SWOLLEN TONGUES by Kathleen Oliver, directed by Richard Rose, with Ben Carlson, Karen Hines, Melody Johnson and Nancy Palk. Presented by Necessary Angel at Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Saturday (October 19), opens October 24 and runs to November 10, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday (except October 20 at 7 pm) and November 2 and 9 at 2:30 pm. $22-$30, matinees pwyc-$22, previews $9.99, stu/srs/Equity discount. 416-504-9971.
Ben Carlson's mother didn't want her son to become an actor. Too many perils.And she knew what she was talking about. Patricia Hamilton is one of Toronto's and the Shaw Festival's most dependable performers.
Now Carlson -- his father, Les, is also an actor -- is a mainstay at the Shaw Festival himself, having performed there each season since 1995.
Not bad for a guy who a dozen years ago was studying the double bass at McGill, caught between classical and jazz performance.
Carlson's back in Toronto to play the romantic poet Thomas in Vancouverite Kathleen Oliver's Swollen Tongues. He's done few productions in his home town -- Hay Fever at CanStage, an adaptation of Ibsen's The Doll House for DVxT -- but he struck gold with the latter, winning a Dora as the repressive Torvald.
"Yeah," he laughs, "and of course I thought that meant my local career was over. People joke that you win a Dora and then don't work in Toronto for five years," he offers, digging into a voodoo chicken lunch.
He traces his interest in theatre to "an all-too-common obsession with Shakespeare. It began my second year at music school, when I preferred reading in the library to going to class.
"I knew since high school that performance was for me. It was just a matter of finding what form it would take."
Music's never been discarded, though. While he was studying theatre at George Brown he worked with jazz musicians like John Stetch and Norm Villeneuve. In Carlson's first year at Shaw, he played in the onstage band for Noel Coward's Cavalcade. Last summer in Nova Scotia I heard him perform a Tom Waits song at an Atlantic Theatre Festival funder.
In fact, for the past six years he's been part of an annual celebratory Tom Waits evening at a Toronto club, featuring performances by Toronto singers and songwriters.
Carlson plays a different kind of music in Swollen Tongues. It's a comedy about brother and sister Thomas and Catherine, both infatuated with Catherine's friend Sonja, and the siblings' tutor, Dr. Wise, who has his own complicated sexual fixations. There's lots of cross-dressing, gender confusion and same-sex longings.
The play's musical notes come from its language. All four characters aim to be poets. The entire script is written in rhyming couplets, about as far from average kitchen-sink dialogue as you can get. In the past 50 years, hardly anyone in English-language theatre -- other than British dramatist Christopher Fry -- has created in verse.
"Poetry is an aphrodisiac to these characters," says Carlson. "They're more turned on by a good poetic image than a good visual image. Sometimes people forget that theatre is about words as well as images. I'd rather communicate in a 20-line monologue than in a two-second sound bite."
If the combination of sex-role switches and verse sounds familiar, it's intended to. Oliver takes us to a world akin to that of Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelfth Night or Marivaux's The Triumph Of Love, where women masquerade as men to win a lover.
There's a psychologically practical reason for the costuming, for none of the characters can speak emotional truths in their own persons. They all need masks to do so.
"It's a challenge to play a part where the emphasis is on a character's male macho bullshit."