For the past several years actor Margaret Evans has been living openly with Jim Watts.
Watts, born Eugenia Watts, was a driving force in the Canadian leftist theatre movement of the 30s. Involved with poet Dorothy Livesay, she forsook her theatre work to drive an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. Born into a conservative family, Watts inherited a fortune that she put toward political causes like the Theatre of Action.
"We at Praxis Theatre first heard of her in a lecture that Alex Fallis gave about the communist Progressive Arts Club," says Evans, who plays Jim in Tara Beagan's Jesus Chrysler, a Praxis production opening tonight (Thursday, December 1).
The title refers to the car in which Watts drove her theatre troupe around southern Ontario.
Evans first performed Jim in Praxis's 2009 Fringe show Tim Buck 2, which centred on the Arts Club's work. She's played her in various other workshops of the material, including a Hatch show and Lab Cab, at the same time researching the theatre artist and discovering that, like Evans, she spent time studying in New York City.
"When Tara came on board as playwright, we started to look at Jim's inner conflict as well as her political activities. Jim seemed to me to be a force of nature; it broke my heart to discover that she committed suicide in 1969.
"Tara's script draws on Livesay's memoirsand tells the story from the poet's point of view.
"The two women became friends in high school. From what I understand, Jim became increasingly political and sexually experimental; I sense that Dorothy wasn't comfortable with Jim's identifying with a lesbian crowd, and their friendship changed."
They stayed in contact, though, throughout their lives, even possibly sharing a boyfriend consecutively. He's the inspiration for Nate, a telegram delivery man and the third character in Jesus Chrysler.
"In the play, Jim doesn't seem to respect either of her friendships in ways that would make them thrive," notes Evans, who's appeared in The Moon Bath Girl and DYAD.
"She's not capable of having a clear, stable relationship with anyone.
"At times I sense tht she's a child seeking the attention of others because she's uncomfortable with her feelings. She had brief, torrid affairs with men, but I think was more in love with the women with whom she was involved. The real Jim eventually did marry and stayed with her husband the rest of her life."
The play dips into magic realism to shift between the time of Jim's death in 1969 and her work in the 30s. Expect an unconventional presentation, too, for director Michael Wheeler is using Theatre Passe Muraille's Backspace in a way that involves the audience in the intimate action.
"Jim's kind of the host for the evening, and the production pays homage to her energy and charm.
"She's in my skin now," smiles Evans. "I appreciate having been part of the entire creative process rather than just downloading information about a historical character."
Shinn actors shine
Dying City, the latest by surface/underground theatre (here producing with Elisa's Boy Productions), is a mostly successful look at the stop-and-start nature of human affection and the difficulty of reclaiming those once close.
It moves back and forth between two time periods, a year ago and today. In the former, Craig is about to go off to fight in Iraq; in the latter, his girlfriend, Kelly, and his gay twin brother, Peter, deal with that last night the three spent together and try to come to terms with Craig's death overseas.
Christopher Shinn's script, sometimes intense and sometimes comic, explores the desires of each character, the need both to love and be loved. In the chronologically earlier scenes, Kelly seeks reassurances from Craig before he leaves; in the contemporary scenes, it's Peter who has to woo Kelly to open up.
The playwright's made it tricky by having the same actor play identical twins Craig and Peter. Sergio Di Zio carefully defines the two men, using a slightly higher register for the insecure Peter but also suggesting a different emotional core for each: Craig is sullen, his brow usually furrowed, Peter is little-boy needy.
As Kelly, Lesley Faulkner also reveals two contrasting portraits. In the past, she's less confident, fighting with Craig, while in the present she's withdrawn, physically tight and sits on her feelings.
The chemistry between the two actors is wonderfully nuanced in the small performing space; their subtle work makes the several intense emotional moments even more explosive. Peter Pasyk's direction helps give a richness to the performances, especially in the mood shifts between scenes.
Opera in the Annex
Against the Grain, a grassroots opera troupe, begins its second season with a remount of its hit production of Puccini's La Bohème.
Set in today's Toronto and sung in a new English translation, the opera is performed at the Tranzac Club. The cast includes Miriam Khalil as Mimi and Ryan Harper as Rodolfo, the romantic leads, with Justin Welsh and Lindsay Sutherland Boal as the ever-battling lovers Marcello and Musetta. Joel Ivany directs, with musical direction by Christopher Mokrzewski.
Later in its season, Against the Grain plans to stage Benjamin Britten's The Turn Of The Screw and give a concert performance of Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins.
A trio of indies
As we start into December, several other independent companies present shows before audiences get caught up in holiday activities.
Optic Heart stages a revised version of Hume Baugh's Crush, premiered a few years ago in SummerWorks. Loosely based on the Jenny Jones Show "secret admirer" story, it's about a man who moves in with another man and a woman in a trailer park; conflicting sexual desires lead to a tragic ending.
Ryan Kelly and Julian DeZotti return to the production with new actor Courtney Lyons; Mark Cassidy directs.
QED Theatre Co-op, which includes some members of the ever-active Red One Theatre, presents David Auburn's Proof, in which a mathematical genius's death brings together his younger daughter and protege, her estranged sister and one of the prof's former students.
David Tompa directs John Evans, Joe Dinicol, Joanne Kelly and Dani Kind.
There's more contemporary American drama in Neil Labute's Reasons To Be Pretty, the first production by Rogue Theatre. The company's run by Diana Bentley and Brooke Morgan, who we first saw in the September Lab Cab production of Deuce.
LaBute's play, a gritty exploration of beauty and male-female relationships, also features Mike Majeski and Tim Walker, with Steven McCarthy directing.