GIRL IN THE GOLDFISH BOWL written and directed by Morris Panych, with Tanja Jacobs, John Jarvis, Kristina Nicoll, Brenda Robins and Richard Zeppieri. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews begin Wednesday (September 18), opens September 24 and runs to October 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday (except September 21) and Sunday 2:30 pm, October 16 at 1:30 pm. $25-$31, stu/srs $18-$25, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $17. 416-531-1827.
It's an intimidating moment. Playwright/director Morris Panych invites me to sit with him on the set of his latest play, Girl In The Goldfish Bowl, to do our interview.
Gulp. I'm used to being in the audience, not facing all those rows of seats. They're scary even when they're empty.
We settle onto a red chesterfield, part of the 60s decor -- the show is set in a small seaside cannery town during the Cuban missile crisis -- and I feel a touch of the neurosis that affects the characters in Panych's scripts.
With his quirky dialogue, twisted logic and absurdist-tinged plots, Panych is a master at provoking laughter along with unsettled feelings. We feel the desperation in the potential suicide jumper in 7 Stories, but is he more unbalanced than the eccentrics who appear at windows to talk to him?
Does Doyle, the sonically hypersensitive hermit in Earshot, elicit sympathy or chuckles when he rails against a too-noisy humanity?
"Neurosis manifests itself in many ways, including paranoia, anger, passive aggression, fear or self-doubt," agrees Panych when I tell him about my discomfort.
"The world is so fantastically neurotic -- even if some people aren't, nations and events are. Look at this Iraq business, which is such a fucking mess. And back in the 60s, with two superpowers fighting for supremacy, no one could be anything but deeply neurotic."
Which brings Panych back to Girl In The Goldfish Bowl, whose central character, a precocious soon-to-be-11-year-old named Iris, loses confidence in her breaking-up parents and the world situation when her pet goldfish dies. A mysterious stranger she finds on the beach offers her some hope that all can be made right -- if only she can teach him how to be human.
"I wanted to write about a child, and I can't escape the fact that everything that happens to a child seems deeply dramatic, if not downright tragic," admits Panych.
"I'm also playing with ideas about the existence of God and my own utter, complete disillusionment with the Catholic Church. In fact, the play deals with disappointment in any security, truth, absoluteness and safety. It turns out to be your deep belief in such things that then catches you out."
But Panych won't leave the play's origins on a downer note.
"It's also inspired," he leans forward conspiratorially, "by the girls that Hayley Mills played in Disney films like The Parent Trap, with those dream scenarios where she works to get her parents back again. I was in love with her when I was a child, in films like The Moon-Spinners or The Trouble With Angels."
Rehearsal is just over, and Panych's hair is sticking up in a number of directions. It's not because of gel, though. It's as if Panych has run his fingers through it a few too many times during a long day.
"Iris believes deeply that something is in control of the universe, and that it's somehow tied to a force created by her goldfish's centrifugal movements in its bowl."
That's the kind of craziness that propels Panych's intriguing works, even the co-authored non-verbal piece The Overcoat, one of the finest movement-based shows I've ever seen. Vigil, a two-hander, was renamed Auntie And Me when it recently played -- and became a hit -- at the Edinburgh Festival, and there's talk of a transfer to London's West End.
Girl premiered to record-breaking audiences last spring in Vancouver, and for a change Panych let someone else direct his work. He's ready to direct the Toronto production at the Tarragon.
Though Panych has just been named one of three new associate artists at CanStage, where he's directing Sweeney Todd in March, he has a long-term association with the Tarragon that's not likely to disappear.
The link was forged through the theatre's late artistic director, Urjo Kareda. Kareda offered comments and support for Girl In The Goldfish Bowl, which Panych began writing in 1997.
"He was a true mentor, someone who was always there to call and run questions by. Urjo always had an opinion, even if it was about a slice of bread." firstname.lastname@example.org