THE PESSIMIST by Morwyn Brebner, directed by Eda Holmes, with Graham Abbey, Michael Healey, Ieva Lucs, Kristina Nicoll and Jim Warren. Presented by Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews through April 22, opens April 24 and runs to May 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday (except April 21) and Sunday 2:30 pm. $32-$38, Sunday pwyc-$17, previews $19. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
In Morwyn Brebner's the pessimist, a visionary director named Marcus wants to stage his latest opus in the garbage dump of an isolated Ontario town, making its garbage a theme of the piece.
The Pessimist also covers relationships, sex and - as the cherry on top - zombies.
"I don't know quite how the play-within-the-play would be in production," smiles actor Jim Warren, who plays Marcus. "But I think Marcus has this instinctive idea about linking toxic waste and the decline of Western society. He personalizes the monster, and what emerges are zombies.
"The script he's working on is ill-formed, and Marcus hopes his directing genius will find a way to develop it."
It's not uncommon for Canadian artists to go off to a small community and make theatre based on and in the locale. The tradition dates back to The Farm Show, a seminal 70s collective creation.
"While the story isn't quite like The Farm Show," says Warren, "it echoes the idea of going somewhere outside the mainstream to create organically what the profession doesn't usually allow. That's part of the drive for him. At this stage in his career he feels rejected by the theatre community and wants to prove he still has art in his blood."
But Marcus's work seems sabotaged from without and within. Among the townspeople are a number of mysterious, distracting figures, and his wife, Suzanne, and playwright buddy Wheal offer other sorts of distractions, including their prickly sexual relationship.
Things don't improve with the sudden appearance of a novice politician and a young woman named Hesterprynne (echoes of The Scarlet Letter) Marcus wants to cast in the lead role.
"Underneath their comic banter and well-armed relationship, there's a deep love between Suzanne and Marcus," says Warren. "Playing off each other is all part of who they are together. But the younger woman is his last hurrah, a chance to relive his past."
One of the casting ironies is that performer Warren is himself an award-winning director who's done fine work at the Tarragon (Fronteras Americanas), Stratford (No Exit) and Soulpepper (The Bald Soprano, The Chairs).
"When I first read the script I understood where Marcus was coming from," he admits. "Though he's older than I am, he's questioning what he's done and what his legacy will be now that he's facing his mortality."
The Pessimist marks the second time since January that Warren's been onstage rather than behind the scenes; he helped anchor The Sheep And The Whale as a self-serving Russian sea captain.
"I'd forgotten how present you have to be as an actor, how tiring it is to do eight shows a week. As a director, once my homework and prep are done, I can shut it down and take a mental break. But acting sometimes wakes me up at night with concerns I haven't resolved."
And will this trip back to centre stage affect his future directing?
"It's good to be reminded what acting costs people, how vulnerable they are out there. My acting work reinforces the importance of patience and nurturing in the rehearsal hall, about how vital the dynamic is in the room.
"You have to create trust in the room so that everyone can say what they want, even fall on their face. Everyone in the process has to understand that they can relax into vulnerability. You can't take that relaxation for granted; you have to create it."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Jim Warren on directing and acting comedy