While a Toronto task force explores what to do with the city's oversized civic theatres, an hour north up the highway, Barrie has just opened the doors at a brand new performing-arts centre.
On Thursday, the Mady Centre officially launched with a production of Soviet playwright Aleksei Arbuzov's 1975 romantic comedy Do You Turn Somersaults? starring the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Lucy Peacock.
To review the theatre before the play, it seems – fingers-crossed – that Barrie is a municipality that's gotten it right. Artistic vision should dictate what kind of space you build, rather than vice-versa. This should be obvious, but too many cities in Canada are saddled with theatres that are too big and expensive for local artists and end up filled only intermittently by commercial touring shows.
The Mady Centre is a black-box theatre that seats 120 to 200 people, depending on how you arrange things – just the right size for its idiosyncratic anchor tenant, Talk Is Free Theatre (TIFT).
Run by artistic producer Arkady Spivack, TIFT is notable for mounting musicals intimately (as with its Dora-winning co-production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins) and an interest in Eastern European theatre that reaches beyond the run-of-the-mill Russians (i.e. not Chekhov).
Do You Turn Somersaults?, which falls into the latter category, is a touching 1975 romantic comedy about a late-in-life love affair. Peacock plays Lydia, a former actress who checks into a sanatorium on the Baltic. There, her free-spirited ways lead to immediate clashes with the stiff head doctor Rodion (Geordie Johnson).
You can see where this is going, of course, but it's a charming journey. Over the course of the leisurely paced show, the two sixtysomethings reveal the details of their eventful lives. Both Lydia and Rodion have been deeply touched by the violence of the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, in which the Soviet population suffered disproportionately.
Premiered in English by Peggy Ashcroft and Anthony Quayle in 1976, Do You Turn Somersaults? must require a balance between its stars to really soar.
Peacock has pulled together a character that brings back memories of recent roles at Stratford; her Lydia has some of the smoulder and wit of her Masha in Three Sisters and a bit of the uninhibited imagination of her Nana in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again.
Unfortunately, she overpowers Johnson, who doesn't have quite as firm a grip on the conservative widower Rodion. A bit too young to fit naturally into the role, his Rodion comes across as awkward rather than disciplined and dignified, and you can't really imagine him having ever spent a day in the military.
It doesn't help that there's not much chemistry between the two of them; indeed, it seems genuinely possible that these opposites simply will not attract, which rather undermines the final scenes.
There is enough camaraderie between the two comrades, however, to create a joyous scene in the second act when the two pull out dance moves they learned – or, in the case of Rodion, protested against – in the 1920s. Still, director Marti Maraden's production only grasps at the heartstrings, rather than truly tugging on them. I did see the show on the final (and only) preview, so it may come together as the run progresses.
Maraden, the Stratford veteran and a former artistic director of the English theatre at the National Arts Centre, hasn't quite figured out how to break in the Mady's large stage. Neither Joanna Yu's rudimentary set pieces, nor Gareth Crew's lighting succeed in create the intimate spaces that Arbuzov's play cries out for.
Do You Turn Somersaults? runs in Barrie, Ont., until Nov. 26.
Do You Turn Somersaults?
- Written by Aleksei Arbuzov
- Directed by Marti Maraden
- Starring Lucy Peacock and Geordie Johnson
- At the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie, Ont.