TEQUILA VAMPIRE MATINEE by Kevin Quain, directed by Ted Dykstra, with J.D. Nicholsen, Amy Rutherford, Shelley Simester, Stephen Sparks, Brendan Wall, Quain and Dragoslav Tanaskovic. Presented by Rat-A-Tat-Tat in association with Theatre Passe Muraille in the Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews begin Tuesday (November 11), opens November 13 and runs to December 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 2:30 and 7 pm. $25-$34, previews and Sunday matinee pwyc-$16. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Actor J.D. Nicholsen finally has a stage role he can sink his teeth into. He plays Big Daddy - no, not the Tennessee Williams character, but the leader of a bizarre bunch of travelling players - in one of the fall's most striking shows, Kevin Quain's comic/tragic musical Tequila Vampire Matinee.
The title might resonate with followers of musician Quain, since the stage show makes use of tunes from his CD of the same name, released three years ago.
But try this for an unusual blend of elements. The plot is based on a classic opera, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (that's the one with the aria Vesti La Giubba, a Pavarotti fave about a heartbroken clown), with the opera's story of jealousy, infidelity and murder translated to a small Mexican town. There's some Punch and Judy, a dash of dyke drama and a bit of The Honeymooners.
And bloodsuckers? Well, maybe... but no one's saying for sure.
For Nicholsen, the show marks a return to musical theatre after several straight productions, including Linda Griffiths's Chronic last January. But he's been working on Tequila for over a year, beginning with a 2002 workshop and continuing with a production last summer at Picton's Regent Theatre.
I first saw him onstage in Toronto in the mid-80s. He was one of the quartet of actors who premiered Robin Fulford's Steel Kiss, a powerful piece about homophobia, in 1987. In 1988 he co-founded the Leslie Spit Treeo, and music took precedence over acting for about six years. Nicholsen wasn't back onstage until Barndance Live at the Blyth Festival.
As Big Daddy, he gets to be centre stage and play one of those ambiguous characters with whom audiences have a love/hate thing.
"Big Daddy is part of a troupe of dispossessed circus freaks, people who live day to day, meal to meal," Nicholsen says with a big, friendly grin. He's light years from the abusive, darkly charming Big Daddy.
Though he sees himself as gentle, Big Daddy regularly doles out a good cuff on the head to Sugar Plum.
"The couple are in a sadly typical abusive relationship, where the abuser keeps doing it and the abusee puts up with it for the apologies and the make-up sex. Big Daddy placates Sugar Plum and feels badly about his actions, but once she's onside he reverts to his old behaviour."
But there's an added nasty twist for this couple, for Big Daddy's the promoter/manager and Sugar Plum's the star-in-training.
"For a performer, there's a sense of safety in doing a show, because you don't have to deal with real life," adds Nicholsen over a strong cup of coffee. "There's that response and attention from an audience, and actors can often ignore other parts of their lives when they're onstage."
Nicholsen's known Quain for years. Barndance Live spawned the Cameron Family Singers, a nine-member group that plays Saturdays at the Cameron House and includes Nicholsen, Quain and Nicholsen's wife, Cindy Matthews. Quain's other group is the "garage jazz cabaret noir" ensemble Mad Bastards.
"Kevin describes his music for the show as Celtic mariachi," laughs Nicholsen, "and it includes everything from pop tunes to a Disney romance and razzle-dazzle numbers."
Expect the usual range of band instruments, including stand-up bass and guitar, along with accordion, musical saw and what Nicholsen describes as "honky-bonky squeaking quackers."
Ironically, Nicholsen's the only one who doesn't play an instrument in the play. Back when the Leslie Spit Treeo first took off, he found it hard being onstage without having a character to portray. In Tequila he has a different worry.
"I'm scared to death. I've gotten used to having something in front of me when I sing, but this time I'm without my protective guitar, my little shield."