WOMEN FULLY CLOTHED written and performed by Robin Duke, Jayne Eastwood, Kathryn Greenwood, Debra McGrath and Teresa Pavlinek. Opens tonight (Thursday, November 24) and runs to December 3, Thursday-Saturday 8 pm. $44.50. Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge). 416-872-5555.
In most photos, Teresa Pavlinek doesn't look completely comfortable. She's smiling, but there's something off-kilter about that smile, as if she's slightly embarrassed to be posing.
Even in the publicity shots for the standout all-female sketch troupe Women Fully Clothed, who return to the Winter Garden tonight (Thursday, November 24) for a two-week run, she's off to the side, a teensy bit stiff. Maybe it's the hands tucked into her jeans pockets, or the fact that once again she's the tallest in the group, the only brunette amidst four different shades of blond.
It's a small detail, but in a way it sums up her appeal. From her days in Second City through her work in Fringe and Rhubarb! shows to her hilarious character comedy work solo or with partners like Shoshana Sperling, she's been the hesitant, slightly insecure clown who either has too much self-awareness or none at all.
"I think the characters I write are all flawed," says Pavlinek over green tea in the Distillery District. "They try hard to make things work, and they're unsure why they can't just exist without problems. I'd like to think they have heart. Even when they're dark and nasty, I think they still have soul."
In person, Pavlinek doesn't come across as insecure at all. She fixes me with her clear blue eyes, and rattles off the details of her day with Blackberry efficiency. Like any skilled comedy improviser and she's one of the city's best she can turn an awkward pause or an unclear statement into something hilarious with one choice, perfectly timed self-deprecating phrase muttered under her breath.
Not that she has anything to be self-deprecating about these days. Besides the Women Fully Clothed gig, she's currently in pre-production for her own Global comedy series, The Jane Show, based on Jane Black, one of her best-known characters.
She's the first to admit that she couldn't have done either of these things five or six years ago.
"I wouldn't have been in the right place to do the sketch show. You need life experience to make good work. The funniest material always comes from the truth.
"If I'd had a TV show after leaving Second City Tim Sims hired me right after university I would have lost my mind," she says. "I didn't have a sense of self, I didn't have the groundedness to say "No, I don't think that's right. I think this is. I think this is why the scene is funny.' I would just have said, "Okay, I'll do whatever, just please like me!'"
Pavlinek sees The Jane Show, which she created with Ralph Chapman, as filling a gap in Canadian network TV, especially in its depiction of women. An aspiring novelist, the 30-something and unmarried Jane finally packs in her artistic ambitions and grudgingly enters the corporate world. At least, she figures, she'll have a health plan to pay for her root canal.
The spirit of the show seems more Mary Tyler Moore than Sex And The City, with a touch of The Office's deadpan, painfully realistic laughs.
"I think what the series shows is that it's okay for a woman in her 30s not to have her life figured out yet," says Pavlinek. "A lot of people don't. It's not a glam, sitcom perfect world for a lot of women my age. Things aren't always going to work out. That's what Mary Tyler Moore was about. She was together, but you saw that it was hard."
The show's production team discuss the iconic MTM figure a lot in script meetings. Have things changed so much for women since Mary Richards left the airwaves?
"Well, there are a lot more women out in the workforce," points out Pavlinek, "but I know a lot of women whose sole focus is finding a guy and having kids by a certain age. There are lots of people out there in their 30s thinking, "What did I do wrong?' Or they're in the suburbs, married with kids and thinking, "Did I really do what I wanted to do?'"
One of the strongest sketches in the Women Fully Clothed show features Pavlinek and Kathryn Greenwood as former college roommates who meet up again in a café where Pavlinek's character is waitering. Greenwood is a suburban mom, saddled with kids, and Pavlinek is living in a dive in Parkdale yet is politically committed and well-travelled. The sketch, penned by Pavlinek, doesn't deliver huge laughs, but it resonates on a truthful level.
"We worked on that scene a lot, and played with different directions," says Greenwood. "The most successful version came when we made it personal to our own experiences."
The fact that Pavlinek's the youngest, and the only unmarried and childless cast member of the WFC troupe isn't lost on her.
"The others shun me," she deadpans. "The hazing was horrible. They covered me in pablum.
"But seriously, I don't have those "Oh, I've been up all night with the babies' stories. I have the opposite. I have those fears that I haven't done that yet, and may not, and what does that mean?
"I'm currently amused by that "I want a kid, but I don't have time' attitude. Some women feel they can just have a baby and put it over in a corner somewhere, like an accessory. Babies as the new black."
Speaking of kids, Pavlinek, who grew up in an adoptive family in Scarborough, met both her birth parents a few years ago and discovered that they were both actors.
"It was incredible," she says. "And the coincidences have been eerie. My mother worked in community theatre with Seán Cullen when he was a kid, and I've worked with him in shows. The producer I'm working with on The Jane Show worked with my father on a TV show called Night Heat. So maybe I had no choice but to become an actor."
Because of the series, she's had to shelve a play she was working on developed at the Tarragon Playwrights Unit about a woman meeting her birth parents. She may not get around to finishing it. After all, this time next year, her life could be entirely different.
"What? Oh yeah, some woman on a streetcar may say, "Hey, aren't you that girl on that thing?'" she laughs, mocking her achievements and thereby superstitiously guiding the entertainment gods away from striking her down. All very Canadian.
"Whatever happens, I think I can handle it," she says. "All I know is that I can look back on the show and realize I stayed true to what I thought it would be. There's nothing worse than doing something and the end result isn't what you wanted creatively so you're nailed to that when it wasn't even your mistake.
"I'm hoping to look back and be proud of it. Oh yeah, and also have 1.9 million people watch it."
Great comedy takes teamwork, and there's not one weak link in the Women Fully Clothed cast. Here's the lowdown on the troupe's other four women, as well as tips on their funniest scenes.
Who : Duke's got that unmistakable, malleable mug, familiar from classic sketches on SCTV and Saturday Night Live and films like Club Paradise. She's a no-holds-barred, old-school clown who will stop at nothing to get a laugh.
Look for : her turn as a nosey, hypercritical clothing boutique worker who dissuades a deluded woman (Kathryn Greenwood) from buying inappropriate jeans.
: Eastwood's warm, down-home presence and solid timing have added laughs to everything from classic Canuck film Goin' Down The Road to TV's King Of Kensington and Riverdale.
Look for : her turn as an exhausted woman who gave birth, at 50, to triplets in the show's opening sketch about the tribulations of working motherhood.
Who : In an earlier era, McGrath would have been a superstar. You can easily imagine her as the mother of some sitcom brood, or at the very least as the wisecracking next-door neighbour. No wonder she plays, helped by aging makeup of course, one-half of a once-famous celebrity couple in the CBC pilot Getting Along Famously, opposite her better-known real-life husband, Colin Mochrie.
Look for : her painfully true-to-life scene in which she talks on the phone with her demanding mother.
Who : A terrific improviser - she often guests on Whose Line Is It Anyway? - Greenwood is great at barely masking deep anxiety. Always in the moment, she's arguably the quintet's best actor, having honed her skills for years as a regular on TV's Wind At My Back.
Look for : the perfect timing in her self-deprecating, neurotic monologue set at a psychiatrist's office.