the underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin, directed by Daryl Cloran, with Evan Buliung, Holly Lewis, Kate Lynch, Brian Marler, Christopher Morris, Dylan Trowbridge and William Webster. Presented by Theatrefront at CanStage Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Previews tonight (Thursday, December 4), opens Friday (December 5) and runs to December 20, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday tba and Saturday 2 pm. $15-$30, limited Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Daryl Cloran doesn't act these days, but if you were looking to cast someone to play one of the country's Hottest New Directors, he probably wouldn't get a callback. The thing is, he just doesn't look the part. Too clean-cut. Too well-adjusted. Too... nice.
We're in a rehearsal hall a couple of weeks before the opening of his latest show, a production of Steve Martin's adaptation of a 1911 German farce by Carl Sternheim called The Underpants.
Where are those clichés of directorial divadom? The script flung down in frustration? The patronizing talk with the ingenue? The ass-kissing of the senior thespian?
Instead, Cloran, looking like an eager paper boy, suggests "adding a beat here" to an actor and quietly helps with some stage business with another, not an ounce of aggression behind his perma-smile. He looks like an assistant director prepping the scene before the bigwig arrives.
The scene goes again, and the beat and movement work. No fireworks. The rehearsal glides ahead smoothly.
"He's not an alpha dog," confides Kate Lynch afterwards. Lynch worked with Cloran last season in his impressive Soulpepper debut, a workshop of Edward Albee's The Play About The Baby. She took on the role of a nosy neighbour in The Underpants, no questions asked, because of him.
"He seems to smile and do his plays, and they come out really well," says Lynch. "Maybe he's like steel underneath, but he's just so easygoing. And there's no question he knows what he's doing."
"There's a running joke that someone once saw me lose my temper, and you don't want to be there when I do the next time," admits Cloran a day or so later over dinner. He eats politely, too. Doesn't talk with his mouth full. Sincerely offers to pick up the tab.
"I don't think it gets good work out of people if you tell them what to do. It's better if you can communicate in a way that makes them not only understand what you want but take ownership of the idea and make it their own."
If there were ever a Survivor: Toronto Theatre, Cloran would outwit and outplay everyone else, coming silently and courteously up the middle to capture the prize.
Which is essentially what he's done in the few years he's lived here since graduating (a year early) with a degree in drama and teaching from Queens. Through his company Theatrefront, the Sarnia native has introduced us to mostly unknown scripts like the gangster play Mojo, the poignant two-hander Sweet Phoebe and the moving historical epic Our Country's Good.
The productions have showcased the prodigious talents of Theatrefront members such as Patricia Fagan, Christopher Morris, Dylan Trowbridge and Cloran's fiancée, Holly Lewis, who plays the lead in The Underpants. Theatrefront's main mandate is to find works for its young members, kind of like a junior version of Soulpepper. Perhaps because of the exposure they've received from Theatrefront shows, most of them now have thriving careers of their own. (See sidebar.)
But the shows have also pushed Cloran - who won the recent John Hirsch Prize for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Director - into the spotlight. He's in demand like no other director of his generation.
In 2003 alone, he directed everything from Go-Go Beach, a frothy beach-movie satire musical for SummerWorks, to Afterplay, a bittersweet two-hander at Shaw. Add to that a short opera he directed for Tapestry and Martin's difficult farce and you've got a real mixed bag.
"I love that I haven't got pigeonholed into a particular style or formula. I wanted to work on a big, splashy musical," says Cloran, who once played drums in a punk cover band in high school.
"I love what music can do in theatre. I did a student production of Macbeth a few years ago using the music of this African and Celtic electronica outfit called Afro Celt Sound System."
He chose Martin's script - a broad piece about the sexual chaos that ensues when the wife of a German social climber drops her underpants at a ceremony - because he wanted to learn about farce. It's a tough play to direct, and as everyone knows, there's nothing worse than an unfunny comedy.
"It's one of the most choreographed shows I've ever done," he explains. "There are points when you have to say a line, turn your head, move a piece of furniture and say your other line. To be that technically specific makes it funny but somehow also freeing for the actors. It sounds like we're locking them down, but as soon as they feel those beats they feel confident in that moment and can move on."
It's a good thing he's having some fun with the Martin piece, because his next project, in January (a few weeks before his wedding to Lewis), is part of an ongoing international exchange called The Sarajevo Project. The project's co-written and co-performed with several Bosnian artists, about a Bosnian soldier who escapes to Canada and then returns 10 years later.
"The process has made me check my own assumptions about how theatre is made and why theatre is important," says Cloran, who travelled to Sarajevo with other Threatrefront artists earlier this year.
"There's no independent theatre in Sarajevo. It's all state. After theatre school you either get hired by the state theatre or you don't work. What they're forbidden to do because it's state theatre and how they try to fight against that is very interesting."
Cloran relishes his indie status, although he's inching his way toward bigger-budget shows - for instance, the big musical The Last Five Years he's helming in a few months at CanStage, with Tyley Ross. No surprise that he mentions Robert Lepage as a director to look up to, as well as Richard Rose and Daniel Brooks.
"Theatrefront is not interested in owning a building and having a theatre to program a season in," he says. "We're much more interested in touring our work internationally or collaborating internationally to create work, while at the same time producing work here in Toronto."
And his personal life?
"He's a complete workaholic," laughs fiancée Lewis. "If he ever has a day off, he'll be up at the reference library or over at TheatreBooks. When we go away on a trip we see theatre."
"But not," adds Cloran, "on our honeymoon."
One way to ensure you do great work is to surround yourself with great talent. As artistic director of Theatrefront, Daryl Cloran has assembled one kick-ass ensemble, a few of whom appear in each show. The core group met at Queen's University, but it's grown to include 12 like-minded souls, most in their mid-to-late 20s. Together they number some of the best in the city. Here are six you should know.
DAMIEN ATKINS The electric ectomorph burst onto the local scene with Miss Chatelaine , his solo show about coming out in the prairies, and is currently remounting his Dora Award-winning one-man revue of songs for women (see story, page 85), Real Live Girl . In between, he's stolen lots of scenes in big shows like Sweeney Todd and Amadeus , and recently did The Glass Menagerie in Montreal, something we're dying to see here.
PATRICIA FAGAN Incandescent in one of her first local stage appearances in the Cloran-helmed Our Country's Good , Fagan was quickly scooped up by Soulpepper, where she starred in an ill-fated production of Miss Julie and more recently in their much better production of She Stoops To Conquer .
HOLLY LEWIS Lewis has shone playing high-strung nervous types in flawed shows like Chronic , Well , Habitat and Midnight Sun . In January she shows up in the much-anticipated sequel to Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom series. In the meantime, she gets to try out high comedy as the lead (she's onstage for virtually the whole show) in The Underpants .
CHRISTOPHER MORRIS Few actors of any age have Morris's versatility, displayed in roles as wide-ranging as the paranoid man in I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe and the lusty narrator of Road . Watching Morris confidently sink his teeth into a script is one of the joys of seeing local theatre.
DYLAN TROWBRIDGE Trowbridge's boyish looks made him well cast as the gravity-defying boy who wouldn't grow up, Peter Pan , at Shaw, but he's played lots of intense, grounded adult characters, such as his thug in Mojo and the jaded pianist in last season's The Coronation Voyage .
GEMA ZAMPROGNA Long before that do-gooder teen Felicity came along, Zambrogna's do-gooder preteen Felicity ruled the airwaves on Road To Avonlea . Understandably, Zamprogna's focused her career mostly on film and TV since leaving Avonlea, but she's a riveting stage actor, as she proved a few SummerWorks ago in the Cloran-directed Sweet Phoebe .