Oscar Derkx and Gianna Vacirca, in Evelyn Strange. Photo credit Marc J Chalifoux Photography and Video
It doesn’t take me long to say yes when a friend offers me a ticket to opening of a Stewart Lemoine play at Teatro la Quindicina. I didn’t read anything about it ahead of time, though a glance at the program told me that Evelyn Strange was first performed in 1995, and that Shannon Blanchet, this production’s director, had played the title role in a 2006 production at Teatro.
The curtains open on a box at the opera. The Metropolitan Opera in NYC, in 1955. So it’s ornate and private and expensive — and somehow set designer Chantel Fortin and lighting designer Narda McCarroll make it feel like that, with just a few pieces that get slid away to become something else in the next scene.
The occupants of the luxury box are Nina Farrar, whose sophistication and snark are a perfect fit for Belinda Cornish, and her husband’s earnest young employee Perry Spangler (Oscar Derkx), tidy and respectful in Clark-Kent-esque glasses. Perry explains that Nina’s husband Henry gave him the ticket because he was tied up, charging him to keep Nina company and see her safely to her commuter train. And which opera is it that neither of them really wanted to see? Siegfried, a five-hour segment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (By the way, Sing Faster: the Stagehands’ Ring Cycle is a fascinating 1-hour documentary video, if you can find it.)
Evelyn Strange is a great example of Stuart Lemoine’s work and why Teatro does it well. The opening situation has unexplained threads, but the details and characters that appear next don’t resolve those questions but create others. The dialogue and action is amusing but never predictable. Jesse Gervais is Perry’s pushy colleague, poking into Perry’s secrets and holding his own. The eponymous confused woman who slips into the opera box after the lights go down, and slips away again before intermission, is Gianna Vacirca.
Things get odder. Some things seem to fall into place but other things are hinted. Settings like a publishing sub-editor’s office, an automat vending-machine restaurant, a hotel suite, Grand Central Station, and a bachelor’s apartment provide glimpses of mid-century modern chic, with a few well-selected details. Vacirca’s character, Miss Strange, claims to have no memory of her past – which would explain her, um, strange behaviour, assuming she’s now telling the truth.
There is a missing husband, a double-booked hotel room, evidence of trenchcoats and opera tickets and a $20 bill – in some plays, the details might never all fall into place and from other playwrights the hints would all be so obvious that we could figure out the outcomes at intermission. But not with Stewart Lemoine. At intermission my friend and I chatted about some of the possible explanations – we were right about some and wrong about others. And when the play ended, a patron behind us read out the list of predictions he’d jotted down at intermission to note how many of them he’d gotten right. It was that kind of play, like an elegant jigsaw puzzle.
And speaking of elegant, the 1950s-era costumes were designed by Leona Brausen. And speaking of jigsaw puzzle, one of the questions I had afterwards was “what did she have under that? and why didn’t it fall off?”
There are so many Stewart Lemoine plays that I haven’t yet seen, that I don’t want to use superlatives like “best”. But this production is most entertaining, with the directing and acting adding to a very clever script.
Evelyn Strange is running at the Varscona Theatre until June 12th. Tickets are available here and at the door. Masks are required when not eating or drinking – the usual list of refreshments including red licorice and Bloom cookies is available from the cheerful artistic associates staffing the lobby booth.