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theatre: q&a

Diane D'Aquila

Since her last appearance at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008, Gemini Award-winning actor Diane D'Aquila has moved back to Toronto, performed in Canadian classics at Soulpepper and Canadian Stage and spent a stint in Ottawa as part of the National Arts Centre's re-formed English Theatre Company.

This month, D'Aquila – whose pre-Stratford résumé includes international work with high-calibre directors such as Julie Taymor and Robert Wilson – makes her debut at Buddies in Bad Times in artistic director Brendan Healy's "queer reclaiming" of Jean Genet's controversial 1947 play The Maids.

The Globe spoke with the famously dusky-voiced D'Aquila, 58, as she took a break from rehearsal of the once-again topical play about two domestic workers who plot to poison their mistress.

How did you end up working at Buddies?

I've been a fan of Brendan's work. The older you get, you really want to give yourself challenges. I want to work with the younger directors coming up – it's not often the old guard actually gets asked.

Do you feel like you're returning to your acting roots in Toronto's alternative theatre scene in the 1970s?

Sure, of course, I do. I started in new work. I started doing work that was, for lack of a better word, challenging.

I was just reading an article by playwright Brad Fraser about one of those challenging plays you did back then by Michael Hollingsworth.

Clear Light? The one that got closed by the morality squad?

What exactly went on in that play?

There was – oh gosh – cannibalism, there was S&M behaviour, lots of nudity. A bad acid dream gone even worse is basically what the premise was. What was the play about? I knew then, but it was a long time ago. I remember my life B.C. and A.C. – before children, after children.

I've seen The Maids done with women as the two maids and I understand it's been done with men, but this is the first time I've heard of a male actor – fellow Stratford veteran Ron Kennell – and a female splitting the roles.

Genet wrote it for men, but the first two productions in France, if I've got the info right, were done with women. The way we are imagining it – and it makes sense to me – is as if we had been in an orphanage and we found ourselves being drawn to each other: a young girl who doesn't think she's very feminine and a boy who dresses as a woman and admires the beauty of femininity. The important thing is, for the storytelling, we are sisters.

Last season, both you and Kennell were in gender-bending roles in Peter Hinton's revival of Saint Carmen of the Main in Ottawa and Toronto. I didn't even recognize you as the butch hairdresser Harelip. Was that a new thing for you?

No, I've played what we call the britches parts in Shakespeare. When I was young, I played Rosalind and she spends a great deal of As You Like It dressed as a boy. I just haven't done it in the modern lexicon.

Will you be back at the NAC this season?

No, there's nothing for me. I'm off to Chicago to perform for the first time at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, doing Elizabeth Rex.

You originated the role of Elizabeth I in that Timothy Findley play at Stratford and later won a Gemini for the televised version. What made you want to do it again?

I'm actually nearer the right age. When we did it before, I had the white makeup, I shaved my head, I had a lot of stuff to hide under, but I spent a great deal of time having to work at the age. And the other reason is: I love working with a group of actors who don't know me. It's incredibly exciting and invigorating; it's as if you can reinvent yourself.

You're originally from the United States – do you feel like a foreigner when you return?

No. It is in my DNA. I have an American energy, which is very different from a Canadian energy. Now I've spent most of my adult life in Canada, so, of course, that American energy has changed and shifted and grown into a bit of a hybrid. I am a Canadian citizen and proud of it, but I'm also an American citizen and proud of that too. I still vote down there every election.

We haven't seen you at Stratford since you played Ftatateeta alongside Christopher Plummer in Des McAnuff's production of Caesar and Cleopatra. Is that your choice or the current artistic team's?

Let's put it this way: There's not a lot of room for a lot of middle-aged actresses in their canon, to be quite honest. So when I took myself out of the loop – and I did take myself out – other people come in to take the place. I will always be grateful to [former artistic director]Richard Monette because, when my children were very young, he gave me a theatrical home and a really lovely community for a family in their early formative years. But when I moved there I always said to myself, "When my children leave home, I must leave too." I did not want to be one of those actors who retires in Stratford. I started in theatre that is challenging and in new work and that's where I'd like to end.

The Maids runs at Buddies in Bad Times from Sept. 22 to Oct. 9.

This interview has been condensed and edited.