CRINGEWORTHY by Alex Poch-Goldin, directed by Chris Abraham, with Paul Fauteux, Tara Nicodemo and Poch-Goldin. Presented by Planet 88 in association with Theatre Passe Muraille at the Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews begin Friday (May 19), opens Wednesday (May 24) and runs to June 11. See Opening, page 93. $25-$30, Sunday pwyc, previews $15. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Cringeworthy. It's a word with dramatic resonance.
Alex Poch-Goldin knew it when he and David Jansen thought it up several years ago as they stood backstage, waiting to go on in The Tempest. They were playing around with Dickensian names, looking for interesting characters.
"We wanted a broad, bold figure to feed our imagination, like Uriah Heep or Mr. Bumble," recalls Poch-Goldin.
"When we thought of Cringeworthy, we saw him in an English setting and a melodramatic plot. He became an arch villain; viewers would cringe as he manipulates and destroys people."
Poch-Goldin penned a 2002 Rhubarb! show named for and featuring the character, with Jansen playing a London moneylender who ensnares a young Italian couple in his web.
Cringeworthy is now a full-length piece, presented by Planet 88 in association with Theatre Passe Muraille.
"Melodrama contributes to the story, but it's not at the forefront any more," says the writer. "Through the help of director Chris Abraham, it's become more of a drama, one that contains an ode to melodrama.
"Now the character is more sensitive than arch. A really bad, a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling landlord became less and less interesting. Like Richard III, he has to endear himself to you so that you're confused about whether he's being bad or good. After all, who's really one or the other?"
Poch-Goldin has a knack for creating fascinating stage figures, as he's shown in such plays as This Hotel and Jim And Shorty. Also an actor, he's appeared onstage in Remnants and Angels In America and in TV's This Is Wonderland.
As a writer, he loves to play with language. That's why Cringeworthy is full of limericks, all penned by the title figure.
"The man is obsessed with poetry. Maybe it's because, as a poor child, he worked in a pencil factory in Keswick; one of his prizes is a pencil, never sharpened, he made as a boy.
"I wanted Cringeworthy to seek a legacy, but he has no love, no children to be remembered by. It occurred to me that his writing a major limerick would be his epitaph.
"The form is dirty, racy, disgusting and hilarious, all at the same time. That reflects what's going on inside Cringeworthy, in his private world."
But it's also through his actions with the immigrants Luigi and Angelina Tarantella that the character reveals something of his inner life. In addition to usury, Cringeworthy involves them in various crimes and addictions, in the process corroding their marriage.
True to their name, they dance frantically around Cringeworthy, trying to rid themselves of his poisonous influence.
"They're simple but not stupid people," offers the playwright, "forced to think on their feet when they become embroiled in something that's bigger than they understand."
Poch-Goldin's a busy man these days. He's working on a play at CanStage that deals with the world's water crisis, writing another for Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and a third for 4th Line Theatre about the former Jewish cottage community at Pontypool, outside Peterborough. He's also working with composer Omar Daniel on an opera begun at Tapestry New Opera, finishing a novel and developing a TV show.
And there are several upcoming acting gigs, including CanStage's The Comedy Of Errors, this year's Dream in High Park.
But first he's acting in Cringeworthy. He took on the lead role when Jansen couldn't do it and auditions didn't turn up a strong choice.
"I wanted to be the writer and not the performer," he sighs, "but this is what the fates dictated."