Cover Story

Familiar face immerses himself in solo show's layered language


the dragonfly of chicoutimi by Larry Tremblay, directed by Kevin Orr, with Dennis O’Connor. Presented by Odonata and Solar Stage in association with the Factory Theatre at the Factory Studio Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews from tomorrow (Friday, January 4), opens Wednesday (January 9) and runs to January 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18-$25, Sunday pwyc, previews $10. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN


dennis o’connor and i are sitting in a tiny patisserie talking about language. Calorific bonbons beckon from the counter, Edith Piaf’s voice warbles through the room, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee suffuses the air.Close my eyes and I might be in Paris instead of east-end Toronto an uncobbled sidewalk away from new condo developments.

The setting and topic are apt. O’Connor, one of the city’s most linguistically versatile actors — he performs in English, French, Spanish and can make do in Italian (see related sidebar, this page) — is preparing for his role in The Dragonfly Of Chicoutimi.

The solo show concerns a Quebecois francophone, Gaston Talbot, who after 40 years of silence suddenly begins talking again — but in English, not French.

“I’m curious about people and their backgrounds, their language,” he says, sipping black coffee. “Every day I go to the dépanneur — um, the convenience store — and say a few words in Korean to Mrs. Kim, who works there.”

It’s easy enough to picture O’Connor saying hello in Korean. Actors don’t come much friendlier.

You’ve seen him around. He’s the affable bartender, the taxi driver with a story to tell. He’s been both in real life, but he’s also played the über-everyman on TV, film and stage. Plus his fair share of bumbling cops.

“It got so if I heard myself say, “Freeze, put the gun down!’ one more time I was going to shoot myself,” he jokes.

He’s logged dozens of commercials. He starred in the very first Sprint Canada commercial, opposite Candice Bergen, but ironically never got to meet her.

“I play a golfer. I putt and, boom-bing, the ball hits the TV screen where Candice is supposed to be,” he says. “I didn’t meet her, but I got paid really well.”

A character actor with O’Connor’s all-round likeability (think Maury Chaikin without the gloomy streak) finds artistic challenges mostly on the stage.

He’s premiered roles by some of the country’s finest writers, including John Murrell, George F. Walker and that other Tremblay, Michel.

Recently, he’s begun adding classical roles to his resumé: Tartuffe for Théâtre Français de Toronto, Falstaff in an indie production of Henry IV, Part One. And for the past several summers, Leopold Bloom in the James Joyce Bloomsday celebrations.

Not exactly bumbling cop roles, these require incredible verbal and emotional dexterity.

“I used to think I couldn’t understand or didn’t have the chops for Shakespeare,” says O’Connor, who grew up in northern Quebec, nine miles from Chicoutimi.

A class clown and fierce mimic, he didn’t begin acting until his mid-20s. After years of general labour, picking tobacco, working in smelters and wood mills, he attended his grandmother’s wake and was “entertaining the troops” with impressions when an uncle told him he was as good as anyone on TV.

A sister convinced him to try an acting workshop in Montreal, and after his first class he was hooked.

“It felt like home,” he says. He began working out, cut down on drinking and lost 60 pounds to play the lead role in the workshop’s production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“I thought, “If acting can change me like this, if it can motivate me, it’s gotta be a calling.'”

A few years later, he recalls, he was performing in Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna at the Tarragon Theatre when an aunt, a missionary in Africa passing through Toronto, caught him in the show.

O’Connor was playing Cuirette, a gay biker in love with Geordie Johnson’s drag queen.

“I apologized to her afterwards about the language, and she told me she thought it was a beautiful love story. Then she said something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “You know, what you do and what I do are not very different. We minister to human souls.’

“That was cool. It made what I was doing important. Touching human souls.”

glenns@nowtoronto.comDennis O’Connor

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