THE STRONGER VARIATIONS adapted from August Strindberg, directed by Allyson McMackon, with Liza Balkan, Viv Moore, Lucy Rupert, Patrick Conner, Misha Albert and Matthew Romantini. Presented by Theatre Rusticle in association with Harbourfront Centre at York Quay Studio (235 Queens Quay West). Opens tonight (Thursday, December 7) and runs to December 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees December 10 at 2 pm and December 13 at noon. $10-$20. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
If the meeting between a man's wife and mistress sounds spicy, think how much more piquant it would be if three sets of similar characters got together.
And what would the mix be like if it included a husband and his wife's lover?
That's the scenario teased out by Theatre Rusticle's Allyson McMackon in The Stronger Variations, an adaptation of August Strindberg's short play The Stronger, about the chance confrontation between a voluble wife and a silent mistress in a café on Christmas Eve.
Intrigued by the shifting of power in the scene who really is the stronger? McMackon devised a hit Fringe show involving three women alternating as the two characters and using the company's trademark combination of text and movement.
But McMackon, still tantalized by the piece's possibilities, has now expanded it to include a male point of view; the result is 17 short two-character episodes that explore betrayal, cattiness and compassion.
"I think of my main character as Mrs. Skidmore," smiles Viv Moore, who returns with Liza Balkan and Lucy Rupert to perform this expanded production. "She has alter egos, all with different names, but it's fascinating to watch her change now that there are men in the picture.
"Sometimes the wife, sometimes the mistress there's an incremental change to her as she moves from joyful and triumphant to beaten down.
"And it's amazing how much the emotional work on any scene is reflected in the episode before or after. Somehow you realize that those confrontations are things that have already happened or will happen to you."
"I think of the figures I play as aspects of the same man," adds Matthew Romantini, who joins Misha Albert and Patrick Conner as the guys. "Even though every scene is a two-hander, all the lovers and husbands I play affect my journey.
"There are subliminal revelations for me in scenes that I'm not even in."
As with all Rusticle shows, the cast develops the work's shape and characters through improvised physical work, using the body to explore and give life to words and emotions.
The process is comfortable for Moore, a performer and choreographer who's done several Rusticle shows, and the physically adept Romantini, artistic co-director of the Thistle Project, which premiered with the wonderful Gorey Story a few weeks ago.
"Working on a movement piece like this, I always have a well of possibilities that I can return to when I revisit a character," he offers. "All the power dynamics as well as the movement come out of questioning what my character has done to another or what's been done to him. Nothing's imposed or created externally."
Moore recalls that power shifts between characters came through movement rather than text.
"The women explored the idea of a wife, for instance, to see what came up for each of us, then discussed those movements and tapped into what connected with us in our emotions and our bodies. Then we'd channel that material into a scene."
"Sometimes in improvs, I'd try something with a partner and luxuriate in the power I created," nods Romantini in agreement, "but other times the partner would sweep me off my feet and blow me away; sometimes I just couldn't be the winner."
Does movement take priority over words?
"The more physical work I do and the older I get, the less interested I am in just hearing text," admits Moore. "I love the mixture we're using here because text and movement are layered together, not one put on top of the other.
"And," she smiles again, "I don't end up being a talking head spewing out words."