OMNIUM GATHERUM by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, directed by David Storch, with Fiona Reid, Sam Kalilieh, Hardee T. Lineham, James MacDonald, Brenda Robins, Ashley Wright, Andrea Scott and Nigel Shawn Williams. Presented by CanStage at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews begin Monday (October 11), opens October 14 and runs to November 20, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $26-$51, Monday pwyc, some rush. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Actor Fiona Reid's expert at entertaining audiences, having dished out the words and characters of such playwrights as Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams.
In her latest show, Omnium Gatherum, we get to see how well she dishes out a meal.
Reid plays Suzie, the host at an elegant dinner party for a group of select, mostly high-profile and outspoken guests. They include a best-selling American novelist, a vegan feminist, a black female minister, a poetic Arabic scholar and a New York fireman.
The evening ends in bedlam, but not because Suzie offers a soggy soufflé.
"This serving thing would be a stretch for me in real life, and it's doubly so in the theatre," laughs Reid over lunch. "Onstage, I'm right in the thick of it trying to set and clear seven and sometimes eight place settings and still be gracious to everyone.
"Yet I just love wearing the skin of a person who breezes about seeing that the right cutlery is in place and the glasses are filled, all the while describing the meal in exotic detail."
The actor admits it's incredibly difficult to make a meal work and be interesting either onstage or on film.
"Here it's even a more technical thing, for the set is on a slow revolve. Actors often remember lines from where they are in a physical space. I simply can't do that here. I keep waiting for something visual to ground myself in, yet it's the ground that keeps shifting under me."
Omnium Gatherum - which means a miscellaneous, sometimes confusing collection of things or people - is playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros's response to 9/11 and its aftermath. Characters look for causes, explanations and responsibilities. The writers have drawn on some well-known people as character models, and it's not hard to see similarities between Suzie and style maven Martha Stewart.
"As an actor, I simply use that as a point of departure," offers two-time-Dora winner Reid, who's equally at home onstage and onscreen. "But the character is Suzie, not Martha, and I was more gripped by what the writers are taking on.
"They're aiming for a catharsis, setting themselves the daunting but fascinating challenge of sorting out divergent opinions about the world situation. You never feel that the figures onstage are stereotypes; they're people espousing personal ideas.
"It's theatre in a true sense, where you suspend disbelief and just accept what you see, despite a situation that sometimes is more surreal than real."
Part of the theatrical experience, adds Reid, is that everyone in the audience will hear their point of view - on terrorists, the Middle East situation, vegetarianism or arts funding - taken to task, no matter what side of the fence they're on.
"This play has to be uncomfortable for everyone at some moment. You're sure to be reminded that you should think about your position again."
There's an added layer in this production: the actor notes that it's an American play seen through a Canadian prism.
"What do Canadians do all their lives," wonders Reid aloud, "but observe Americans?"
She sees Suzie as a mogul with the entitlement of the rich, someone who has no intellectual grasp of what's happening in the world.
"She's one of those people who are comfortable and feel really badly that there are disaffected people out there but don't want their own lifestyle challenged. She feels she's earned what she has.
"Suzie simply doesn't understand how she's implicated in the world's problems."
With a decade at the Shaw Festival, two seasons at Stratford and lots of Toronto stage work, Reid's as comfortable with the classics as with new works. Among her recent memorable performances were Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, marking an uncommon foray into musical theatre, and Frances in Michael Healey's Rune Arlidge.
After a talkative first act in the Healey play, the character suffers a stroke and spends the second in a mute, angry state. The actor made Frances both deeply funny and deeply tragic, tapping a skill that Reid has often put to good use.
"I never make a dichotomy between the comic and the serious," she says. "I think life is both crazy and funny, so humour resides in that place of laughing so as not to cry.
"I wasn't surprised when someone told me that laughter and tears come from the same place in the brain. That confirms what I knew instinctively, that my sense of comedy comes from my sad place."
And though Reid has an innate sense of comic timing, she learned from actor Errol Slue that there's a sense of tragic timing as well.
"What Errol taught me was that if you listen for it, you can hear silence as well as laughter. That's let me be more confident in serious works. That equally audible silence in a more intense work lets me know that I've been communicating effectively."