THE RED PRIEST (EIGHT WAYS TO SAY GOODBYE) by Mieko Ouchi, directed by Ron Jenkins, with Ouchi and Ashley Wright. Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (March 28), opens Tuesday (March 30) and runs to May 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday (except March 27) 2:30 pm. $22-$27, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $16, stu/srs discount. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
The fact that Ashley Wright's daughter is taking violin lessons would only be a matter of family pride if he weren't performing in Mieko Ouchi's two-hander The Red Priest. "I hadn't realized how hard it is for a beginning violinist," says the actor, recalling his daughter's first lessons. "You spend weeks just learning how first to hold the bow and only later the violin. Sometimes when you draw the bow across the strings you can't make any sound at all."
Wright's character, baroque musician and composer Antonio Vivaldi, has the unenviable task of teaching the wife (Ouchi) of a French aristocrat how to play the violin in six weeks, followed by a court concert. It's a cruel bet that her husband made with Louis XIV.
At first Vivaldi is a sycophantic servant of the ruling class - the usual role of artists at the time - but he gradually becomes a more intimate acquaintance. You might be reminded of recent productions of Amadeus and Through The Eyes, where the central figures were also creative types dependent on royal patrons.
The work's title is the nickname given Vivaldi because of his shock of copper hair and his profession. Good thing, I mention, that Wright's a redhead. He won't have to dye his hair or wear a wig, right?
"It doesn't matter," smiles the actor, seen by Toronto audiences in Tony Kushner's Slavs!, also at the Tarragon.
"In the 2003 Calgary premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects, my head was shaved, and in the remount at Edmonton's Workshop West my hair was whitened, because Vivaldi's near the end of his career."
And what's the meaning of the subtitle, Eight Ways To Say Goodbye?
He tells me that Ouchi was part of a theatre festival called Kaboom, where the 12 participants drew lots to determine the order and the theme of their five-minute pieces.
Ouchi drew the number 8 and developed it into a piece about a nobleman's wife who played out the number of ways she might leave her unhappy relationship.
"What excites me about this expanded 90-minute version is its richness, not only in imagery but also in style," Wright reflects.
"Most contemporary playwrights rely on short, quick thoughts that are mirrored in the style of their sentences. But here the ideas are extended, with lots of semi-colons and commas. It's a challenge to perform. I have to think about and anticipate - as I do with Shakespeare - where to breathe and where to rest."
Each of the play's two characters has a private and a public face, the former revealed only after each learns to respect and understand the other.
"Vivaldi's such a big, brash figure. He can be a guzzling boor when he's not around the wife, but when he's in the aristocratic world he's used to bowing and scraping."
The production features lots of Vivaldi's music (Ouchi actually does play the violin) to underscore scenes as well as move the plot along. When they rehearse without the music, Wright feels that a character's missing.
"The whole play feels like a night at the symphony."
Which brings Wright back to the difficulty of violin instruction. He laughs at the fact that, as someone who's never picked up a bow before, he has to teach the violin to accomplished musician Ouchi.
"There's so much frustration in playing a stringed instrument, so much heartache.
"Not unlike acting."