Photo by David Laurence.
If Dennis Frey didn't win you over with his sincere performances, he impressed you with the laughs or music he generated.
The multitalented Frey, who died Saturday at the age of 41, was known for his acting, writing, comedy and musical works with various companies around town, notably in the 15 years beginning in the early 1990s.
I knew him best for his work with a troupe of actors who dubbed themselves the Canadia dell'Arte Theatre Troupe. Along with other core members Peter Reitzel, Julie Reitzel and Michael Chipman, the company lived up to its teasing name by giving a Canadian slant to classic Italian commedia dell'arte comedy and its stock characters of young lovers, buffoons and tricky servants.
The company, which often drew in other performers, was a hit at the Fringe with such shows as The Golf War, The Saucy Maiden, El Meano and The Dentist.
Frey took on the role of Dottore, the pompous, obfuscating know-it-all who uses a flood of words and his supposedly exceptional education to lord it over the other characters. Given Frey's improv skills, the nonsense of butchered Latin and Greek that Dottore spouted was some of the funniest material in a show.
By 1998 Canadia dell'Arte had bigger aspirations than Fringe comedies. The emotionally and artistically committed troupe took over an east-end space on Munro Street, north of Dundas, and began renovating while creating some wonderful, new, unexpected productions for the Canadia dell'Arte Studio Theatre.
What a lot of audience members didn't know was that the same building housed a worm farm in its basement. Peter Reitzel, who provided me with some of the material for this article, recalls that Frey referred to the landlord's silver Mercedes as "the worm mobile."
Who knew that this gang of comic actors could handle Ibsen's intense, upsetting play Ghosts? But they did, just as they adapted Charles Baudelaire's prose poems for A Sun Without Heat, with an eye to exploring the timeless problems of the creative artist. In the poignant How Is it That You Want To Live?, a blind architect (Frey) and his aimless downstairs tenant (Chipman) share a house, not realizing that a couple (the Reitzels) live in the building's crawl space.
Music also played a role in the company's shows. I have fond memories of Spirits, subtitled An Operatic Vaudevillian Tragedy, which began in SummerWorks and was restaged the following winter and received a trio of Dora nominations. Then there was Spaceman 2459, a 2004 Rhubarb show written by Frey as an a cappella opera. It featured the composer, Chipman and Peter Reitzel as three spacemen forced to deal with a future in which the earth's resources had been depleted. I remember that, though the piece was musically quite difficult, the three performed it note perfectly, without the use of a pitch pipe to keep them on key.
Reitzel told me that "when I worked with Dennis, whose specialty was vocal arrangement, I felt like I was making music, whether there was music being made or not. We were a team; he was the sweet, harmonious McCartney to my loud, angry Lennon.
"He valued above all a good one-on-one discussion about craft, composition and integrity."
But there was a different side to Frey, the performer in comedy troupe Shy One Horse. Another company member, Bill Houston, met Frey doing a Christmas kids' show at Casa Loma in 1993.
"I thought he was brilliant as soon as I saw him perform. He was brilliantly funny without being lame. At the end of the run, I asked him to join our comedy troupe. We thought Dennis was the most absurd, quick-witted of all of us. Fearless onstage, someone who'd try anything, he was brilliant at stage combat and physical comedy."
Another member, Carlos Diaz, who was also Frey's roommate, remembers that "Dennis had a lightning-quick wit and exquisite timing, backed by a sharp intelligence. He was the comedy benchmark by which I measured all things funny. He brought humour to even the saddest of situations."
Other company performers, Nicola St. John and Vince Diano, echo that praise.
A celebration of Frey's life will be held tomorrow (Thursday, January 3) at the Royal Canadian Legion (1083 Pape, south of O'Connor) at 2 pm. Following that there'll be a gathering at his favourite hangout, The Done Right Inn (861 Queen West).