Thursday 1 February 2018

Jitters ain't just 1st nite stage fright
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Canadian artists' celebrated inferiority complex vis-a-vis Americans is trite. Mordecai Richler in the 50's famously ditched Montreal to base himself in New York though his subject matter was invariably Canada's Jewish shtetls. And similarly was the case with Newfie David French who wrote Jitters in 1979. It's an ironic swipe at how Canadian actors as a group have assigned themselves the "right" to feel second-rate compared to those who play The Big Apple. A right that is wrong-headed, for sure.

The schtick at play is a play-within-a-play being mounted in the 1970's by Canadian performers in Toronto (The Crabapple?) The troupe hopes-against-hope that big-time producer Bernie Feldman from The Great White Way who's coming to watch it will see its brilliance and give it a go -- on, off-, anywhere even remotely near Broadway.

Cast and support crew go into near-panic mode during rehearsals for the play-within-a-play "The Care & Treatment of Roses" that's giving everyone Jitters.
David Cooper photo
Everything's on display here : the characters' egos (both tumescent and limp), their foibles, their neuroses, their fragility, their irrepressible lust for "just one shining moment" in the footlights despite their nerves. At Jitters' end, Act 3, there's a few riffs at drama critics -- our eccentricities are at least as colloquial as any actor's.  This just before the show. Sort. Of. Stops.

How it's all put together : Jitters. Not just for first-time teen-age lovers. Theatre folk at every level from grammar school to London's West End get them every moment of a production : from playwrights to actors to stage managers to props people. 

In Jitters we start by watching the gang backstage in Act 1 practice their talents and rehearse their self-regard, for better or worse. 

Act 2 is their attempt to put meat on the bones of the show "The Care and Treatment of Roses" [David French's tongue was never more firmly wedged in his cheek than in giving this "nested story" within the main play Jitters that large a yawner for a title : gotta be stereotypical Canadiana frump.] 

Finally there's the denouement of Act 3 when the show's over, the curtain's dropped, the local Star critic has had a go at what he thought he saw.

What the show brings to the stage : Probably a check-up of community theatres cross-country would yield similar strereotypes. The local angst-ridden complainer Phil (James Fagan Tait) whose fergettery for lines is better than his remembery. Liquor helps that. 

The Equity actor puffed up on himself Patrick (Robert Moloney) who wouldn't dare risk a Broadway go, even if offered, for fear of failure. His alter-gender, alter-ego Jessica (Megan Leitch) who has made it as an Equity actor in a couple of Broadway shows but lately has seen the helium leak from her balloon. Much of the fun of Jitters is how she and Patrick hiss-&-spit back and forth like dames and archvillains in a Christmas panto.

Playwright Robert Ross (Ryan Beil) has a neurotic melt-down when Broadway diva Jessica Logan (Megan Leitch) and actor Phil Mastakoris (James Fagan Tait) challenge his script.
David Cooper photo
As for the show's playwright Robert (Ryan Beil), it's all the frettery of mounting a second play three years after to follow his first that was a hit. But now everyone seems to want to edit his new utterances. Tut-tut and Pshaw! he snipes at them, thank you. Add to the mix an overwhelmed director George (Martin Happer) and the stage is set for some antic histrionics.

N.B.  The above are all sentiments outgoing ACT Managing Artistic Director Bill Millerd sympathizes with completely after his nearly 50 years working the Vancouver boards. In "Bill's Notes" he reveals these kinds of stagey tensions helped drive his decision to mount anew this old rose of a comedy. Like numerous others before, he calls French's play "a love letter to Canadian theatre". And such a sweet way for Bill to bid his Adieu! New Artistic Director Ashlie Corcoran reveals her 2018-2019 season come Monday.

Production values that shine through : Never mind the writing. Never mind the directing. Never mind the acting. The set by ACT's resident company expert Ted Roberts is one of the finest I've seen from him in the three+ decades I've marvelled at his deft eye and hand. Particularly the green room / dressing room that is the flip-side of the swivel'd Rose set. Absolutely remarkable in its roar of the greasepaint / smell of the crowd sense appeal. Clearly his interior & exterior designs were intended as a wee Hosannah! to the original Seymour Street stage where I first met up with ACT for its 1972 triumphant Jacques Brel run.

Costumes by Mara Gottler were choice 70's go-go platform boots, bell bottoms and awkward checks, plaids, & brocade paisley's. Just one question. How / why were Patrick Flanagan's bell bottom plaid pants cut so short -- what we called "high water pants" back in the day. Some sort of irony I may have missed there, perhaps. 

But Flanagan's character had two of the best lines of the night, high-waters or no : "I've been a name here for twenty years. I can't even get a bank loan!" he snarks at one point. Later he embellishes on the same theme : "Where else can you be a top-notch actor all your life and still die broke and anonymous?"

Acting pin-spots : Three performers stood out for me, and judging from the Huzzah!s at show's end I think for the audience as well. 

For all the world he seems a clone of EastVan's favourite son Alan Zinyk, and may be. James Fagan Tait as the 50-something preacher man and Broadway wannabe Phil Mastorakis gave his role a comic turn I could watch for another hour or two easily. Easily, save and except his Gus-the-Cat-dying sequence at the end. 

Aside : that closing blah-de-blah bit of non-sequitur dialogue betrayed a playwright waffling how to end all his previous -- and occasionally disjointed -- nonsense. Suggestion : prima donna star Jessica Logan quits Roses in a snit; big-shot producer Feldman shows up to see her and the show after all; Logan faints, opera diva style, from sheer mortification. To cheers from Patrick and Philip and the stage techs as she is being fanned and revived, Curtain!

Back to the acting. Martin Happer's director George Ellsworth was just the right mix of pomp, cheerleader, and paramedic for the often wounded and touchy temperaments of ego-oddities that populate his troupe. An utterly genuine cut at the job and the persona.

Perhaps best foil for Happer were through his riffs with Ryan Biel as playwright Robert Ross. Ever-covetous of his script -- aren't all writers -- critics included -- covetous snobs of their precious g.d. words? Fact is Biel's double-takes at anyone challenging his dialogue or stage direction were priceless. That is Biel's trademark comic tattoo : he does those deadpan nods-&-looks better than anyone else around.

Who gonna like :  For what it's worth, I have had some forgettable moments on stage. Twice in high school. None in college. Three or four times with the amateur White Rock Players Club (last time just shy of four decades back). I was also a senior high school drama coach in my teaching days back in the early 70's. Wow. This is all    quite little to whoopee about.

So. From what are admittedly limited live theatre experiences I nevertheless couldn't help but ache at the hilarity and hijinks of these David French characters. The parallels with names-I-could-name from the WRPC, particularly, were an instant trip down memory lane that made me roar with tears in my eyes.

And yes. Fine casting by Director David Mackay. Good blocking, nuanced stage business, first-rate delivery by all cast thanks to them and him together. 

But had I not had the background I have had in theatre, limited though it has been, I don't think David French's theme of Canadian self-consciousness and humility vis-a-vis today's America -- theatre metaphor or some other -- would resonate the way it might have 40 years back.

That slight hesitation aside, this is fun stuff, no question. A script probably 20 minutes too long still yields lots of physical comedy & ironic byplay & smackdown sets that make the time a giggle to be sure. 

Particulars : Written (1979) by David French, 1939-2010. Produced by Arts Club Theatre at its Stanley stage. On until February 25, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or Run-time two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

Production teamDirector David Mackay.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Peter Jotkus. 

Performers :  Ryan Biel (Robert Ross).  Lauren Bowler (Peggy).  Martin Happer (George Ellsworth).  Megan Leitch (Jessica Logan).  Robert Moloney (Patrick Flanagan).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Tom Kent).  James Fagan Tait (Phil Mastorakis).  Kaitlin Williams (Susi).  Raugi Yu (Nick).


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