HABEAS CORPUS by Alan Bennett, directed by Morris Panych, with Sheila McCarthy, Joseph Ziegler, Fiona Reid, Neil Foster, Tara Rosling, Cliff Saunders and Astrid Van Wieren. Presented by CanStage at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, October 13) and runs to November 5, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $36-$80. 416-368-3110.
Astrid Van Wieren and Tara Rosling, cast as mother and daughter in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, remind me that last time they were onstage together they played lovers. Sounds like a situation right out of Bennett's script, an intricate sex farce set in a tony British town in the late 60s or, as the characters keep referring to it "the permissive society."
Among the characters are the romantic town doctor and his sex-starved wife, his bustless spinster sister, a breast inspector and a housekeeper who acts as narrator/host for the play's events. And you can imagine what's up with a churchman named Canon Throbbing.
Rosling and Van Wieren play Felicity and her mother, Lady Rumpers, just returned to England after decades in the colonies. Back in 1996, the two actors played partners in the rock musical Baal.
"Habeas Corpus is so different," says Van Wieren of the CanStage season opener. "There's a Carry On-esque morality to the piece, which takes place in a world where boobs and bums are fair game for everyone."
But Bennett, an excellent writer, isn't content to leave the piece just on that one level. Sure, the sex farce element is there, but he's also cleverly included echoes of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, tags of poetry and a few timeless pop tunes done as song-and-dance routines.
"At first I thought we were at farce boot camp with director Morris Panych," remembers the ebullient Van Wieren, whose stage work includes Amadeus, Mamma Mia! and Danny, King Of The Basement. "But the more we've worked on it, the more there's a sense that while you can enjoy it simply as comedy, there's something dark, weird and twisted underneath."
"I'd never done farce before," admits Rosling, who's spent two seasons at Shaw. "It's been a surprising world for me, one with lots of clown elements."
From that viewpoint of innocence, Rosling's like her character Felicity, introduced to a sexually unfettered life after a Rapunzel-like childhood in her mother's care.
"Felicity reminds me of the kid who's never had any sweets, let loose for the first time in a candy store. She's the Miranda in this brave new world.
"You can read her as the young innocent bombshell that guys go gaga over, but in this farcical world, things can turn on a dime. Here Felicity is quite aware that she's able to manipulate everyone around her. She can be the vamp, the coy girl or the spoiled brat, depending on what that role will get her.
"Her mother is a colonial who's out of touch with what Britain has become in her absence," interjects Van Wieren, slipping into her character's nose-in-the-air accent. "Lady Rumpers is a proper lady who won't allow herself to be touched.
"And by extension," she says, maternally patting Rosling's arm, "don't touch my daughter. Because of an incident in her past, Lady Rumpers treats love as her nemesis. She won't allow her prized possession to be tainted by it."
Farce is a hard style to play, and Bennett's writing asks for asides delivered to the audience as well as some emotionally truthful playing between characters.
"It was a struggle for me at first," notes Van Wieren. "One day I was doing a scene totally naturalistically, and Morris kept stopping me. "Try a different choice,' he said. He always gives us a playground in which to try things, and it's wonderfully liberating, but he's got a great bullshit detector for what's not right.
"It took me a while to realize that while the style is "go big or go home,' there still has to be some reality to the piece. It can't be blanched of emotion."
And then there's the question of pace. The two women, who clearly enjoy an offstage camaraderie, laugh as if on cue.
"Sometimes it feels that you should be asking about pacemakers, not pace," giggles Rosling. "At times we're going so fast, we think we're going to have a heart attack. We go like stink, jump on the wave and surf with everything we've got.
"But then there are quieter moments that sit in a beautiful reality and hit home in a different way. We can't always play for laughs or we'll be dead in the water."