Director Ellie King has a special treat at Surrey Arts Centre for anyone who’s ever been involved in live theatre – or for anyone who’d simply like some insight into the disordered world of ‘theatre people’ and the rather odd ordeals they put themselves, and others, through.
The occasion is Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s Opening Night, which comes to the centre’s main stage tonight and Saturday (March 17-18) as part of the 10th anniversary season of director Ellie King’s Royal Canadian Theatre Company.
And no familiar theatrical ‘type’ is spared in the hilarious, take-no-prisoners’ satire – which, as described by King, is a sort of compendium of “all the worst excesses of theatre.”
At the core of the show is the opening night of a play-within-a-play – an ill-conceived Southern-accented piece of tripe called Whisper on the Wind.
“It has all the worst howlers for anyone who’s been there – the lines are off, the lighting cues are off,” said King, veteran of countless productions as both actor and director in Canada and in her native England.
“The tech for Whisper On The Wind goes horribly, horribly wrong; the props are bad, the music is bad – this has been so cathartic for me!”
As with any deliberate evocation of theatrical awfulness, the show gives free rein to capable actors, King said.
“I’ve had to hold my sides laughing,” is how she sums up the rehearsal process for the play, which brings together such popular players and RCTC favourites as Pat McDermott and Steve Weller, and Dan Webber, a mainstay of her former stock company when she was artistic director of New Westminster’s The Burr Theatre.
McDermott plays Jack Tisdale, a baseball lover who’d rather be home watching the World Series than being dragged to the theatre as an anniversary treat by his wife of 25 years, Ruth (Emma Greenhalgh).
Weller plays Michael Craig, a washed-up actor who has survived multiple psychological breakdowns and a drinking problem – who also happens to be gay – convinced that he has been blacklisted from the stage for any number of reasons to do with his private life (“I’m running out of support groups,” he comments at one point).
Webber goes to town with pompous, snobbish director Richard Hyde-Finch, who can’t resist the temptation to one-up any other theatre person on the scene with subtle put-downs and damnings with faint praise.
“Norm Foster has looked at theatre with a jaundiced eye for this one – he seems to be using all of his experiences and his underlying love for the theatre,” King said.
“There are lots of lovely little throwaway lines and in jokes and bon mots – such as when Jack tells Ruth “the only time you ever went to the theatre was that dinner theatre version of Hamlet,” or when another actor uses a Sam Shepard monologue as an audition piece for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.”
But there are plenty of other lines that don’t require much theatre background to resonate, she added.
“When Jack is watching Whisper On The Wind he asks, ‘is this a comedy?’ only to be told ‘no, it’s written by a Canadian playwright.’”
Whisper On The Wind stars two actors oblivious to its many flaws – pushy ingenue, Libby Hosniak (played by Crystal Weltzin), and venerable British actor, Clayton Fry (played by Roger Monk).
“Roger is great as Clayton playing Ol’ Daddy – he’s doing this very odd Southern accent – and Crystal, who’s new to us, is virtually a comedic genius as Libby playing ‘Missy Girl’,” King said.
“The acting is so far wrong – we’ve worked very hard to make it that bad.”
Other newcomers to the RCTC stock company are Greenhalgh, who is bringing a great deal of experience on stage in England to Ruth (“about the only sympathetic character in the whole play,” King said), Gina Raye-Young as the insufferable Richard’s long-suffering partner-in-life Cilla, and Ryan Scramstead as ambitious young actor Tom Delaney (who, like Weltzin, comes to RCTC fresh from Capilano College’s theatre program).
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, with a 3:30 p.m. matinee and a 7:30 p.m. evening performance Saturday.
For tickets: tickets.surrey.ca
The Surrey run will be followed by two nights at the ACT Art Centre in Maple Ridge (tickets: theactmapleridge.org)