Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The final paragraph in Joseph Zita‘s 2015 biography begins, “Upon graduating, he aspires to work professionally in Toronto, in New York City, and worldwide.” Two years on, it’s clear that Zita has been too busy living his dream to amend it. Not only is he working professionally in his hometown of Toronto (check), but on September 9, he made his debut with the venerable Soulpepper Theatre Company in Picture This, the world premiere of a new comedic play by Morris Panych and Brenda Robins.
Those familiar with Soulpepper will recall Panych and Robins as the artist-collaborators behind holiday favourite Parfumerie, based on Hungarian playwright Miklós László‘s play of the same name (Illatszertár in Hungarian). Robins and Adam Pettle adapted it, Panych directed it, and Ken Macdonald designed the sumptuous set. Parfumerie has been a staple of the Soulpepper Family Festival, selling out houses when it was produced in 2009, 2011 and 2015 and winning a Dora Award for Outstanding Production in 2010. Based on audience chatter before the first performance of Picture This, Parfumerie is so fondly etched in people’s memories that many came to Picture This because of it.
Picture This‘ prestigious pedigree, along with the esteemed acting ensemble, makes it a dream vehicle for any actor. “I had seen Parfumerie twice before, and I loved it,” Zita enthuses, “and I have a long-lasting love and respect for the work that Soulpepper produces.” Given his enthusiasm for theatrical comedy, Picture This was “the perfect combination of artistic ingredients, and an incredible opportunity that I’m now very grateful to be a part of.”
Picture This, based on The Battle of Waterloo by Hungarian-born playwright and director Melchior Lengyel, tells the story of struggling Hungarian film creators, specifically Paul Romberg (played by Jordan Pettle), a film producer who is down on his luck and poised for bankruptcy. A Hollywood producer, Red of “Red Films” (Cliff Saunders), has a brief stopover in Budapest. Believing that Red alone can save their fraught careers, various local film creators contrive opportunities – for instance, a director and actress pose as hotel staff – to vie for his attention. Romberg is coached and coaxed by actress-cum-waitress Milli, played by Michelle Monteith to screw up the courage to meet Red and ‘pitch’ for his financial support. After he does…”without giving too much away,” Zita teases, “an instance of mistaken identity occurs, and from that, chaos and comedy ensue.”
For Zita, one of the most exciting things about Picture This is its plentiful physical comedy. Much of the physical action is intended to look “chaotic and accidental”, an intent that can only be achieved through a synchronized precision: “There are so many moving parts to any given moment, and it takes specific stage choreography and lots of rehearsal to achieve these moments safely and convincingly.” In the first act, Zita plays a French guest whose luggage falls victim to the faux hotel staff who are in reality local film creators trying to accost Red.
In the second act, he is Meisel, assistant to Alexandra Vegh, the director of the film-within-the-play, played by Nancy Palk. As Meisel, Zita is constantly scurrying through the chaos of the film set, megaphone at the ready. “Try to count how many times I bark orders into my megaphone,” he quips. The role requires the full range of his creative practice and physical stamina, as he must navigate dialogue and terrain that extends from the stage through the entire theatre, around various set pieces and co-actors, all in varying states of motion and mayhem. He admits that the role is a challenging exercise in timing and specificity, but counters that “the payoff is hysterical. And (again without giving too much away),” he hints, “look out for a crazy moment of comedic injury that Meisel gets caught in the crossfire of.”
Undoubtedly, the second “exciting thing” about being a part of Picture This is the chance to share the stage with some of the biggest names in theatre. Who is he most thrilled to work alongside? Tough question, he avers: “It’s really hard to pick, because this really is such an incredible group of artists!” Chief on his list are three: Morris Panych, Nancy Palk, and Cliff Saunders because in all three cases, “I’m working alongside artists whose previous work has had a meaningful impact on my personal development as an actor.” While attending Cawthra Park Secondary School’s Regional Arts Program, his Grade 10 Drama class spent a large portion of time studying Panych’s play, 7 Stories. Palk was in the first Soulpepper show Zita ever saw: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf during a school trip in 2009. And while Zita was studying at the Stella Adler Studio’s Musical Theatre Intensive in New York, he met Saunders at the Les Misérables Stage Door on Broadway. “I remember asking him if he had any advice for aspiring Canadian actors,” he recalls. He doesn’t mention what Saunders shared at the time – nor any advice he has received since becoming his colleague in Picture This. Instead, Zita stresses his immense gratitude and marvels at the “wonderful and surreal” journey that has elevated him from student to professional, and brought him full circle through this production.
So is it happenstance – or fate – that brought Zita to Picture This? The play centres on artists driven to desperation because they are innately optimistic. They invest Red’s momentary visit with all of their hopes: to them, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live their dreams and secure their futures. They are artists ready to give their all for their art . . . like Zita: “I have always felt ‘called’ to theatre,” he says, reflecting on the journey that brought him to this point. His longtime “driving motivator” began when he was “bitten by the theatre bug,” during a performance of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast when he was just 4 years old. In a poignant echo of the circumstances of the fictional Hungarian artists, he describes the acting profession as a “feast and famine industry” and offers aspiring actors advice drawn from his own experience: “just because you are in a state of famine, doesn’t mean your feast isn’t coming. Stay in your lane. Work hard, and you will get what you’ve invested back.”
“And come see Picture This!” he invites. “I promise, this play will give you lots and lots of big, belly laughs!” And if the aspiration in his bio proves prophetic, we’d better catch him in it while we can. With a Soulpepper production now under his belt in Toronto, there’s no way to predict how soon “New York City and worldwide” will become parts of his feast.
News You Can Use
What: Picture This, by Morris Panych and Brenda Robins, based on The Battle of Waterloo by Melchior Lengyel
• Featuring Carlos Albornoz (Turoczy), Frank Cox O’Connell (Konig/Veres), Craig Henry (Delivery Boy/Gaffer/Customer), Michelle Monteith (Milli), Nancy Palk (Vegh/Concierge), Robert Persichini (Boleslav/Customer), Jordan Pettle (Romberg), Gregory Prest (Hudascek), Brenda Robbins (Phillips/Kunacak), Brigitte Robinson (Mrs Brown), Paolo Santalucia (Jimmy), Cliff Saunders (Red), David Storch (Mr Brown), Jeff Yung (Customer/Gaffer), Joseph Zita (Meisel/Gaffer)
• Directed by Morris Panych; Set Design by Ken MacDonald; Costume Design by Dana Osborne; Lighting Design by Bonnie Beecher; Video Design by Daniel Malavasi
When: On stage until October 7, 2017 (evening and matinee performances)
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4
Information and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca and 416.866.8666
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya