THE EPIC PERIOD by Sean Dixon, directed by Brian Quirt, with Waneta Storms, Herbie Barnes and David Gardner. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews tonight (Thursday, April 26), opens Friday (April 27) and runs to May 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday 4 pm (except April 28) and Sunday 2 pm. $20-$28, Sunday pwyc-$20. 416-504-9971.
actor herbie barnes is wearing a
sports jersey and has a script in one hand and a 3-inch TV in the other.
"Hey, this could be the last game of the series," he says, waving the TV. "My break in the third act should be just about the time the Leafs get on the ice."
And the sports jersey? Not blue and white, but from a beer-ball league he played in six years ago. Splayed across the front are the words Granite House Gallery. Sports always meets culture in Barnes's world.
"I remember doing Diva Ojibway back in 1993. It was a great year for the Leafs, with Doug Gilmour carrying the team. When I wasn't onstage I was in the wings using hand signals to give the hockey score to the other actors."
Somewhere between hockey telecasts Barnes is rehearsing Sean Dixon's The Epic Period, in which he plays Joshua King, a First Nations lawyer working for a very WASP firm. A deathbed commission sends him on a quest to find a runaway, doubt-filled nun to deliver her inheritance.
"It's rare for me to play a leading man like Joshua," he laughs easily. "I'm not the stud, I don't have the cheekbone handsomeness. Usually I'm cast in the goofy second role, and that's OK, because it's as much fun as the lead."
Much of Barnes's career, onstage and onscreen, has been in native roles. Half Ojibwa, he made his mark in the late 80s in Drew Hayden Taylor's award-winning Toronto At Dreamer's Rock, going on to appear in and direct several other versions.
Film and TV audiences know him as Joseph, the mentally challenged brother in Dance Me Outside and The Rez.
His most recent show was a real switch. In Kim Selody's adaptation of The Hobbit at YPT, Barnes played title character Bilbo Baggins with engaging sweetness and a growing sense of self-worth.
He originated the role, which Selody wrote for him, in an earlier Winnipeg production helmed by talented actor/director Kevin McKendrick.
"But here I get to fall in love and discover the depth of that love over the course of the show."
Surprisingly, the actor's own journey didn't begin in theatre. Teachers recognized that he made people laugh with ease and pushed him toward acting. But what he really wanted was to play major-league ball and use it as a stepping stone to being a movie star.
He smiles at the naivete of the dream, though it all seemed logical to a 12-year-old.
"I got as far as minor-league baseball in North York, and then a teacher suggested that I go down to Theatresports -- the comedy improv competition was then at its height -- where I started picking up improv skills."
Two auditions for Second City didn't pan out, but he's had fun the past several years as a regular on the weekly series Sin City, playing first a latin Lothario and more recently a fellow named Klaus.
"The custodian of this 40s radio station where the show takes place, Klaus is" -- Barnes uses his fingers as quotation marks and continues with high comic energy -- ""Austrian.' He was Hitler's best boyhood friend and can't stop talking about how sweet Adolf was when they were growing up."
Barnes's improv background helps in plays like The Hobbit and Toronto At Dreamer's Rock, which he's done several times now. Bouncing off whoever's onstage with him, Barnes attracts the attention of audiences without upstaging his cohorts.
"That's what happened when Tomson Highway saw me in Drew's play. He asked if I could cartwheel, and when I said yes, he cast me as the Spirit Boy in Native Earth's Diary Of A Crazy Boy. Wearing boots up to the knee, a fringed loincloth and body paint, I flip-flopped all over the stage."