by Lynn on March 22, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by David French
Directed by Ted Dykstra
Set and Costumes by Patrick Clark
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by Creighton Doane
Cast: Kevin Bundy
Diane D’Aquila
Oliver Dennis
Alex Furber
Geordie Johnson
Jordan Pettle
Mike Ross
Sophia Walker
Sarah Wilson

A laugh-a-minute-comedy and affectionate look at putting on a play in the wilds of Canada, complete with actors with insecurities, foibles and idiosyncrasies.

The Story. A company of Canadian actors in Toronto is putting on the play of an up-and-coming playwright. The star is Jessica Logan, who left Canada for the bright lights of Broadway and a starry career. However her last two show flopped. She’s come home to star in the play in the hopes that a New York producer will come up, see it and book it for Broadway.

Patrick Flanigan is an established Canadian actor, which means he has worked from coast to coast, built a reputation and still only ekes out a living. Patrick has a drinking problem that has everyone worried. George Ellsworth is the harried director who hopes this play will be his meal ticket to better things. Phil Mastorakis is an edgy, insecure actor who can’t remember lines. Tom is a young actor on the cusp of making it big. Robert is the playwright, resigned that the cast will want to change his lines for their own purposes.

All the many and various peccadilloes of the cast come out in the rehearsal in Act I. In Act II the cast prepares backstage for their opening night when all hell breaks out. An actor is missing and can’t be found. Another actor appears with a black eye and a fantastical story of explanation. Another actor is drunk. The door to the bathroom unexpectedly locks with an actor inside and can’t be opened without drastic measures. The leading lady is fragile and anxious. There are endless mishaps, frayed nerves and lots of accusations.

Act III, is the morning after and the reviews are out and so are the fangs.

The Production. Jitters is a comedy-farce of the highest order in which entrances are missed; lines are dropped; props don’t work; and mishaps happen at rapid speed all deliberately. All of it has to happen with the sharpest precision for the humour to work. When the laughter is at its highest point and wanes just a touch the next laugh or bit of business must land precisely to build the laughter even higher. No one knows that better than director Ted Dykstra and his stunning cast.

In comedy timing is everything. Whether it’s floating a laugh-line at just the right moment; or subtly reacting with a look or a more energetic double take, or building on a physical bit of business which then ricochets into another piece of business, success-nailing that laugh–is all in the timing. This is a cast with the knowledge of the serious business of comedy in their bones.

Diane D’Aquila plays Jessica Logan, the star who has come home, humbled by two Broadway failures. She is imperious, haughty about her position in the company, insecure and frightened about the future of this show.

Just as emotional and demanding is Geordie Johnson who plays Patrick Flanagan, the Canadian actor who stayed in Canada and worked hard to build his reputation. Of course it’s Canada, eh, so somehow Patrick’s notoriety doesn’t match up to Jessica’s. The character of Phil Mastorakis (in his 50s) frets. He frets about his mother with whom he still lives. He frets about not having a prompter because he knows he will forget his lines. He frets about his entrances and exits and all the time in between. Oliver Dennis plays Phil with an agitated confusion; with an incompetence that is distracting to the other actors, but with a certain affection. George Ellsworth is the harried director who has to move things along; be a therapist to his fragile-minded actors; know when to tell them bad news and when to hide it; and find the time to see his wife in the hospital. Kevin Bundy plays George with a calmness on the cusp of irritation when things go wrong; an urgent kindness when dealing with his unsteady actors; and a lovely commitment.

Comment. David French wrote Jitters in 1979, three years before Michael Frayn wrote Noises Off (his celebrated onstage and backstage look at putting on a play in the English “provinces’). Frayne wrote about the disasters that could go wrong anywhere really. But David French does something more important. He captures the essence of what it is to do theatre in Canada and makes his audience bend over in belly-laughs doing it.

French captures the feeling of insecurity, of not measuring up in your own country unless you go to New York and come back a star. He nails it when Patrick says that he is a star in Canada who has played leads from coast to coast, but still can’t make a living. He nails it when the hopes for a play and the people in it pin their hopes on a New York producer seeing their work and dream he will take the production, in tact, to New York. He nails it when actors slavishly depend on reviews, and those of one paper for their validation. Almost all of these aspects are still relevant today, 37 years after David French wrote Jitters.

I loved the subtle ‘insider-joke’ about reviews giving away too much of the story, and writing in a way that shows off the critic’s ego more than he reviews the play. Perhaps this last bit is changing today as papers struggle to keep readers and theatre reviews seem to be the least read segment of the entertainment section. Perhaps this explains the rising presence of ‘the blogger.’

Jitters is David French’s love letter to the Canadian theatre and the souls who toil in it. It is full of open-hearted affection, a caustic comment or two, keen-eyed perception and laughs that bubble up from your toes. It’s performed by a cast that is second to nobody, anywhere.

See it.

Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: March 16, 2016.
I was able to see it: March 21, 2016.
Closes: April 15, 2016.
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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