Grand dame

Rating: NNNNNIt looks like Nola Augustson is undergoing a personality change as an actor. NIn George Walker's plays, Augustson created.

Rating: NNNNN

It looks like Nola Augustson is undergoing a personality change as an actor. NIn George Walker’s plays, Augustson created incendiary figures who whacked the audience right between the eyes.

Problem Child, part of the Suburban Motel series, featured Augustson as Helen, a social worker from hell. In Heaven, she played Judy, a determined wife who, when murdered by her husband’s malignant friend, returns to haunt her spouse, first as a military commando and then as a Ginger Rogers clone.

Shouting match

But in Michael Mackenzie’s nuanced script Geometry In Venice, Augustson goes to the other end of the spectrum. Walker’s characters come on in the middle of a shouting match, while Mackenzie’s barely raise their voices above polite social chatter.

His period piece, centring on an impecunious British family who hire a young Canadian to tutor their exceptional son, is written in the ironic, slightly distanced tone of novelist Henry James.

Mrs. Moreen, Augustson’s role, is like a military tactician who surveys a situation before she acts, changing tack as necessary. Though on the surface the language shimmers with Victorian politeness, bubbling away beneath are intense, win-or-lose emotional battles.

Augustson, who moved here from Edmonton in 1995, has proven she can handle both the veneer and the viciousness.

In her first Toronto show, The Martha Stewart Projects, she performed a monologue by Paula Wing — with a nod to satirist Jonathan Swift — about the joys of roast suckling child.

“It was black, black, black,” Augustson laughs in a small room at Factory that’s filled with paint cans and bottles of thinner. One of artistic director Ken Gass’s weekend projects — when he’s not directing or teaching at University College — is varnishing floors or painting rooms at the theatre.

Clued in

“As an incarnation of Martha Stewart, I supplied just the right recipe for the cooking, recommending it as a good way of handling society’s poor. I was charming and chatty, roaming around the stage, until people suddenly clued in and held their faces with horror.” She imitates, bulging her hazel eyes and grabbing her cheeks with clawlike fingers. Still, she reveals a touch of nervousness when we speak, opening and closing a water bottle while searching for the right words.

Her 10-minute monologue in The Martha Stewart Projects won her a Dora nomination, and Augustson hasn’t stopped singing about our theatre community’s generosity to a newcomer.

Nevertheless, it’s in Walker’s work that Augustson has made her mark.

“George is such an empowering writer/director,” she gushes. “He never tells actors that we can’t say things a certain way because that’s not what he wrote.”

Augustson deserved a Dora for her work as Judy, the merciless wife in Walker’s script Heaven.

“As a woman who stands behind everything she says or does, Judy can only make her husband listen to her by slapping him around. Wakee, wakee!” says the expressive-faced actor, falling into the role again.

“It was a terrifying play, one that made me weep and weep the first time I read it. But like everything else George writes, it plunks you down in a huge mess and asks you to find your way out. George says we’re fucked, but then asks what we’re going to do about it.”

Ominous knock

If Walker accelerates from first to fifth gear in 15 seconds flat, Mackenzie coasts along in third but allows the play’s engine to knock ominously every once in a while.

“The Moreen family tries to maintain a society that’s crumbling. They’ve done everything they’ve been told to do, jumped through every hoop, and still they’re lost and drowning.

” That’s our world, too,” Augustson adds, with a touch of anger and sadness in her eyes.

Ironically, when she first read the play, she didn’t see herself in it.

“I’m an aggressive prairie girl, not an elegant turn-of-the-century British woman whose company everyone craves. I kept telling Ken Gass to read other people, but god bless him, he called me back.

“Then I had to deal with the fact that an old bird like me would be flirting with a younger man. One day in rehearsal Graeme Somerville, who plays the Canadian tutor, ran his 20-something hand over my 40-something arm. And I just told myself,” she says, shaking her head with the memory, “to get over it.”

GEOMETRY IN VENICE, by Michael Mackenzie, directed by Ken Gass, with Nola Augustson, Adrian Churchill, Graeme Somerville, Graham Harley, Luke Kirby and Juno Mills-Cockell. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews to Sunday (October 8), opens Tuesday (October 10) and runs to November 5, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinees Saturday at 4 and Sunday at 2 pm. $20-$28, Sunday pwyc. 504-9971.

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