ELISA'S SKIN by Carole Fréchette, translated by John Murrell, directed by Jackie Maxwell, with Tanja Jacobs and Patrick Galligan. Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (October 14), opens Tuesday (October 16) and runs to November 18, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday (except October 13) and Sunday 2:30 pm. $20-$25, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $15. 416-531-1827.
tanja jacobs pauses to reflect ona question. There are lots of pauses in this interview, but they're for the best of reasons. In some conversations of this sort, interviewees hesitate because they're at a loss for words or have no thoughts on a subject.But with Jacobs, I can almost see the brain at work, finding the best phrase, the best comparison, the most incisive comment. She's one intelligent actor, and she's never satisfied unless she's giving her best -- in our conversation and, of course, onstage.
Additionally, Jacobs has the talent to grab and hold viewers both emotionally and intellectually. With her resonant, unmistakable voice and almost infallible knack for opening up a character, she's been mesmerizing audiences for nearly two decades. Back in the mid-80s, long before Soulpepper was even a thought, Jacobs was a member of Autumn Angel, a fascinating eight-member rep company that produced both new works and Chekhov's The Seagull.
She spent a lot of that decade working with Richard Rose, notably wowing audiences in his production of Howard Barker's The Castle, set during the Crusades. She played Skinner, a lesbian/witch/feminist who wears the decomposing body of her murder victim chained to her body.
"There's remarkable alacrity and humour in Skinner," Jacobs recalls with a laugh. "It was the first time I knew how much artistic energy I had. I'd done some good work before then, but playing Skinner was a revolution in my psyche, because I just had to be fearless out there."
Jacobs is now getting set to play the central character in Carole Fréchette's Elisa's Skin, in which a woman in a Brussels cafe recounts love stories to us. Almost a monologue, the piece also involves a young man -- real or conjured up by her? -- who listens and encourages her narratives, in which the naive, sensitive narrator changes names and even gender as the tales spill out.
"What Carole writes about is the drama of the unnoticed," offers Jacobs. "Her characters are ordinary people who cope with their mortality, emptiness and hunger. Ultimately, she creates an experience for an audience that honours their lives."
The actor knows her author well. In 1997 she starred in Quebecoise Fréchette's The Four Lives Of Marie, another Tarragon production also translated by John Murrell and directed by Jackie Maxwell. A difficult and delicate piece comprising a quartet of episodes suffered by the title character, from her abandonment as a child to her figurative demise as she drifts in a boat away from a familiar shore, the production was held securely in place by Jacobs's performance.
"By asking the audience to look at the invisible and undetectable," she continues, "Carole gives due respect to the tiny events of human discourse, reminding us that we're the main players in our own lives."
While most viewers remember Jacobs for the intensity of her portrayals -- she's played Death in Blood Wedding, the fearful Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary Of Anne Frank, Queen Margaret in The Wars Of The Roses and The Queens and won a Dora for Under The Skin, about the loss of a child -- she's also adept at comedy and clown.
In 1988 she originated the role of Constance Ledbelly in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Shakespearean romp Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, and last year did the unthinkable for an established performer -- she went out on a gruelling elementary-school tour with Tomson Highway's A Trickster Tale.
"Occasionally I get to work with my inner kook," she says, opening her big eyes even wider as the sun catches two shiny green apples on a plate in front of her. "I'd play Tomson's piece anywhere, for anybody. Iktomi, the spider-like trickster figure, was mental, wild and crazy."
In an unexpected parallel, Elisa's Skin calls on Jacobs to use storytelling and break the theatrical fourth wall just as A Trickster Tale does. In Fréchette's piece, though, the emphasis is on sensuality.
"Here, the material is love stories and memories, and she's constantly looking for the moment when people surrender to erotic love and are astonished by the power of intimacy.
"In gathering these moments, Elisa evokes and distills them through the medium of precise language. The result is like a row of little perfume bottles, each filled with a tantalizing aroma."