By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
I feel pretty confident in declaring that Vidalia, the screwball comedy that opens Friday at the Varscona (the finale to the Teatro La Quindicina summer season), is the only example in the world-wide screwball repertoire to be named after a high-end, mysteriously seasonal onion.
“I was watching the early Food Channel at the time,” explains playwright Stewart Lemoine. “And I liked the word.” Which is a good thing, since it’s tossed from person to person, crisis to crisis, like a secret code, in his 2002 comedy.
Lemoine’s credentials in writing original screwballs (On The Banks Of The Nut, Skirts On Fire among them) put him in an exclusive subset of Canadian playwrights. Vidalia, he says, is a contemporary fantasia on a classic device, “based as it is on the old (device) of three identical briefcases.” It’s a hoary theatre truism (thank you Anton Chekhov) that if there’s going to be a gun onstage it had better get fired in the course of the play. Similarly, if there are three identical briefcases, they will inevitably, they must, get mixed up and handed off to the wrong person. And complications will, must, ensue.
And that’s what happens here, when a suit salesman named Doug (newcomer Chris Pereira, in the role originated by Mark Meer in his first Teatro appearance, in 2002) brings his lunch to work in a briefcase that’s identical to two other briefcases. Doug will find himself, against his better judgment and possibly his will, entangled in a madcap espionage plot instigated by someone telling a casual lie about her name.
The heart of a screwball, thinks Belinda Cornish, who plays a highly strung spy in the current Vidalia revival, is that “there’s one character, the Bugs Bunny as it were, who knows everything. Nobody else knows everything.” This screwball character, says Cornish, is “flying by the seat of her pants, and never seems out of control though she has no grand plan — only to be always having a good time!” Trudy (played by Teatro newcomer Helen Belay in the role originated by Briana Buckmaster) is “the one who sets things in motion, and for 90 minutes retains masterful aplomb.”
The added screwball complication in the 2002 premiere edition of Vidalia was the cellphone. It tampered, in a tricky way, with the time-honoured screwball “element of inaccessibility,” as playwright/director Lemoine puts it.
As he points out, when you’re constructing an elaborate network of story complications for screwballs or their pricklier second cousins, farces, not to mention murder mysteries, cellphones aren’t mere decorative props. In fact, “if people could get in touch with each other,” a lot of the theatre repertoire would instantly dissolve into a fine mist. With cellphones and a decent data play Romeo and Juliet could have sorted out that Mantua business, and the drugs, in no time. Tragedy? Gone. Any plot hinging on impersonation or assumed identity would be blocked before it even got started. “Seventeen years ago, it was flip phones,” says Lemoine. “Now it’s possible to track people.” Yes, you can run, but you cannot hide.
Two years ago, in his whodunit I Heard About Your Murder, set in a family getaway cabin outside cellular range, Lemoine concluded that “isolation is enough for the plot to work.” And in Vidalia, the combination of espionage and burner cellphones works with something of the same finesse.
Back to the three briefcases. Rehearsing the first Vidalia was nerve-wracking, recalls Lemoine. “I remember having a total meltdown, having to go back over the exchanges, ‘Wait! Stop! Everybody!’ To make sure who was handing off what case.”
Same thing this time out. Andrew MacDonald-Smith, who plays a debonair spy, says “we spent a whole afternoon identifying what briefcase is where, with who, and who knows which briefcase is with which character. I’m pretty sure I could taste colour after that rehearsal, and I’ve never slept so soundly….”
Cornish reports a similar experience. “Everybody has missed at least one switch,” she laughs. “The confusion is huge!” Breaking down every move into what each person thinks is happening versus what other people think is happening versus what is actually happening is “the most brain-melting exercise. Briefcase Syndrome.”
So, as Lemoine summarizes, there’s “a spy level of intrigue involving characters who are desperate for the return of the right case” and will spend the whole play trying to make that happen. And “there’s a character at the centre who accidentally de-rails a whole complicated exchange and doesn’t care about (the consequences),” a blithe meddler who enjoys the mounting chaos.
How do you rehearse a play like that? “I’m being contradictory,” Lemoine tells his cast. “It has to go very fast, but it has to be very accurate….” They start slow in rehearsal, and wind it up to speed — no approximations allowed.
As MacDonald says, comedies like Vidalia “should appear like a wildly fun romp. But they require a focus that is … unflinching!”
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Belinda Cornish, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Helen Belay, Chris Pereira
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Friday through Oct. 12