In his film career, perhaps because he still has had something to prove, Christopher Plummer keeps moving forward. The veteran Canadian actor finally won his Academy Award appearing in the independent movie Beginners, as an elderly man joyously coming out of the closet – an old dog learning new tricks.
In the theatre, Plummer, who can pick and choose his projects, has been more focused on looking backward over his shoulder of late. Perhaps he wants to teach old tricks to new audiences, advocate for artists and a kind of artistry he feels is disappearing into the mists of time.
In the almost-solo show Barrymore, which he revived in 2011, he resurrected the larger-than-life American actor John Barrymore (as well as his own 1996 Tony-winning performance).
Now, in A Word Or Two, a one-man show written and “arranged” by Plummer himself, he has an even bigger goal – to resurrect literature.
In the “Twitter universe,” he tells us, “great language is in danger of extinction.”
In just under an hour and a half, Plummer – who grew up before television, reading aloud with his family after dinner – takes the audience on a personal journey through his favourite playwrights, poets and authors.
“I was hooked on words – and not just the four-letter ones,” he says of the young and apparently shy boy he once was.
Of the dramatists he plucks from his memory (a lectern sits, largely, unused), William Shakespeare, naturally, makes an impressive appearance – and in what other format could you see Plummer play, powerfully, Othello at this point in time?
Bernard Shaw gets a larger showcase, however, as Plummer slips into speeches by both Don Juan and the Devil from Man and Superman. The still dashing actor has a firmer grip on the audience as the Devil – his strong suit as an actor, as always, is an imperiousness tempered by impishness.
It’s no surprise then that discussing his days going to church with his aunts in his beloved Montreal, Plummer confesses an ambivalence toward religion. He again turns to Shaw, quoting as his substitute Apostles’ Creed the dying artist from The Doctor’s Dilemma: “I believe in Michelangelo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of colour, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art.”
A Word Or Two, directed by Des McAnuff and played out in front of a spiral staircase made of books designed by Robert Brill, does not always effectively communicate the message of art, however.
While the evening has a structure of sorts, it is not always easy to follow Plummer’s train of thought. At moments, the veteran actor simply seems to careen from snippet of poetry to hoary one-liner with no clear direction or even, at times, an indication that he’s switched out of his own voice.
He begins with his childhood favourites – Lewis Carroll, A.A Milne and, most adored because he was a Montrealer, Stephen Leacock.
And then there are those poets he actually knew and drank with: Dylan Thomas, but also Archibald MacLeish, whose verse drama J.B. Plummer starred in on Broadway in 1958. (He played Satan, naturally.)
There are words he turned to in trying to understand love, and, later, words that frame his thinking about death – his mother’s, and the eventuality of his own.
Strangely, despite the autobiographical bent, Plummer keeps a cool distance throughout the show.
When he’s playing capital C, capital P Christopher Plummer – that is, a swaggering, egocentric inflation of himself – he’s a charmer. But speaking directly and simply about his boyhood days or his mother’s death there’s an emotional barrier there and he doesn’t quite connect.
In the many confidential asides he delivers to the audience, he seems as if he’s speaking to a character who is invisible, rather than the people actually in attendance. He often seems in a rush to get away from his own words and move on to the next big writer as quickly as possible. I can’t say I registered much objection from the opening-night audience about any of this, however.
Naturally, there is plenty to enjoy. Plummer seems incredibly happy to recall the Montreal of Lili St. Cyr and Oscar Peterson, a time when corruption was cool. His love of language extends beyond English to French, and when he joyously breaks into the old coureurs des bois song, À la claire fontaine, it’s hard not to grin. Likewise, when he recites Cyrano de Bergerac’s death speech, bilingually, it’s hard not to choke up just a little (perhaps, in part, because this concept of Canada is dying too).
A Word or Two is billed as an event rather than a play – so, it’s difficult to claim it’s really unsuccessful as such. But I can’t help feel that it’s a missed opportunity for Plummer to resurrect a beloved play (why not one by MacLeish?) or champion a new one. Instead, by cramming too much into an hour and half, little sticks.
Like Carroll’s “aged aged man / a-swinging on a gate,” he tries to tell us all that he can, but “his answer trickled through my head / Like water through a sieve.”