Centaur Theatre, Segal Centre welcome comedy and chaos

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February 2, 2017

Montreal Gazette
By Jim Burke
Published on: January 26, 2017 | Last Updated: January 26, 2017 5:29 PM EST

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Stare long enough at a Jackson Pollock painting and chances are a pattern will begin to emerge. The same might be said for the apparent splatterfest of life itself, where seemingly too-perfect-to-be-true stories sometimes emerge from the chaos.

Take the one about Teri Horton, who, in the early ’90s, bought what she saw as a big old ugly painting from a thrift store as a joke. Turned out it might well be a lost Pollock worth many millions.

Horton’s attempts to have the painting authenticated in the teeth of snobbish, we-know-best resistance from the art-world elite was the subject of Harry Moses’s documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, which was in turn the inspiration behind Stephen Sachs’s two-handed comedy hit Bakersfield Mist.

A former truck driver, Horton has been transformed by Sachs into former bartender Maude Gutman, though other details of Horton’s life remain, including her trailer-park environment and her tough-talking tenacity. In fact, Nicola Cavendish — previously seen at the Centaur in her long-running evocation of Liverpudlian housewife Shirley Valentine and in Colleen Murphy’s The Goodnight Bird — admits it’s the sweariest role she’s ever had. Thirty seconds into the show and she’s already dropped several F-bombs, plus one or two S-dollops.

“We’re like … ‘OK, hold on tight, ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to start to like her,’ ” Cavendish says over the phone from her Vancouver home. “You’ve just got to give her the benefit of the doubt. Some West Vancouver ladies shut down completely. (The production, directed by Cavendish’s frequent collaborator Roy Surette, was first presented by Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company last year.) But I felt the urge to say to them, ‘You mustn’t, in this short time on this earth, throw people away just because they say words that you find offensive.’ ”

This concept of instant judgment is at the heart of Bakersfield Mist, largely in the figure of art expert Lionel Percy (played by pianist and performer Jonathan Monro). He takes one look at Maude, and then at her purported Pollock, and decides he knows everything he needs to know about both. As well as being a detective story about the authenticity or otherwise of the painting (it draws on the sleuthing of Montreal-based forensic arts expert Peter Paul Biro), the play is also a character study that peels away the outer defences of both Maude and Lionel.

Pollock’s paintings, of course, are themselves the target of many a dismissive snort of the my-kid-could-do-that variety. Cavendish, who was exposed to them at university, confesses to initial skepticism herself.

“I do remember thinking, ‘Golly, just splattering paint?’ ” she says. “But I went to see some of Pollock’s paintings as part of my research for Maude. I stood in front of these canvases at the Chicago Art Institute, and they’re something to see up close, I’ll tell you. You can see that what emerges is layers and layers and layers. I think it’s a lesson on how we can learn to look more closely, whether we’re talking about a piece of art or whether we’re talking about the woman who lives across the street who’s offensive.”

Bakersfield Mist plays from Tuesday, Jan. 31 to Sunday, Feb. 26 at Centaur Theatre, 453 St-François-Xavier St. Tickets: $51 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings), $45 (Tuesday and Wednesday evenings), $39 (matinées); seniors $43.50 (evenings), $38 (matinées); under 30 $36.50; students $28. Call 514-288-3161 or visit centaurtheatre.com.

If the cast members of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off were each given a dripping paintbrush to leave a trail after themselves, the result might look like one of Jackson Pollock’s wilder compositions. Frayn’s play is, famously, a farce-within-a-farce in which the inept cast of a second-rate comedy are thrown into high-speed pandemonium as, seen from both front and backstage, they attempt to overcome every calamity in an actor’s worst nightmare.

First produced in 1982, it’s still often described as the funniest play ever written. A critic once complained that its refusal to let up for one moment resulted in him laughing himself sick.

Filmmaker Jacob Tierney (son of film producer and Montreal Gazette columnist Kevin Tierney), returning to direct at the Segal after his META-winning production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, describes Noises Off as “both a farce and a treatise on farce. I think part of the reason it keeps getting put on all over the world is because of its blend of physical and language comedy. It’s the kind of thing eight-year-olds enjoy as much as their parents. You have actors falling downstairs and so on, but this is a play that makes the case that that isn’t cheap humour. It’s earned.”

One of those actors taking a fall is SideMart founder Andrew Shaver, who is setting aside his directing hat to play Garry Lejeune, the tongue-tied leading man of the fictional company.

“I think one of the many things Frayn has done terrifically well,” says Shaver, “is to set up this world realistically in the first act, then start to subvert and grossly exaggerate it. If it’s all built on an emotional reality, the audience is then along for the ride. Anybody who knows Noises Off knows about the sardine references, and those moments of ‘do I bring the sardines, do I leave the sardines?’, that’s all very real for an actor. But I’ll admit I’ve never experienced anybody running around backstage with an axe.”

Wielding that axe is Martha Burns, Stratford veteran and star of the television backstage comedy Slings and Arrows. Describing her Noises Off character, Dotty Otley, she says: “She’s somebody who’s had a long acting career and decides she’s going to produce this crowd-pleasing farce to make money and travel the world. But then everything goes wrong, and she sees her dreams floating away on some kind of river of despair.”

“You make it sound really funny,” laughs Tierney.

“Well, I’m just putting that in there for people who appreciate a bit of drama,” says Burns. “It does have some moments of real pathos.”

Given that Frayn has since become famous for such intellectually weighty classics as the multi-award-winning quantum-physics drama Copenhagen, can we retrospectively read into Noises Off some clever universal message? Tierney isn’t buying it.

“There’s nothing intellectual about Noises Off. It has no agenda, it has no politics. It’s just a play written by somebody who loves theatre and understands the function of farce. If you’re looking for more than that in Noises Off, I’d say you’re looking in the wrong box of sardines.”

But still, if somebody were to go looking for some metaphor in those sardines?

“Well, God bless, let them look,” says Tierney. “Meanwhile, they’re falling off the plate and we’re just trying to clean them up.”

Noises Off plays from Sunday, Jan. 29 to Sunday, Feb. 19 at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd. Tickets: $51 to $65; under 30 $30; students $20. Call 514-739-7944 or visit segalcentre.org.

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