THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF ANATOL by Arthur Schnitzler, adapted and directed by Morris Panych, with Mike Shara, Nicole Underhay, Robert Persichini and Adam Paolozza. Presented by the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Runs to February 10, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $27-$53, limited same-day Rush Friday and Sunday, pwyc matinee February 2. 416-531-1827. See listings.
I'm always happy to sit in the audience for a Nicole Underhay performance. But since she's playing a total of seven characters in The Amorous Adventures Of Anatol, it might be just as much fun to watch from the wings.
"It's going to be absolute chaos backstage," says Underhay, displaying her dimpled smile. "We've pushed the quick change thing to the wall. There are four wigs, seven completely different costumes, and Emilie, the lovely assistant stage manager, will be trying to squeeze me into...."
She pauses, her eyes lighting up with that mischievous glint familiar to theatre lovers.
"Here's one thing about rehearsing over the Christmas holidays," she says, patting her trim stomach for effect. "‘Um, Emilie, can you please move that corset hook over... just a... little bit?'"
Of course, disappearing into more than half a dozen roles - everything from a worldly ballerina to a naive girlfriend - should be a breeze for Underhay, who's demonstrated her enormous range in comedies, dramas and musicals at the Shaw Festival, Soulpepper, Canadian Stage and the Tarragon.
Things like outfits and hair aren't the key to a typical Underhay performance. In Anatol, Morris Panych's reworking of the Arthur Schnitzler play about a narcissist's (Mike Shara) pursuit of seven women, she'll have to transform herself as well.
"All without using accents, limps, lisps or things like that," she says, exuding the same current of excitement she does onstage. "In a way, I'm trying to shape these characters via different facets of myself, because you can read these roles as aspects of the same person."
Before rehearsals began, she kept a notebook on each character, and has tried to find a specific physical gesture to set them apart.
"One character is a ballet dancer, so it could be something like standing in a turnout for a second."
It helped, she says, to watch Melody A. Johnson morph into a dozen characters in her recent show Miss Caledonia, also at the Tarragon.
"I loved how simply Melody was able to create these different people," says Underhay. "That inspired me going into this show. It's about the storytelling, playing the scenes truthfully and building a background picture for each character so you have this whole outer world and you can just step into it."
Less than a year ago at the same theatre, Underhay literally stepped into the magical world of Carole Fréchette's The Small Room At The Top Of The Stairs, playing a sort of modern-day princess who discovers that her new husband has kept some sinister secrets locked up in a room. The intense, layered performance earned her a Dora nomination and the best actress award from the Toronto Theatre Critics' Association.
"That was terrifying because it was the first time in a while I'd done a role where I didn't have an accent," she says. "I felt so naked. I hadn't heard my own voice in such a long time. And there also wasn't a traditional set. So I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I can't do this!' But that happens every show. I need that fear."
Judging from end-of-year critics' lists, including NOW's, Underhay emerged in 2012 as one of the Shaw Festival's bona fide leading ladies, triumphing in the title role in season opener The Millionairess and playing the part of tough-talking Hildy Johnson - made famous in the movie by Rosalind Russell - in His Girl Friday. Just one of these parts would have been gruelling enough; doing both was like running an eight-month marathon.
"Summer went by in a blur," she says. "I don't remember one month from the next. A couple of times I almost lost my voice, which is an actor's worst nightmare. I had a great time, and it was fun being onstage, but it got to the point where it felt like I had been in front of an audience too much."
This season, Underhay returns to Niagara-on-the-Lake for two big productions. She'll play Major Barbara, a role that, because of the character's 20-something age, "will probably be the last time I'll be able to do it. They'll have to leave the first few rows empty," she jokes. She'll also star in Tom Stoppard's literary mystery Arcadia.
Not bad for the shy woman from St. John's, Newfoundland, who never dreamed of stepping on a stage and only chanced upon it as a career. She originally studied geology - "I even published a paper on the fossilized worm jaws of Cow Head, Newfoundland, which is available online!" - and then, after travelling, settled in Toronto and acted in community theatre venues like the Village Playhouse.
For the past two seasons at Shaw she's lived in a houseboat and, years ago while in Toronto doing a Soulpepper season, she lived on the Toronto Islands. Nostalgia for Newfoundland?
"Maybe those are my East Coast roots coming through," she says. "The desire to be close to the water, the nice little community at a marina. I come from a small town, so it's great to be in a place where people make eye contact and say hello and stuff."
She'd like to do more film and TV - a guest spot on Rookie Blue airs later this season. And she'd also like to spread her wings - she mentions the Vienna English Theatre, working in Ireland or England. Last fall she took her second-ever trip to New York City and, as she puts it, could finally understand why people fall in love with the place.
When she returns to the Shaw Festival this March she's also hoping to start singing again in her country music group the Done Me Wrongs, which consists of former Shaw ensemble member Cameron Macduffee and musicians Bill Bridges, Morgan Doctor and Karen Graves.
"We did whisky-drinking, gone-off-and-left-me songs," she says. "We'd get together after shows, open a bottle of bourbon and play some tunes. I'm ready to do that again. Just open that bottle and get going."