Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Toronto critics agree that Soulpepper’s current revival of David French’s Jitters is as excellent now as their 2010 hit production. Six years later – and more than 35 years since the play’s original debut at the Tarragon Theatre in 1979 – French’s comic tribute to Canadian artists remains crisp and relevant.
Soulpepper’s current version is staged to evoke the 1970s: the fashion, furniture, props and wallpaper are like a time machine returning you to the era of that first production. However, the play’s themes — rivalries, insecurities, jealousies, and, well, jitters, among a troupe of Canadian stage actors — are timeless. Jitters satirizes the backstage rivalries among the fictitious actors performing in a new play, The Care and Treatment of Roses, premiering as a low-budget production in a 200-seat theatre.
The cast is headed by the imperious Jessica (the marvelous Diane D’Aquila) and her co-stars: the arrogant and insecure Irish-Canadian Patrick (Geordie Johnson), the demanding yet neurotic Phil (hilariously portrayed by Oliver Dennis) and the wide-eyed newcomer Tom (Alex Furber). Attempting to wrangle these stars are Kevin Bundy, the uber-patient director George who is constantly challenged by uptight stage manager Nick (Jordan Pettle). Rounding out this eclectic mixture of egos is anxious playwright Robert (played with a doleful hilarity by Mike Ross), who annoys cast and director with his endless tinkering with the script.
The audience is treated to a rehearsal and the backstage banter before and after the opening night’s performance — and suffice it to say, everything that can go wrong, does . . . with hilarious and unexpected results.
One element that catches the eye in 2016 is the minor presence of female characters, outside of the Jessica role. Sophia Walker portrays front-of-house assistant Susi, and Sarah Wilson plays the ever-buoyant assistant stage manager Peggy. Both accomplished performers make the most of their stage time and give memorable performances: good acting is as much a matter of reacting to the action around them as it is delivering their lines plausibly. Ms Wilson shines as Peggy, a role she reprises from the play staged in 2010. Six years is a long time between productions, she muses . . . and avers that she cannot recall the specifics of what she did then. “As the Assistant Stage Manager of the play-within-a-play, Peggy’s job is to support that production,” Ms Wilson explains, “and mine is to support the main action of Jitters (which is a comedy), so a lot of my work is to figure out balance!” After gauging the responses of a few audiences, Ms Wilson has found that Peggy’s balance lies in a clean, crisp and bright portrayal: “anything else just doesn’t read . . . So I take that information and make sure that I don’t tip over into cartoon territory.” In the farcical province of Jitters, that would not be difficult to do, so she walks a delicate balance in her supporting role between “how much is too much?” and “how little is too little?”
After Jitters, Ms Wilson will perform in the Neil Simon classic The Odd Couple, followed by (and sometimes overlapping) Wendy Wasserstein’s Tony-Award and Pulitzer-Prize winning The Heidi Chronicles. To state the obvious, these are three completely different plays. And this, says Ms Wilson, is a huge part of the appeal of working in Soulpepper’s repertory theatre: there is variety not only in the roles she plays, but also in what else is happening in the building. “I love walking off from a comedy and hearing the hush over the tannoy from the other theatre,” she says. “I love the silliness of getting dressed with women from different shows. I used to put on a blonde wig and 4 inch heels for my show while another actor smeared dirt on her face for hers.” Rep also allows actors to develop relationships with one another, resulting in a “kind of shorthand” that is invaluable to the relationships they create onstage.
Though the plays she performs this spring are all unique, Ms Wilson’s approach to developing her role within each remains generally the same. “I have my ideas of who my character is, what the play is and why the play is,” she explains, “and then I try to bring that in while remaining open to what everyone else brings to the room. If the team works well, a production hopefully becomes a kind of unique organism, so that together you create something that is very specific to the artists involved, which makes the play live–and then that aliveness is very much experienced (or not) by an audience.”
At Soulpepper this spring, there are many opportunities be a part of that collective “aliveness” — and to appreciate how Ms Wilson brings unique life to the mannerisms, speech and thought patterns of widely varied characters. The Odd Couple begins its run on May 5 and The Heidi Chronicles opens on May 16. And in the meantime, Jitters, onstage until April 15, should be seen for its deft writing, manic energy and nuanced performances. After all, another six years would be a long time to wait to see Ms Wilson give a skilled and steady turn as Peggy . . . as the actors, director and stage manager around her all lose their cool.
News You Can Use
What: Jitters by David French, directed by Ted Dykstra
Who: Audiences 13 years and older
When: Extended until April 22, 2016
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON, M5A 3C4
For Information and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca and 416.866.8666
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya