Piper calls

Pied Piper tale whistles a new tune By jon kaplan

THE PIPER by Colleen Murphy, directed by Richard Rose, with Victor Ertmanis, Melody Johnson, Adam Kelly, Julian Richings, Jennifer Dean, Murray Furrow, Randi Helmers, Maggie Huculak, Ross Manson, Richard McMillan, Rick Roberts, Steve Ross, Maria Vacratsis and Aaron Willis. Presented by Necessary Angel in association with Factory in the Factory Mainspace (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 14) 8 pm and runs to March 3, Tuesday-Saturday 8:30 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm. $20-$28, Sunday pwyc-$20. 416-504-9971.

Victor Ertmanis shakes his 9 inches at me. Its tip glows red and it has “Big Shot” written on it. He smiles.I should say that the wand is a stogie, and a telling prop for Ertmanis’s latest role, that of Pops, the boastful mayor of Hamelin, in Necessary Angel’s production of Colleen Murphy’s The Piper.

“Yeah,” laughs Ertmanis. “And it shoots out talcum-powder smoke, too.”

Loosely based on Robert Browning’s version of the Pied Piper legend, Murphy’s script is set in a town with a medieval look but a contemporary sensibility. Six-time mayor Pops governs by a bread-and-circuses approach, sating the masses with popcorn and casinos while selling off ambulances and paramedics.

Sound like a frizzy-haired civic leader we know?

“Yes, Pops is very Mel,” admits Ertmanis during a rehearsal break, communicating with his hands as well as his voice. “Pops will sell the world to buy a vote. He doesn’t realize what comes out when he opens his mouth, and the ripples that flow from his outrageous statements can’t be controlled.”

Bluster is one of Ertmanis’s specialties. He used it powerfully to create a young, pre-Hollywood Orson Welles in It’s All True, another Necessary Angel show and one of the nine productions he’s done for director Richard Rose.

But Ertmanis can also effectively rein in the large-scale theatrics, as he did as the distraught father in Murphy’s Beating Heart Cadaver or, in David Young’s Inexpressible Island, as Dickason, the loyal, doglike seaman who followed his master on a disastrous polar expedition. It’s a tough balancing act, but the actor is able to play both emotional tenderness and physical threat in a single scene.

With a cast of 20, The Piper offers Ertmanis some other challenges, not all of which have to do with performing.

“Once you’re backstage — and sometimes there are more than a dozen of us in that holding pen — you can’t get to the dressing rooms for a pee. The lineup for the first entrance is amazing. I’ve never felt so much like a sardine squeezed into a tight subway car. And then there are the rats.”

Sure. What would a Pied Piper tale be without rats?

These vermin, though, are slavelike serfs with tails who dream of being human and are led by Kingsley, an articulate, Nietzsche-spouting philosopher who wants to change the rats’ condition.

“They’re the scapegoats of this narcissistic, me-first society,” explains Ertmanis. “Since we all need something to hate, we can’t eradicate the object of our scorn. We can beat on it but not get rid of it entirely. It’s what my father used to call hitting sticks rather than hitting flesh. It’s a public exercise, not a real effort to wipe something out.”

The production — it’s a musical, with tunes by Don Horsburgh — draws on expressionism rather than realism as a performance style. Ertmanis again pulls his stogie from his coat pocket and points to the skyscrapers sketched onto the coat’s front.

“The style frees us up to be larger than life. If we went for realism, the audience would pull back. But if we play cartoons, the message gets through in a hard-edged way. We even get away with some pretty boorish jokes.

“I think of the style as Monty Python on acid.” jonkap@nowtoronto.com theatre preview

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