Brooke Flows

IN THE WINGS by Nicky Guadagni, adapted from the novel by Carole Corbeil, directed by Layne Coleman, with David Fox,.


IN THE WINGS by Nicky Guadagni, adapted from the novel by Carole Corbeil, directed by Layne Coleman, with David Fox, Guadagni, Michael Healey, Deborah Hay, John Jarvis, Brooke Johnson, Sarah McDonald and Jonathan Watton. Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Previews tonight (Thursday, November 7), opens Friday (November 8) and runs to December 8, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$34, Sunday and preview pwyc. 416-504-7529.

Rating: NNNNN

when the late carole corbeil’s novel In The Wings appeared in 1997, readers spent a lot of time playing spot-the-actual-artist. A look at the life and work of a group of Toronto theatre folk putting on a production of Hamlet, the book was inspired by a 1983 Theatre Passe Muraille production that featured Layne Coleman as the angst-ridden prince.So it’s fitting that Coleman, Corbeil’s husband, directs the stage adaptation of the novel at Passe Muraille, where he’s artistic director. One of the cast members is David Fox, who played Claudius in 1983 and repeats that part in the play-within-the-play here.

It’s an added irony that I’m sitting down at the Epicure with actor Brooke Johnson to talk about the show.

The theatre restaurant of choice in the Queen and Bathurst area, the Ep is renamed Frieda’s in the book.

In the story, it’s here that Alice Riverton, who plays Gertrude in the Hamlet production and is romantically involved with leading man Allan O’Reilly, has an important exchange with theatre critic Robert Pullwarden.

“It’s a huge responsibility taking on a project like In The Wings, and we all feel it,” notes Johnson over a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. “But we’re really fortunate that we can build a celebration of the original and express its passion both for ourselves and the audience.”

Passion is something Johnson understands and communicates onstage. She can concoct a striking blend of naivete and sensuality, creating determined women who are vulnerable and intense at the same time. She’s revealed that skill playing poet Gwendolyn MacEwen in Claudia Dey’s The Gwendolyn Poems and the trenchant Emilia in Desdemona, Paula Vogel’s revisionist look at the women in Othello.

It’s still a challenge creating the stage version of Alice, who we first meet when she’s reeling from the sudden death of her mother.

In part, her relationship with the younger Allan fills the emotional vacuum created by her loss. Add the push/pull sexual undercurrents between Hamlet and Gertrude — Olivier made it a big deal in his Hamlet film — and the emotional tension increases.

Johnson admits to being struck — both as the character and as a performer herself — by Allan’s question to Alice: “Are you a true person?”

“It’s a really hard question for an actor to answer — and a scary one,” she laughs. “You’re always observing people and then use what you’ve seen, maybe 10 years down the line. But does all this observation diminish your personal experience? Does your watching supersede what’s vital in the experience for you?”

And what about taking one work of art and translating it into another? Adapter Nicky Guadagni, who’s also in the show, had to cut parts of the novel for the stage adaptation, so Johnson’s glad the book’s there as a resource and subtext for the actors.

“Nicky’s turned thoughts, feelings and description into dialogue, and that can be tricky. Because of the poetic nature of some of the writing, the conversations allow us to speak in a lofty, heightened way.

“But In The Wings also contains sections of Hamlet, and whenever you do Shakespeare your own vocabulary and way of speaking change. You can’t help it, since you’re so full of his poetry.”

Johnson points out that the play is an example of Theatre Passe Muraille mining its own past, in a parallel way to Michael Healey’s hit The Drawer Boy, which drew its inspiration from an early show in the company’s history. And coincidentally, Healey’s part of the acting company for In The Wings.

“Though we’re doing scenes from Hamlet, we’ve not had any Shakespeare rehearsals,” she says, mentioning the short rehearsal period. “Hell, that’s in the tradition of the theatre’s approach to collective work — the actors are responsible for bringing what they can to the show.

“A production like this is made up of so many elements and to an outsider it might appear to be borne out of chaos. That’s very Passe Muraille.” jonkap@nowtoronto.comselectED BIOGRAPHY

BROOKE JOHNSON

2002 In The Wings The Gwendolyn Poems Desdemona

1996 Dangerous Offender (TV — Gemini award)

1995 The Time And Place (Dora nomination)

1987 Toronto, Mississippi (Dora nomination)theatre preview

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