A work-out for body and brain: Martha Burns is running in The Party and The Candidate at the Citadel

Martha Burns and Amber Lewis (front), Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison (rear) in The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Martha Burns and Kevin Bundy, The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There are two plays getting their world premieres simultaneously tonight in the Citadel. Martha Burns is in both of them.

Burns and her nine cast-mates play characters who inhabit not one but two new Kat Sandler political comedies. Come 7:30 p.m. you’ll find them on the gallop between scenes in The Party happening in the Rice at one end of the complex and scenes in The Candidate happening in the Maclab at the other. Stairs and distance (and nine months in fictional time) are involved. “We’re about to get in excellent shape!” amends Burns, who made time to chat pre-rehearsal of both plays last week. She plays Heather Straughan, one of two rival candidates vying for the party nomination in an impending election, and courting a fat-cat donor.

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The Dora, Gemini, and Genie Award-winning stage and screen star has been in Edmonton before. But it’s been a while. The last time — for Citadel productions that included Hamlet, As You Like It, Alan Ayckbourn’s Invisible Friends — she had a tumultuous schedule, too, though of a different kind. Her daughter Hannah was two (“she learned to skate here, in Hawrelak Park!”). Now Hannah is 29, “shooting a movie in Toronto with Viggo Mortensen,” reports her mom. 

Part of the work-out has been mental, of course. “We’ve been hunkering down a lot to work on the many changes Kat has been making to the script… Such intense brain work. It’s been amazing to watch that process. She had to overwrite, to figure out what to move around and take out so it work out.”

Martha Burns

Burns, who has a vast body of starring work on the country’s largest stages — Stratford, Shaw and Soulpepper among them, in addition to such original TV series as Slings and Arrows — marvels at the playwright’s dexterity. “You think Wow!  What was it like just to begin, to figure out who can be where when. In addition to just writing funny comedies.”

“Everyone has been wide-eyed through the whole experience…. We had to be the last part of her writing process. So we’ve been witnessing this lightning speed of writing on the spot, cutting, shifting, changing things around, timing….”

“Kat Sandler’s brain must be taking up her whole head!” Burns laughs. “And moving out into the corners of the room.” She loves “the snappy back and forth” of Sandler’s comedies, including the hit Mustard, which have mostly premiered hitherto in Toronto.

The razor timing needed to execute and pair The Party and The Candidate is extreme, true. But it isn’t unfamiliar to Burns; working in film has seen to that (and besides she’s recently been in a Montreal production of the great play-within-a-play modern farce Noises Off). “A film set is totally about the clock,” she says. “What I like about acting on film, too, is that the actors come in ready to go. We find out what the scene is about by doing it…. We had a bit of that feeling in rehearsal here!”

Burns’s calendar this year is tilted heavily towards theatre: A Doll’s House 2 (the contemporary “sequel” to the Ibsen classic) at the Belfry in Victoria last fall, then this double-premiere, which came with the pre-contract warning that things could get pretty crazy. When The Party and The Candidate have raced towards election night, and Burns has hung up Heather Straughan’s Hillary-like pantsuit for the last time, she’s off to the Shaw Festival — for a very different pair of challenges.

One is Victory, by the provocative, notoriously difficult, rarely produced Brit playwright Howard Barker. “It’s an extraordinary play,” says Burns, “historically, politically….” The other is a production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, including the celebrated Don Juan In Hell “interlude,” directed by the hot up-and-comer Kimberley Rampersad (the ingenious  choreographer of the Citadel’s Matilda). Burns will play the The Devil. “It’s a year when our world is opening up!” she says happily of this gender expansiveness.

Meanwhile, on the eve of a real election here, riddled with scandals, dirty secrets, sell-outs, rampaging egos, and rancour, there are a couple of plays at the Citadel that, amazingly, are all about that.

Real life has muscled in on satire with “wild displays of who’s got to the power,” as Burns puts it. “Who’s going to lead? What do we decide to be horrified by? The influence of social media…. It’s fun to be in the theatre, and not know what’s coming.”

Have a peek at my interview with playwright Kat Sandler and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, co-directors of this madness, HERE.


The Party, The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

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: through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com


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