Remembering the enchantment: Brent Carver in Edmonton

Brent Carver and Nicky Guadagni in Romeo and Juliet, directed by John Neville. Photo from Citadel Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls,

There was an unmistakeable magic about seeing Brent Carver onstage. People felt it; they remembered the enchantment. I was struck again by that with the many heartfelt responses that came my way with the terrible news last week that he had passed away, at 68.

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Some conjured the impact that seeing his Romeo 44 years ago, in the 1976 John Neville production that opened the Citadel’s new brick-and-glass playhouse downtown. For some, Carver’s performance in that Romeo and Juliet was their “first theatrical experience ever,” the one that drew them into to a life-long love affair with theatre, as an artist or an audience member. Once seen never forgotten. For some it was Carver as Feste in the Citadel’s Twelfth Night a season later.

Brent Carver in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, 1975. Citadel Theatre.

Others went back even farther for their life-changing moment, to the original Sally Ann citadel on 102 St.  — and Carver as the title star of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

His stellar seasons at Stratford, nine in all (the first in 1980), reveal his extraordinary range, Hamlet to Tartuffe to Tevye via Dr. Frank N Furter. And they’re well documented. But his connection to Edmonton goes way back. In 1973, a 22-year-old actor from Cranbrook, B.C. with a gentle smile and delicately chiselled features, was the callow Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, Neville’s regime-launching bell-bottomed Tex-Mex production at the old Citadel.

Brent Carver in rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet, 1976. Citadel Theatre.

I wasn’t around then (in Edmonton, I mean). But in the 90s I was in the audience for Carver as a quicksilver Robin Hood at the Citadel. And I’ll never forget the magic of his utterly captivating performance as Cyrano, the big-nosed swordsman with the soaring romantic imagination and the otherworldly gift of poetry, in the Citadel production directed by Robin Phillips. It’s an evergreen memory for a lot of other people too, judging by my messages of last week.

Actor/improviser/director Ron Pederson, now Toronto-based, was an Edmonton kid of 14 when he saw Cyrano at the Citadel. “And in that one performance I realized what theatre was for and what an actor could be, and that being a Canadian actor was a real thing…. I went back three more times to see if I could see where it was coming from, how he was doing it. I’m happy I’ll never know. He changed my life; a Canadian actor going where his soul led him and sharing it all along the way.”

Brent Carver, right, with Kate Newby and Andrew Jackson in Cyrano, 1994, Citadel Theatre

Cyrano was Carver’s first first theatrical stop after 18 months of electrifying Broadway and West End audiences in the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. His startling and original performance as Molina, a gay window dresser who conjures old movies (enacted by co-star Chita Rivera) to beguile his cellmate, won him the best actor Tony Award in 1993.

I remember seeing his dazzling performance in New York, and waiting by the stage door to meet up with him afterward. The assembled crowd, it turned out, was there for Rivera; the curly-haired soft-spoken Canadian with the ratty backpack (and the 20-year resumé of classical roles across the border) slipped away with me for a drink without any fan attention at all. 

Carver left splashy Broadway success after a year and a half — to come back to Canada. “And I left satisfied,” he told me in an Edmonton Journal interview in 1995. “There came to be more output than input…. There are many ways to make money. Your priority has to be the people you work with.”

The season after Cyrano, he was back in Edmonton at the Citadel to be Richard III in Phillips’ production. In his sexy, funny, dangerous performance, Carver played the hunch-backed master manipulator as a sort of evil urchin, appalling and seductive in equal measure. I’ll never forget the opening image: Richard rolls towards us, silently in an electric wheelchair, a dark and sinister figure lolling asymmetrically in the corner of the seat. And then suddenly, he was out of the chair, in a powerful kind of lopsided explosion, to tell us acidly about the winter of his discontent.

I interviewed Carver a few times in my decades at the Edmonton Journal. And I always found him funny and kind, very humble and non-starry, a bit shy, deeply thoughtful about theatre (well, about everything actually) but not following conventional tracks. He had a free-associative zigzag way of talking about things that was all his own. As a writer I found that very hard to capture on the page, that elusive, free-floating, pinball quality — without making him sound a bit loopy or wispy, which was absolutely not the case. The contradiction between the gentle, almost ethereal quality of the guy and his immense power as an actor were so intriguing. 

“Language,” Carver said of Richard III (in my 1995 Journal interview), “is a turn-on. It touches you everywhere: your heart, your head, under your skin. It creeps in and caresses you.”

I’m not sure how Canadian theatre can do without him.

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