By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Every once in a while the world of live theatre pulls off one of those satisfying but fanciful multi-strand time loops that wouldn’t be out of place in a play. Opera is involved; so is comedy. Shakespeare has a supporting role. How often does that happen?
Evelyn Strange, the Teatro La Quindicina revival that opens Friday on the Varscona stage — in a darkened box on the grand tier of the Metropolitan Opera — returns Shannon Blanchet to the theatre town where she made her busy career as an actor till last summer. Back to the company where she has a long history as a leading lady, and where she got her first professional gig out of U of A theatre school. And back to the very play in which that happened.
Blanchet played the title role in a 2006 revival of Stewart Lemoine’s 1995 mystery/ thriller/ comedy/ romance, as the beautiful amnesiac who discovers an opera ticket in her pocket. This time Blanchet won’t be onstage. She’s making her directing debut with Evelyn Strange, set in 1955, in which Wagner’s opera Siegfried, part three of the Ring Cycle, is the opening gambit. (Gianna Vacirca is the new Evelyn Strange).
The distinctive Blanchet voice, with its interesting edges and hints of husky (BioWare was quick to appreciate that voice in video game gigs) is on the phone. She’s explaining a move to Saskatoon last summer to take an assistant professorship of voice and acting in the University of Saskatchewan drama department.
“It’s a bit of an odd thing to move to a new city in the middle of a pandemic,” she concedes. But it’s “exactly what I went to school for,” she says of her U of A master’s degree in “voice pedagogy,” a field that is not, contrary to popular opinion, about singing. It’s a line of work Blanchet summarizes as “personal trainer meets drama teacher meets speech pathologist meets public communication coach.”
The soft ‘50s cadence of the Evelyn Strange characters is right up her alley, “the fading trans-Atlantic dialect, the slightly elongated vowels … everything took a little longer then, the tune of the language.”
Blanchet entered the Teatro ensemble via … Shakespeare. First it was the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s glam Hollywood McCarthy era production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, with Blanchet as Rosaline. Then it was a Studio Theatre production of As You Like It, with Blanchet as the witty cross-dresser Rosalind. Lemoine and Jeff Haslam saw both shows; they’d found their Evelyn Strange.
“I just remember the fun of it,” she says of the experience of playing the mysterious character who knows nothing about herself except that she’s sitting through Siegfried at the Met. “I tend to be a serious, no, intense, person…. It was a revelation to me that (theatre) could be fun, after being so serious for so long.” And she remembers being “wholly intimidated” by her Evelyn Strange castmates (Haslam, Davina Stewart and Ron Pederson), “lovely and welcoming though they were.”
The first Teatro show she’d seen was The Vile Governess, Lemoine’s “Ibsenesque romp,” as he’s described it. “I remember laughing till my sides ached, thinking ’what the hell IS this? It was like nothing I’d ever seen before….”
“Actually, most of Stewart’s plays have an element of ‘what the hell is this?’” Blanchet muses. “He mixes and stretches and pushes and pulls genres…. Many dimensions of comedy, a word you come to realize (with Teatro) is more a category and not really a descriptive.”
And so it is, she thinks, with Evelyn Strange. “You have opera, you have a mystery, and you have romance, and you have comedy. And it’s fantastic to figure out how far to lean into all those elements at any given moment.” There are noir-ish affinities to Hitchcock — Kim Novak in Vertigo — as Blanchet points out. “And what a yummy thing for design… But how do you balance that so people know they can laugh?”
It’s tricky. And so is memory, she finds, coming back to a play she loves after a decade and a half. “I’m sure there was a wall. No, there were no walls…. Then, wait, ah I remember, it was on the old pie-shaped stage (in the old pre-reno’ed Varscona). Different theatre.” Blanchet is happy about the proscenium (framed) stage in the re-born Varscona. “A proscenium is really where it’s meant to be. It starts at the Metropolitan Opera, so it makes perfect sense for there to be big beautiful drapes!”
It also makes sense for there to be music, of course. And as in so many Lemoines, it’s part of the story, a life-changer. “The first thing I wanted to do was listen to the music, she’s found in her inaugural directing assignment. “You hear the opening tymp roll, hmm, and then you jump to the end, the high C and the rejoicing, and OK, so there’s the journey of the play!” She reports that Vacirca and co-star Oscar Derkx actually sat through all five hours of a German production of Siegfried the other night, a testament to extreme commitment. “Mine doesn’t extend that far,” she laughs.
Someone in the crew, Blanchet reports, observed that “you’d think the music was written for the play, and not the reverse. Reverse engineering!” She remembers how much hearing the music helped her understand her character —“a romantic vision in some other character’s head” — in another Lemoine, The Adulteress.
“I’m always amazed at designers,” Blanchet says. “I’ve asked Chantel (set designer Chantel Fortin) for the moon. And she has really delivered…. Narda (lighting designer Narda McCarroll in her Teatro debut) says ‘wait, o, do you want the moon?’ Amazing.” And a play set in the ‘50s unleashes Teatro’s costume designer Leona Brausen in a period she loves. “The costumes tell you how to move; there are certain things you cannot do in a suit from 1950. Nope, you won’t be lifting your arms that way.”
As Blanchet knows from first-hand experience, the actor’s ultimate nightmare is playing an amnesiac, a character with a blank slate of motives and no back story. “It’s really really hard to accept ‘do less do less do less do nothing’…. You have to think all the thoughts but don’t do anything!”
She herself is revelling in her own back story of “growing up wth a company, and being trusted with increasing levels of responsibility,” as she puts it. We haven’t lost her to university life. “It’s especially important for people to remain active, in the industry and the community.” She’ll be back. Meanwhile she’s preparing to direct a university production of Lemoine’s The Margin of the Sky in Saskatoon at Greystone Theatre, slated to happen just after Teatro’s own season-ending revival here for the Fringe.
“Ask me where I’m local,” she says. “That feels like a good question.”
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Stewart Lemoine
Directed by: Shannon Blanchet
Starring: Gianna Vacirca. Oscar Derkx, Belinda Cornish, Jesse Gervais
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.