The lesson by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Chris Abraham, with Tony Nardi, Liisa Repo-Martell and Kristen Thomson. Performed with Ionesco's THE BALD SOPRANO. Previews from Monday (September 3), opens September 6 and runs to September 22, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, mats Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm (except September 5). $29.50-$43.50, previews/mats/stu $25. DuMaurier Theatre, 231 Queen's Quay West. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
anyone who thinks that acting is pure glamour and fun should talk to Liisa Repo-Martell.Yes, she's played opposite Keanu Reeves and Juliette Binoche, and her mantle is groaning with a well-deserved Gemini Award. But behind those cool blue eyes hides some near-crippling self-doubt.
She's become the poster child for the serious, hard-working, almost self-flagellating actor.
"Acting, if you care about it deeply, is not about having a good time," she says before a rehearsal for The Lesson, part of Soulpepper's Ionesco double bill, in previews this week.
"It can be a torment."
Then she pauses. Smiles slyly.
"OK. I admit it, I need more balance in my life."
Yes, Repo-Martell has a sense of humour. It's sometimes hard to remember that.
After all, in roles like Grekova, the snot-nosed student secretly in love with Chekhov's cynical Platonov, or the physically abused Marie in Judith Thompson's Perfect Pie, she's gotten so deep into her characters that watching her is often uncomfortable.
She's riveting, and always memorable. But is she OK up there onstage?
Repo-Martell looks at me, silently, and lets out the first of many nervous laughs.
I take that for a yes.
"She has this unforgiving, self-critical mechanism in her," explains Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz, who's played opposite her in Platonov and this season's Uncle Vanya.
"It's in her nature as an artist. She gets to the truth, in her own way, but it's not as much fun for her as it is for others."
"You know what?" counters Repo-Martell. "I'm just an extreme personality. When I don't have fun, I reeeaaally don't have fun. But when I have fun, I'm ecstatic."
Gone are the days when, as Repo-Martell describes it, her friends and family would "practically be on a suicide watch" for her before opening nights.
She looks back on her 1995 Ophelia, opposite Keanu Reeves's Hamlet, as a low point that she survived. "I was stinky... it was total humiliation."
Since then, glowing reviews have doubtless helped her self-confidence. But so, too, has the chance to work steadily and seriously on the classics with troupes like Soulpepper and Theatre Smith-Gilmour, who include actors in their creation process.
No wonder she's made a commitment to get away from mainstream film and TV in favour of theatre.
"Holy moly!" she laughs. "I've had such opportunities. It would be bizarre to drop all this and go do a PSI Factor."
This from a woman who's done her fair share of quality film (The English Patient, where she was Juliette Binoche's nurse friend, and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) and TV (Lives Of Girls And Women, Nights Below Station Street).
"I just love the theatrical medium," she says. "When I'm on film sets, I feel alienated from the process. I've done quite a bit, and still don't know anything about shots or lights. People tell me where to look, and I look."
Perhaps her commitment comes from her parents, political activists and academics who co-founded This Magazine (then called This Magazine Is About Schools).
"It was almost a religious upbringing," says Repo-Martell. "They had this sense of justice, of utopia. They were passionate. It was inspiring."
In today's post-this-and-that, ironic arts world, she wonders whether theatre has a political purpose. Especially The Lesson, a play about power abuse. In the final scene, Ionesco includes a reference to a Nazi arm band in the stage notes, a detail often deleted in production.
"It feels like there's this huge prohibition against political theatre today," says Repo-Martell, finally talking about something she wants to be talking about -- she's clearly not fond of interviews.
"It's almost like a taste prohibition. Is it in poor taste to make direct political statements in theatre? Is it just not cool? On one hand, I think that. And on another I think it's wimpy and irresponsible not to be political."
She settles back, silent again. Open, but silent.
"She's always digging for the truth, obsessed with her function in a play, not out of any vanity, but because she wants to know how her character serves the greater arc of the story," says Chris Abraham, director of The Lesson and also Repo-Martell's boyfriend.
"Liisa doesn't give a shit about her career, and that's charming, and inspiring in a lot of ways."
Repo-Martell looks at me, her eyes both clear and opaque.
Why does she hate interviews?
"I don't hate them," she says. "It's just that it feels embarrassing, like I'm holding forth on these grand subjects. In private, I'm very bossy and opinionated, but in public...." She leaves the sentence hanging in mid-air.
A half-hour later, I watch her in rehearsal running through her lines, not a word or gesture out of place. She takes direction intelligently, intuitively, making little moments count for a lot.
And here's the thing. She actually looks like she's enjoying herself.
REAL GOOD REPO-MARTELL
-- UNCLE VANYA (2001) She can still pass for 18, but in her dowdy and internalized characterization of Chekhov's hard-working and heartbroken Sonya, Repo-Martell displayed a quiet maturity that hints at more adult roles in the future.
-- THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (2000) Repo-Martell's Agnes, the imprisoned and uneducated girl who intuitively understands moral codes, provided the heart of Molière's dark satire.
-- PERFECT PIE (2000) Along with co-star Tara Rosling, Repo-Martell made Judith Thompson's quasi-poetic take on Rich And Famous into something believable. She survived one of the most sadistic scenes ever written for the stage.
-- CHEKHOV'S SHORTS (1999) How many actors get to play a harried clarinetist, a lost dog and a gossiping Russian peasant? Repo-Martell triumphed in each, showing she could simultaneously break our hearts and make us laugh.
-- PLATONOV (1999) Grekova, the nervous student in love with a cynical schoolteacher, was a small part, but Repo-Martell's subtle comedy let us in on the pain and yearning her character was trying so hard to hide.
-- PTERODACTYLS (1995) In the first of many neurotic young stage characters, Repo-Martell left a burning impression as the hypochondriacal daughter in a deeply dysfunctional family.