By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I love watching actors work hard,” says Farren Timoteo. “It’s one of my favourite things about theatre. I love it when you see them changing too much, running around too much, negotiating crazy entrances and exits and dexterous dialogue….”
There is, arguably, nothing like farce for providing all of the above. And Timoteo, happily, is in one, opening Friday as the Teatro La Quindicina 40th anniversary season continues at the Varscona. “There’s a big smile on my face,” says the actor (who’s also a director and playwright) on the phone from his car in front of the theatre.
In an archive of original comedies of every stripe, A Grand Time In The Rapids, a four-door three-actor door-slammer/towel-dropper which premiered a decade ago, is Stewart Lemoine’s sole farce. And the small cast size ups the ante on the formal virtuosity and brinkmanship adrenalin built into farces, Timoteo thinks.
“What he asks of us,” says Timoteo, “is to create that energy, hijinx, chaos, with no compromise…. To give (audiences) the traditional farce experience with all the fixin’s — even though there are only three of us, and one of us plays two characters.
It’s Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1950s. And Timoteo is Ted Todd, an “etiquette expert.” He enters the action by appearing at the door of a young widow, Thalia Cumberland (Kristen Padayas). She’s written to a newspaper advice column, Ask Aunt Elva, for help finessing a tricky matter of propriety in an impending encounter with a new suitor (Andrew MacDonald-Smith). Aunt Elva, the putative chaperone who’s been pushing up daisies for some time, turns out to be Ted Todd, in the flesh. That’s for openers.
“Negotiating complex circumstances that fly out of that set-up in ways no one could predict”: that, in a nutshell, is what happens next, along with “a great deal of fun,” as Timoteo puts it. “A perfect recipe for chaos and disaster.” A sigh of amusement is audible on the phone. “Such a joy to be part of!”
This season Timoteo has already “slammed a few doors,” as he puts it. He was in Holly Lewis’s The Fiancée — a six-actor seven-door farce that premiered at the Citadel last fall — as one of the three fiancées to whom the kind-hearted but hapless heroine has found herself engaged, in war-time Edmonton. “It now seems remarkable to me that in the middle of a pandemic we had no COVID cancellations,” says Timoteo, who played a mild-mannered compulsive list-maker who gets mistaken for a plumber in the course of the escalating chaos “It was so amazing to be back onstage…. We laughed and laughed and laughed.”
Actually, speaking of slammed doors, there’s a certain noble farcical intricacy involved in doing live theatre during a pandemic — stops and starts and re-starts, acrobatic pivots and re-pivots. Timoteo knows this first-hand. He’s the artistic director since 2007 of Alberta Musical Theatre, a company devoted to taking original musicals (mostly fractured, contemporary versions of fairy tales) to kid audiences. This past season, “we did ‘digital touring’” he says. “I missed the magic of transforming school into magic kingdoms…. But we tried to do whatever we could to be in front of students….”
In the interests of safety Timoteo re-purposed the 2009 musical Hansel and Gretel he co-wrote with composer Jeff Unger for a single, extremely busy, actor (Bhey Pastolero). In “the most elaborate Zoom call you’ve ever seen” the production was live-streamed for school audiences from the company’s Playhouse studio. “We’d come in every day, put up the set and the three cameras, film it live, and tear everything down. Just like being on tour.”
It was, he concedes, “a remarkable amount of work.” And doing it without a live, physically present audience made the work that much harder. “Interacting with the kids is “such a huge part of what fuels the energy of school tours.”
Timoteo arrives in 1950s Michigan fresh from a spring run of his own warm-hearted, funny multi-character solo show Made In Italy at the Arts Club in Vancouver, after a winter engagement at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton. “I have never loved doing it more than ever during the last four months … for so many reasons!” Timoteo declares. As for everybody else in theatre, the show had been cancelled more than once. And “there was a moment I thought this is never going to happen. Maybe we’ll never get to do it again.”
So miraculous did going live seem that in Vancouver, the first time “a little old Italian grandfather walks onstage and acknowledges the audience” in his opening scene of Made In Italy, “it moved me so deeply I teared up,” he says. On the current tour of the show, which goes back to the Arts Club after A Grand Time in the Rapids closes, he’s already done more than a hundred performances.
The Lemoine farce we’ll see at the Varscona has a momentous Teatro lustre all its own. For one thing, it’s directed by Belinda Cornish, who made her Teatro debut in this very play as the mysterious widow Thalia in 2006. For another, it reunites Timoteo onstage with his MacEwan theatre school classmate and pal MacDonald-Smith.
In a coincidence so As Timoteo reports, joining the Teatro ensemble was their dual dream. “We’d sit in my car, for hours and hours, dreaming and talking about theatre .… I don’t know if we realized it at the time, but we were setting goals: I wanna do this, be there…. And, hey, let’s do it together. And we did! They arrives at Teatro direct from the beanstalk, so to speak: an endless Alberta Musical Theatre tour of Jack and the Beanstalk, with Timoteo as the guileless Jack and McDonald-Smith as the giant. “And here we are, all those years later.”
Their Teatro debuts came in different Lemoines. Timoteo’s was A Momentary Lapse in 2005, a comedy in which he played a young guy with a rebellious streak and a certain unfortunate obsession with fire, doing community service in the form of an educational play. MacDonald-Smith entered Teatro World in The Salon of the Talking Turk, as a breezy over-achieving orphan loose in New York high society in the 1920s.
The first Teatro show they did together, thinks Timoteo, was Lemoine’s pocket musical What Gives?, as a New York musical theatre team saved from terminal writer’s block by the sudden appearance of a pair of romantic heroines right out of the musical they’re not writing.
Twenty years out of theatre school, and they’re both artistic directors of theatre companies these days, MacDonald-Smith and Cornish co- a.d.s at Teatro and Timoteo at Alberta Musical Theatre. By one of those curious coincidences that dot theatre news everywhere, Timoteo is sending his Alberta Musical Theatre forces on their first live in-person school tour this fall with … Jack And The Beanstalk.
“I feel so lucky,” says Timoteo. “SO grateful…. to have the chance to make people laugh, to share joy and laughter, and give people a good time…. I don’t take it for granted; I’m sponging it all up!”
A Grand Time In The Rapids
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Stewart Lemoine
Directed by: Belinda Cornish
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Kristen Padayas, Farren Timoteo
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: July 8 to 24