THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST by Oscar Wilde, directed by Ben Barnes, with Damien Atkins, Kevin Bundy, Oliver Dennis, Samantha Espie, Patricia Fagan, Nancy Palk, Brenda Robins and David Storch. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Previews begin Saturday (June 3), opens June 8 and runs in rep to September 5. $29-$54, previews $35, stu $25, rush $18 and $5 (21 and under). 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
When one actor inherits a role from another, it can be like getting an older brother's suit. It's worn and comfortable in certain places, tight in others. Kevin Bundy understands the metaphor, for he's been in that replacement situation a number of times in his career. The actor has stepped into another performer's role for Stratford, CanStage and now Soulpepper, where he's playing Jack in The Importance Of Being Earnest.
First mounted in Montreal earlier this year, this version of the Wilde play lost Ben Carlson when he left the company to play Hamlet in an upcoming production in Chicago. Bundy, who was originally cast as a pair of butlers, moved up to the role of Jack, one of two young men wooing reluctant women who both intend to marry someone named Ernest.
"Ironically," says Bundy, his shoes off and feet curled under him as he drinks a post-rehearsal latte, "the two roles I used to play have gone to David Storch, whom I replaced in Angels In America."
The role in Tony Kushner's epic play was that of neurotic gay Mormon Joe Pitt, who abandons his partner when the other man has to deal with AIDS.
"The show had been playing for three months and was selling out," recalls the actor, who in this Soulpepper season is also playing the mysterious Orator in The Chairs and the surly Oswald in King Lear. "Knowing I was going into it and had a short rehearsal period, I watched it a dozen times. I realized I had to take David's skin, the character he created, and wrap it around me."
Bundy reaches up into the air, pulls down an invisible cloak and encases himself in it.
"David's choices had to be my choices; they had to fit me now. It was weird, doing something different from my own personality, something I hadn't created, simply because I knew it worked. Over the course of my seven months in Angels, I eventually made the part my own."
It's different in Earnest, since Bundy has more time and Irish director Ben Barnes is encouraging him to develop his own version of Jack.
"The skeleton structure of the scenes remains," he says with a grin, "but there's stuff I'm going to do that works better for me.
"Sometimes it's a gift to take on another's role. I inherited some great comedy bits when I stepped into a Stratford production of The Comedy Of Errors. But on some level you always want to create your version of the part."
Though Wilde's comedy is one of the cleverest in the English language, the classic bon mots can't be the cover for two-dimensional characterizations.
"As Christopher Newton always said at Shaw" (Bundy spent six years at the festival), "you always have to make a comedy real. You can't stay on the surface of the wit but must create believable characters.
"I admire anyone who can make onstage figures real and bizarre at the same time."
Working with the Lecoq-based Theatre Columbus emphasized the point for Bundy, who's equally adept in physical and verbal comedy.
"I've taken the skills I learned from artistic directors Leah Cherniak and Martha Ross and put them to use in other shows," he says. "One of the best techniques is to create gestures that define your character."
The result? Memorable figures as different as the naive central character in The Innocent Eye Test, the fast-talking con artist in the kids' show Blue Planet and the creepy stalker in Boy Gets Girl.
"No matter how extreme the gestures might seem as I work with them, they can later become part of an interior dance that informs the character."