Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Jennifer Villaverde has a way of inducing deep thought and arousing strong sentiment. She evokes the complex humanity in all her characters whether they are actually human — such as Fumiko in Young People’s Theatre’s (YPT) Dora-Award winning Hana’s Suitcase — or animal, as with her singing ladybug in the YPT production of Pasek and Paul’s James and the Giant Peach musical. And this is equally true when she plays satirical animals, as in Soulpepper`s recent Animal Farm, where she was both Old Major the barnyard revolt-launching pig; and the disgruntled, trash-talking, compost-eating chicken Poophead. This week, she will arouse a new chorus of emotions as she returns as DD in the world premiere of Music Music Life Death Music: An Absurdical by Adam Seelig, Artistic Director of One Little Goat Theatre Company, which bills itself as North America’s only theatre company devoted to contemporary poetic theatre.
The versatility and experience that Ms Villaverde brings to her roles leaves one expecting a rarified demeanour that is professional but distant. One encounter upends such expectations completely. Far from remote, she is warm and approachable, with a refreshing, down-to-earth candour and a broad view. Reminded of her memorable turns as Fumiko, Ladybug and Poophead, she immediately beams, “Oh, wow! Thank you! That is such a wonderful compliment, and I really appreciate it.” Rather than bask in the compliment, she stops herself: “My ego. Gotta check that before it gets too big. I was born in the Year of the (Water) Rabbit, and according to the Chinese Zodiac I can’t allow myself to become too flattered and lazy, or my luck could disappear.” Though she is not a “devout follower” of Chinese astrology, the importance of being humble is paramount – something which, she attests, “takes work.”
Will this same self-aware humility imbue her character in Music Music Life Death Music? It seems likely, given that the show is a musically comic exploration of the family ties within 3 generations that bind, bend and sometimes batter – and yet endure. According to creator-director Adam Seeling, “one particular family’s idiosyncratic blend of love and contempt, tenacity and fragility, trust and suspicion, joys and frustrations . . . play out on stage, with music.”
The absurdical started with a love song containing the lyric “one and one are one”, and “it just grew from there. Adam wrote this play over one summer when a lot was happening in the world, and it was pretty hard to ignore,” Ms Villaverde explains (though she is silent on the nature of exactly what was happening). She surmises that this story is “one of those that just wrote itself”. Her character DD is married to JJ (played by Richard Harte). They also have a son, PP (Sierra Holder). When the matriarch B (Theresa Tova) makes a surprise visit in the middle of the night, the show dives further into intergenerational dynamics: “B is my mother, and she shows up unannounced . . . and DD isn’t too happy about that because all she wants to do is get busy with her husband. Is that too much to ask?,” she shakes her head with mock incredulity. And one more thing: “there’s a band in the living room. Do they acknowledge that at all? Is this what makes this an ‘absurdical’?”
Perhaps . . . but Ms Villaverde seems reluctant to lock “absurdical” into a precise definition just yet. At the time of this interview, the actors were in the discovery stage of production, “sitting around the table, reading the play, and learning the music”. And this process was both dynamic and unpredictable: “we’ve had many conversations relating our own personal experiences to this play, and we’re discovering that family life is already pretty absurd, surprising, and unbelievable at times. So, how far, how absurd can we go with this play and the characters’ interactions with each other while singing? We’re discovering this right now.”
This fundamental question aside, the aspect of Music Music Life Death Music that excites her most is playing a “straight-up human that stands upright”. On a more serious note, she is also excited about the depiction of a mixed-race family by a diverse cast. “Representation matters,” she asserts. “I’m really happy that audiences are going to see us and, hopefully, feel good about it.” She warms to this topic: “Why are we putting a cap on our suspension of disbelief? We’re at the theatre. Everything is make-believe. I see a house on stage. I know it’s not a real house, but because I’m at the theatre, I accept it as a real house. I see a play set in Greece. I know I’m not really in Greece, but I happily accept it without question. Why should it be any different for members of one family? It shouldn’t!” Ms Villaverde’s point is valid and seems obvious in the Toronto of 2018. And the number of indie theatre companies with explicit mandates to increase and broaden representation onstage, offstage and backstage continues to grow: a sure sign of the distance mainstream theatre has yet to travel when it comes to diversity and equality.
Having said her piece, she declares her “rant over,” then turns to another matter weighing heavily on her mind: “the kissing.” Having been married for a long time, Ms Villaverde admits to feeling “really out of practice,” not having kissed anyone on stage in a “really, really long time.” Part of her hesitation is rooted in the text, which calls for “intense” kissing. “I don’t know how to kiss anyone who is not my husband,” she admits. “Also, my husband and I don’t do heavy make-out sessions anymore because we’ve been together for so long, and we just find it funny now.” Which leads to a series of “what ifs”: “What if my kissing sucks? What if my breath stinks? What if my lips get all chapped and gross?” Helpful advice from actor friends is the cure-all for these runaway thoughts: “no tongue and no moaning. I know those 2 things!”
Truth to tell, Ms Villaverde knows many more things, and these things have helped advance her career. An arts educator as well as an actor, Ms Villaverde knows the power of a strong ensemble. One lesson she tries to pass onto students is that an ensemble cannot work and create together without trust, openness and generosity. She attributes the success of Hana’s Suitcase, James and the Giant Peach and Animal Farm – shows that hold a “very special place” in her heart – to these essential traits and the camaraderie of the respective casts. At the same time, she busts the myth of casts needing instant or inherent chemistry: “sometimes it took work, but we worked on it because we all cared so much about the work itself. I’ve been really, really lucky to have had the opportunity to work with tremendous human beings who care so much about the work we do.”
This care and commitment feels like a direct outgrowth of her collegial nature and work ethic. She prefers to meet new people through work, so she seeks out opportunities to get to know them in a creative working environment: “I’m not very good at just meeting people at functions and chatting about the weather!” Clearly, word of her skills and her warm personality reached Seelig, who emailed her about his absurdical while she was in rehearsals for Animal Farm. He asked if she was interested to meet and chat about the show, and sent along the script. She read it, thinking, “What a weird show. I think I need to meet this guy. And what’s an absurdical…?” Though her tight schedule with Animal Farm limited her availability to meet for the actual auditions, “Adam was able to work around my schedule, which was so nice of him. That doesn’t always happen.”
When they eventually met, she immediately noticed Seelig’s easy-going vibe, and the meeting was so relaxed that it did not feel like an audition at all: “We read the opening scene a few times, and then I sang an excerpt from the show for him. Not too long after that, he offered me the part of DD, and I accepted!” On the morning after opening Animal Farm, she met the rest of the cast for a photo shoot . . . where Seelig made another strong and even more memorable impression. “My body hurt, I was tired and grumpy,” she recalls. “When I walked into the studio, there was hot coffee and delicious danishes! Oh my lord. They were DELICIOUS! I’m happy to report that we all got along! I don’t know where Adam got the danishes, but they were magic. We all bonded over the danishes.”
So ultimately, what can audiences expect of Music Music Life Death Music? Ms Villaverde is loathe to give away too much. She divulges only that “music is life, and Theresa Tova [her co-star] is a goddess.” Agreed! This aside, she underlines that the show’s celebrations of life’s idiosyncrasies and family dynamics are built on a central tenet: “Family. Family is everything.” And more precious than ever before: like many Torontonians, she has been thinking about the lives lost and hurt in April on the stretch of Yonge Street between Finch and Sheppard. While life might be absurd and quirky, it can also be dangerously unpredictable and heartbreakingly fragile.
“Family is everything,” she repeats. “And I don’t just mean those you are related to by blood. Whoever it is you call your family, they are your family. Give them a hug (even if it’s a virtual one), and tell them you love them.” As she prepares to take the stage in this Absurdical, here is yet another serious proof of why Ms Villaverde’s erudition and sentiment translate so movingly to the stage. It is a unique gift that she leaves us contemplating at once the secret of intense on-stage kissing, the healing power of danishes, and the importance of family . . . and anticipating an absurd performance, with flourishes to relish and surprising depths to mine.
News You Can Use
What: Music Music Life Death Music: An Absurdical (World Premiere), written, directed and composed by Adam Seelig
When: May 25 – June 10, 2018
Where: Tarragon Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: onelittlegoat.org or 416.531.1827
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya