THE ANGER IN ERNEST & ERNESTINE by Leah Cherniak, Robert Morgan and Martha Ross, directed by Cherniak, with Rick Roberts and Jenny Young. Presented by Theatre Columbus at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Previews begin Saturday (May 7), opens Wednesday (May 11) and runs to June 5, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $23-$30, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Ask any theatre company how to mark a major anniversary and you'll learn that it's not that easy. There are playwrights' egos to massage and different works that each hold a special place in a company's history. It's hard to choose which part of the catalogue to spotlight.
But when Theatre Columbus geared up to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Martha Ross and Leah Cherniak didn't have too much trouble deciding which way to go. Columbus will be remounting one of its most accomplished productions, The Anger In Ernest & Ernestine. Cherniak, who co-wrote the show in 1987 with Robert Morgan and Ross, again directs.
"It's always seemed a marker for us," reflects Cherniak during a rehearsal break, "successfully encapsulating our process, our relationship to both the comic and the dramatic."
Trained by Jacques LeCoq in Paris, Ross and Cherniak bring a clownlike openness to their work, a willingness to explore theatrical conventions and to be emotionally candid in their dramatic explorations, whether the work is a new creation or a take on Ibsen, Shakespeare or Chekhov.
Cherniak wants to check in with a new audience for the Anger remount.
"I'm also curious whether its style and the theme of love and anger in a long-term relationship still resonate for viewers."
Then there's the fact that the show's been a hit around the world, with performances everywhere from Australia to the Czech Republic, from Spain to Cuba. And it's just been translated into French.
The narrative begins in light comedy but soon turns darker. A shy couple meet, fall in love and wed, only to discover that their daily habits are a universe apart. Ernest is neat and tidy, Ernestine a tornado of frantic activity. Can they survive in a small apartment without expressing their frustration with each other?
"People often talk about dark comedy, but this piece never goes to that really black place of cynicism and irony," says Cherniak, who's worked around the country as actor, director and teacher. "Its beginnings are in vulnerability, and though it may journey to a world of experience, we never lose the simplicity and openness.
"The comedy can get tough and hard, but it's never nasty. Nor do the characters become smart-assed. At the root of Ernest and Ernestine's pain and helplessness is their love. The show is basically about intimacy and the difficulty of taking it to another level."
As always, the actors contribute a great deal to a Theatre Columbus production. Rick Roberts and Jenny Young are new to their roles, but watching a rehearsal, I see they understand both the affection and the frustration of this initially naive couple.
In a not-so-coincidental fashion, Theatre Columbus has grown like Ernest and Ernestine.
The artistic duo now have thoughts of their own workspace, of doing more mentoring and teaching, nurturing work by others that's created in a non-traditional way, as much of Theatre Columbus's has been.
"Martha and I have always done the work that we want," muses Cherniak. "The how and why of the company has to do with our relationship. We've changed over the years, and it's a bit like a marriage, like these two characters.
"Like them, we have to keep re-knowing each other and not take the artistic relationship for granted."