THE SYRINGA TREE by Pamela Gien, directed by Larry Moss, with Caroline Cave and Yanna McIntosh. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Previews begin Saturday (February 21), opens Wednesday (February 25) and runs to March 20, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$77, some rush seats and Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
It's not often that a talkback session leads to a trip partway around the world, but then Caroline Cave isn't your average performer. Appearing in Three Sisters and The Royal Family at the Shaw Festival - her third season there - Cave did a post-show discussion with a group of seniors last fall.
At the start of the talkback, she mentioned that she wanted to travel to South Africa to research The Syringa Tree, opening at CanStage this week, but couldn't afford to get there.
In the parking lot afterwards, two women who'd heard her dream approached Cave and offered to help financially.
"I was stunned and moved by the gesture," remembers the vivacious performer, on a break from rehearsals of the solo show, in which she alternates with Yanna McIntosh.
"In addition to covering travel costs, they knew an Anglican minister who had worked in the townships and could make connections for me."
Cave declined the offer. But when she found that no grant money was available, she called the women in mid-December to see if their offer was still good. Two weeks later she was on a plane to Capetown for an 18-day visit to South Africa that included living with families in a black and later a coloured township.
It was time well spent, smiles Cave, for she's grounded her work by meeting her own equivalents of the characters in Pamela Gien's demanding, moving play. Gien herself performed the piece here in last year's World Stage fest.
Covering a 30-year period beginning in the early 60s, The Syringa Tree follows the interlocked lives of a black and a white family in South Africa, people whose world is shaped by apartheid.
The solo performer plays more than 20 characters, black and white, old and young, male and female. The central figures are Elizabeth, the daughter of a white English family opposed to apartheid's shackles, her Xhosa nanny, Salamina, and Salamina's daughter Moliseng, whose existence is hidden from the authorities so she can live in a white household.
"The hardest roles for me are a few of the black figures whose energy is heavier than mine," says Cave, whose warm, incisive creations at Shaw include the young Egyptian queen in Caesar And Cleopatra and the optimistic Irina in Three Sisters.
"My personal energy is speedy, but here I have to take time to make these people authentic. Heavier and bigger than I am, they operate at a different pace, with their weight" - here she reaches slowly toward the floor - "further down into the earth."
She and McIntosh - the first black actor to take on the multiple roles - don't watch each other rehearse, a decision they made on the first day.
"What's important is that we sit down at lunch and find out how the other is doing - whether it's a day of stress, whether sleep's been restful. Each of us filters the characters differently through her body."
Cave has her own strategies for taking this range of characters and using her body and voice to present them.
"I spent a lot of time pretending I was doing mask work," she admits, gazing at an invisible mask in her hands, "taking in the visual impact of the figure, then putting it on and letting it take over my face."
She carries on with the exercise, her tone deepening as she puts the mask on and moves into another's skin.
"I've discovered that the voice comes from the body, because how you hold the body changes your posture and breathing, which in turn define what the voice is like."
It's not been an easy journey, if only from the point of view of vocal and physical stamina.
"When I did the first run-through in rehearsal, I saw what the whole journey was about, that I had to build in - as if I were playing music - pauses and rests and where to breathe.
"All the other roles I've done have allowed a different kind of pacing, even in long Shaw plays. There were always built-in costume changes or knowing there was a light at the end of the tunnel with the approaching intermission."
Here there's no one else to interact with, no other actor working on his or her process, no use waiting for another person to speak.
"I had to learn that when I throw a cue line - holy shit - it's to myself. There's no one else to pick up the ball."