AN UNFORTUNATE WOMAN by Nicola Gunn, directed by Mark Chavez. Presented by company c Nana/Nicola Gunn at the Glen Morris (4 Glen Morris). July 7 at 8:45 pm, July 9 at 4 pm, July 10 at 9:45 pm, July 11 at 1 pm, July 12 at 8:30 pm, July 13 at 6:15 pm, July 14 at noon, July 16 at 7 pm. 416-966-1062. Rating: NNNNN
Montreal - Nicola Gunn is playing with my batteries. During lunch in a Montreal café, she takes the unopened package on the table, squares it, rotates it 90 degrees, squares it again. I'm sure she'd start tinkering with my tape recorder if I let her.
Gunn is in major control mode these days. She's fine-tuning her latest play, An Unfortunate Woman, at the Montreal Fringe, before it comes to Toronto and proceeds to Edmonton, the two biggest stops on the festival circuit. Her need to fiddle with this and that - excise some dialogue, physicalize a gesture, orient herself in space and time - has clearly extended to her daily life.
Or maybe I'm just imagining that. After all, Gunn's characters do an awful lot of imagining. Rhoda, the mousy heroine of her 2002 Fringe hit The Elephant Club, was stuck in a Kafkaesque job recording "on hold" messages in a tiny basement office, yet dreamed of escaping to a life of romance in Spain. Rex, the pompous title character of 2003's Tyrannous Rex, was trapped in a loveless marriage in a Scottish mansion and tricked by a shady family into falling for his young ward, whom he imagined loved him, too.
Failed dreams. Unrequited love. The little tragedies of everyday life. These are the ingredients of a multicharacter Nicola Gunn show - all presented with a compassionate and very funny eye and brought to life through Gunn's extraordinary physical skill.
"I don't like happy stories," she tells me in her unique accent. She was born in England, but because of her father's job as an engineer (maybe that explains the little battery experiment) lived in Hong Kong, South Korea and South Africa before settling permanently in Melbourne when she was 10.
"I love stories of delusion and dysfunction. They're what I feel passionate about. There's so much tragedy everywhere, in everything."
An Unfortunate Woman - her most ambitious play yet - tells the interlocking stories of three lonely souls. Stan is a trod-upon loser who works in the Registry of Births and Deaths, death division; Dr. Hubert is a psychiatrist who's trapped in a bleak marriage and haunted by his past; and Clara is a deluded soul who's planning a party for her mysteriously absent husband, Henry.
"They're each tragic in his or her own way," points out Gunn, whose bright blue eyes and sarcastic sense of humour communicate anything but tragedy at this moment.
"It sounds too morbid to call them the symptoms of depression, but that's where these characters came from. You can't be crushed by tragedy. You have to laugh at that shit and overcome it. I think that's what I'm trying to do. Use my own tragedies and make them funny."
What kind of tragedies are we talking about? Well, Gunn tells me she missed the Fringe 2004 circuit because she was caught up in another theatre project - she prefers not to mention the title - in Montreal.
"It was going to go on to great things, and it fell apart - for me. There were problems with Actor's Equity. I was packed up and sent back home, where I think I had a quarter-life crisis. I was immobile. I couldn't do anything. I felt like the whole year was wasted."
Once back in Melbourne, she got a job in a café, which she jokingly says motivated her to write this play.
"It was tedious and boring, but I got used to the tedium. Then I realized I was getting used to the tedium and started getting scared," she says, deadpan. "It became this weird circular thing. I had to ask myself, 'Am I happy? Do I really like cleaning my little work area? Am I content, or am I simply depressed?'"
Working in a café, though, allowed her to watch a variety of people in intimate conditions: paydirt for a blocked writer.
"You see the oddest people sitting in cafés all day every day," she laughs. "If you were to see people in a play or a film as quirky as the ones I served, you would not believe them. People are just weird. No one notices there are so many unusual things out there."
But people like Gunn do. How else to explain her ability to create a dozen characters onstage, often delineated by a hunch of the shoulders, a raised eyebrow or a roaring laugh?
Before this year's Montreal Fringe, she hooked up with Mark Chavez, the New Mexico-based artist who's one-half of the troupe Sabotage, now called The Pajama Men. Chavez directed and dramaturged Gunn's last two shows and - up until last year - was her boyfriend, too. ("The geography thing," she says, "became too much.")
Gunn's initial image for the show was the Registry of Births and Deaths.
"I had a vision of a huge gothic edifice, dark and big and vacuous inside, with lots of people bustling about whispering in hushed tones and diligently doing their work."
The setting seems to be damp, depressing England. Not surprising. Gunn jokes that in another life she was "a really, really awkward man living in Victorian England."
There's a reason why her adopted home of Australia hasn't popped up in any of her shows.
"It's a beautiful country, but I'm not comfortable there," she sighs. "I try to think about me on a stage in the Australian desert, with the bright sun, and I just blank. I've got to have Gothic buildings. I love Edward Gorey. I need it dark and raining.
"I'm very uncool in Australia. People there judge you on how good you are at sports, and I'm lousy. I only call it home because all my stuff is at my parents' house. But I have absolutely no ties to that place.
"If someone said, 'Marry me and you, too, can be a Canadian,' I'd do it. Yes, you can print that."