, back and forth in space and also on two different timelines,” says Cloran. For every character, an exit from one play is an entrance into another, months in the future or the past.
Sandler laughs. “It’s a really twisted version of Scrooge and the ghosts. With more sex jokes.”
The Party, The Candidate
Written by: Kat Sandler
Directed by: Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler
Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler
Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab
Running: tonight (in preview) through April 21
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com