ROUGH HOUSE created and performed by Andrew Massingham, directed by Brian Quirt. Presented by Nightswimming at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews begin January 4, opens January 9 and runs to January 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$15. 416-538-0988. Rating: NNNNN
Andrew Massingham figures he's been working on his latest show for the past 30 years, ever since he first saw Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times on a big screen. Finding the silent film more expressive than talking, he didn't speak in school for two days.
"Chaplin and Buster Keaton bruised me the most," he muses jokingly, referring to his attempts to duplicate their sight gags after seeing their films.
Now he's taken the physical comedy that's fascinated him for so long and funnelled it into Rough House, a non-verbal show that relies on pratfalls and slapstick to tell its story.
The piece grew out of Massingham's and director Brian Quirt's collaboration on a stage adaptation of The Whirlpool several years ago. The actor played a shy, silent child. Working with choreographer Julia Sasso, he did warm-ups in which free-form play transmuted the 6-foot, 200-pound performer into a 60-pound five-year-old.
Teaching physical comedy at Humber College gave him added impetus to experiment, and when in 2002 Quirt suggested he do a solo show, Massingham jumped at the chance, metaphorically and literally. There was no deadline, no predetermined story to be told, only an open canvas on which to paint.
"What developed over time was a 50-minute piece, and it became richer when we invited lighting designer Rebecca Picherack to take part," recalls Quirt. "Her lighting, and the way it responds to what Andy does onstage, gave us whole scenes that didn't exist earlier."
Picherack and Michelle Ramsay will alternate working with Massingham during the run of Rough House. The actor thinks of them as his scene partners. "I bounce off them kinetically, yet we communicate on a gossamer level."
What's the thrill about communicating physically rather than verbally?
"Physical performance cuts through the verbiage, getting the message out to the maximum number of people and having the greatest effect. Along with music, it's the art form that communicates most quickly."
Ironically, for the past two seasons Massingham's been at Stratford, where non-verbal communication onstage isn't exactly a central skill.
"Rough House exists outside of all I've done so far, but, strangely, it's honed my skills when I have to speak lines," he acknowledges. "Attention to physical detail made the words right, especially in a long run. The body doesn't lie, though words can. If I start with my body, I'll be OK with what comes out of my mouth."
Rough House is always in development, say both performer and director. Massingham describes it as "the fight against gravity rather than giving in to it," and keeps referring to the idea of play both in rehearsal and performance.
"I want it to remain the best fun ever, to be about the quality of the work, not about judging it as good or bad. Fun is a three-letter word that means I'm alive and engaged."