By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Teatro La Quindicina at 40. An artist-run company specially tuned to comedy, with co-artistic directors who both made their Teatro debuts as actors: same season (2005-2006), different plays, roles written specially for them by playwright/Teatro muse Stewart Lemoine.
Seventeen years later Belinda Cornish and Andrew MacDonald-Smith have chosen a live 40th anniversary Teatro season of four high-contrast Lemoine comedies — all of them revivals, each revealing another facet of the company’s unusual temperament, aesthetic, modus operandi, and devotion to expanding the “comedy” spectrum. They themselves are part of that unique history of originals.
Cornish and MacDonald-Smith are thinking about that in the lead-up to the second production of the Teatro season, Evelyn Strange, opening next week at the Varscona in a production directed by ensemble member Shannon Blanchet.
Cornish’s introduction to Teatro was Lemoine’s first-ever farce, A Grand Time in the Rapids, in 2006, “the same year I became a Canadian citizen!” she says. The role Lemoine created for the London-born actor/playwright/director in his four-door three-actor farce was a Brit mystery widow who hailed (as the character told us brightly) “from a ludicrous and unappealing part of England.” Thalia Cumberland enlists the advice of an etiquette expert to assist with any awkwardness attached to having a suitor.
“A classic farce!” declares Cornish, who will direct this birthday season’s revival July 8 to 24, starring MacDonald-Smith, Kristen Padayas and Farren Timoteo. Doors slam, towels drop, “yes, unconscious people are dragged through doorways.… It’s every classic farce trope through a Lemoine lens.”
Cornish recalls the memorable night during the debut 2006 run that the towel fell off altogether and actor Jeff Haslam “left the stage very fast wearing nothing but a very small tea towel.” This hasty exit was “so agonizingly funny that the Ron (Ron Pederson in the role of an etiquette expert) “put his whole face in the ice bucket.”
MacDonald-Smith’s Teatro debut wasn’t quite as convulsive but was equally memorable. It came in the 2006 premiere run of The Salon of the Talking Turk, a curious Lemoine comedy in which an automaton, a life-sized fortune-telling mechanical, enters the world of 20s New York high society. Since the part of Wally Peverell, a breezy over-achieving orphan, was written specially for him, “I was so flattered; I couldn’t wait to see what what kind of character Stewart Lemoine read me as.”
He laughs. “It turned out I was someone who’s basically good at putting things from IKEA together .… Which is so absolutely true! I love putting IKEA furniture together. And I’m very good at it.”
MacDonald-Smith has used the name as his alias ever since; “Wally Peverell is my favourite name, my game tag online….”
MacDonald, a recent MacEwan grad at the time, had just returned from a never-ending tour of Jack and the Beanstalk with classmate Farren Timoteo. They dreamed of working for Teatro. “We felt a specific kindred spirit with the shows and how Stewart never did the expected.”
He and Cornish have put together a season of Lemoine comedies to prove the point. Since the Teatro archive is fulsome — at least 75 comedies since that first Lemoine, All These Heels, at the first Fringe in 1982 — how did they choose? “What went into deciding the shows wasn’t chronology,” says MacDonald-Smith, currently appearing in 9 to 5 at the Citadel. “It was more based on the over-arching history of Teatro; ’what are the values Teatro has had over the years?’”
Their season opener was an unclassifiable oddball of a comedy, Caribbean Muskrat — a 2004 collaboration between the resident playwright and Josh Dean, a member of the young Teatro acting company at the time. “Collaboration, mentoring first-time and early stage playwrights … that’s part of Teatro history,” says MacDonald-Smith.
Like Cornish, whose own plays (Thrubwell’s Pies, Diamond Dog) have premiered in Teatro seasons, MacDonald-Smith himself has been a beneficiary of that ensemble spirit; He’s the co-writer (with fellow Teatro star Jocelyn Ahlf) of the musical Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s with fellow (music by Ryan Sigurdson, lyrics by Timoteo), that was slated for revival at the moment the pandemic hit.
“Teatro,” says Cornish, ‘has always been an ensemble, onstage and off-.” And their skill sets are constantly expanding. Company member Blanchet, for example, who played the title role herself in a 2006 revival, makes her directing debut with Evelyn Strange. Rachel Bowron, another Teatro leading lady, is designing costumes for A Grand Time in the Rapids. Cornish, who has designed and painted Teatro sets occasionally, is directing the season’s farce, and acting in Evelyn Strange. MacDonald-Smith, who has stage managed Teatro shows in his time, and co-written one, is acting in A Grand Time In The Rapids. The co-artistic directors are learning theatre administration on the job.
Evelyn Strange (May 27 to June 12), is a distinctive “mystery/comedy/thriller” of the Hitchcockian persuasion, set in ‘50s New York. Blanchet’s production stars Gianna Vacirca as the beautiful amnesiac who finds an opera ticket in her pocket. The cast includes Cornish, Oscar Derkx, and Jesse Gervais.
Evelyn Strange shows off the company’s affinity for the cadence, style and look of the ‘30s to ‘50s era. It’s a particular favourite of resident costume designer Leona Brausen, whose Teatro history goes back to Teatro’s origins and includes many appearances onstage. “There I was, this 6’4” kid who’d never had someone look at me and tell me exactly the size of suit I would wear in the ‘40s,” MacDonald-Smith laughs.
As often happens in Lemoine plays, important moments in life are attached to music. In Evelyn Strange, it’s Wagner’s Siegfried (the eponymous heroine finds herself in a box at the Metropolitan Opera). In The Margin of the Sky, Teatro’s Fringe offering (Aug. 13 to 28), it’s Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder that plays “an actively dramatic part” in the play. “Stewart wrote the dialogue to match the emotional licks of the music,” says MacDonald-Smith. “He writes with the sound design in mind.”
And speaking as we are of the festival at which Teatro was born, Cornish and MacDonald-Smith felt it was important to end the anniversary season at the Fringe where the company began 40 summers ago. Besides, The Margin of the Sky, which hasn’t been seen since its 2003 premiere, is all about inspiration, and the act of creation. And that’s something that has driven Teatro for four decades,