By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A beautiful amnesiac in a trench coat finds herself in a grand tier box at the Met c. 1955, sitting through a performance of Wagner’s five-hour Siegfried. She needs time to think and, hey, The Ring Cycle is ideal for that.
“I’m happy things aren’t going too fast,” she tells another occupant of that darkened box. “I can’t be rushed. Not tonight.”
That’s the unusual opening scene of Evelyn Strange, Stewart Lemoine’s witty, high-style 1995 comedy/ thriller/ romance/mystery, now getting a revival in Teatro La Quindicina’s 40th anniversary season. The opera-loving playwright has concocted a Hitchcockian mystery plot with Wagnerian reverb, in which a reluctant Siegfried will rescue a strangely somnambulant Brunnhilde with no ID. True, the mysterious Miss Strange (Gianna Vacirca) isn’t catching zzz’s behind a wall of flame, but her mind seems to be on indefinite pause.
Evelyn Strange is more homage than parody, to be sure. It’s a ticklish thing to wrap noir-ish suspense around comedy (or possibly vice versa). And it’s fun, and funny, to see it done so neatly, and with so much pizzaz, in the production directed by Shannon Blanchet (who made her professional debut in the title role of the play’s 2006 revival).
Lemoine’s worldly sophisticates are ideally suited to breezily tossing off their views on opera (opera jokes aren’t everywhere in Canadian theatre, I find). Nina Ferrer, the tigerish Westchester society matron played to a perfect cutting edge of sharpness by Belinda Cornish, isn’t short on views on the subject. In one of my favourite pieces of worldly advice ever, she advises Perry Spengler (Oscar Derkx), the sub-editor who works for her publishing magnate husband, that with Wagner there’s no real need to read the program notes in advance. It’s better to prepare by “practising breathing as slowly as possible so you can lower your heart rate.”
Nina bolts at the first intermission (Siegfried is amply supplied with those). Spengler, a young man with an adorable open-faced charm about him in Derkx’s funny performance, opts to stay: “I wouldn’t mind seeing the dragon in Act II.”
It’s a fatal curiosity. Perry Spengler will find himself fascinated against his better judgment by the mysterious stranger who doesn’t know who she is and how she got a ticket to the Met. And he’s cornered, by his own instinctive helpfulness and good manners, into squiring her through her journey of self-discovery.
In the great theatrical repertoire of comically awkward first “dates,” their après-opera time together at the Automat has a special place. “Chicken,” he notes, watching her dismember a pot pie, “makes you happy in a way Wagner never could.”
In her smart, stylish performance as the mysteriously blank Hitchcock blonde, Vacirca charts Evelyn Strange’s calibrated course through a world in which everything is perplexing and unfamiliar until, gradually, it’s not. She graduates from dazed to cinematic. “There’s nowhere to go but Manhattan,” she sighs dramatically. “And I’m a stranger there.”
Jesse Gervais is riotously manic as Perry Spengler’s work-mate at the publishing house, and a self-styled roué and man about town. Lewis Hake positively glints with malicious glee; seductive poses are his specialty. When the time comes for pyjamas, and a sex scene at his place, you will laugh out loud. And you’ll have further opportunities for public laughing in a theatre when you see Cornish as Ferrer, entering a room on high heels propelled by her own shopping bags, or hear her tartly advise Miss Stranger that if she needs lunch she should have a rum flip. “It has an egg in it.”
This pair have a hilarious scene together at Grand Central Station for reasons I must not divulge, where they both come unglued, but in different registers. “If a train for South America passes, I will catch it,” she snaps frantically.
The fun of all this unravelling is enhanced by the visuals: a tip of the fedora to Leona Brausen’s glamorous ‘50s costumes, witty in themselves. Chantel Fortin’s set pieces produce the Met, the Automat, Grand Central Station, in the most economical way, appearing onstage by human agency.
A special word is de rigueur for Narda McCarroll’s lavish and suspenseful film noir lighting, all shadows and sidelights. It makes red velvet curtains and fedoras especially worthwhile.
The bonus, of course, is that the comedy unfolds to a score by Wagner, whose moments of making audiences laugh have hitherto been few and far between. And there’s this: you don’t have to actually sit through Siegfried to hear the highlights.
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.
Running: through June 12