What: Speaking in Tongues
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To Feb. 24
Tickets: $25 to $40 (250-385-6815)
For actors, Speaking in Tongues is like ascending Mount Everest.
It ain’t easy.
So says Toronto’s Philip Riccio, who directs the 1996 drama by Australian playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell, opening tonight at the Belfry Theatre.
For one thing, its unconventional structure is tricky. In this play about infidelity, marriage, sex and death, actors perform scenes in different locales simultaneously, with different conversations overlapping and resonating against one another.
As well, Speaking in Tongues is both highly stylized and naturalistic. It’s written for four actors, yet there are nine characters. The mysterious storyline leapfrogs backward and forward, bobbing from side to side.
In a preface to his play, Bovell (perhaps best known for co-writing the hit film Strictly Ballroom) writes: “I’m conscious of the play being structurally difficult. It doesn’t follow the normal rules of playwrighting.”
Riccio, interviewed between rehearsals at the Belfry, said: “We kept saying, in rehearsal, it was the Everest for actors. … It’s a challenging piece for actors, it’s not something that you can casually come into.”
It was daunting. The actors found the key was to never let their guard down, even for a second.
“It was just surprising to us the focus it required. It was just so obvious if we entered a rehearsal, unfocused, it falls flat. It really is an endurance test for the performers,” Riccio said.
Speaking in Tongues travels to Victoria following a critically acclaimed run in Toronto. It’s difficult to describe the plot without revealing surprises; however, the play concerns two married couples who contemplate having affairs. Some characters do, some don’t. Meanwhile, a missing person and mysterious stiletto are tossed into the narrative.
Starring Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Goad, Hélène Joy and Yanna McIntosh, Speaking in Tongues is staged by Toronto’s Company Theatre, founded in 2005 by Riccio and Allan Hawco. Riccio said back then they were young actors keen to start a company that focused primarily on the acting — and in particular, allowing actors the freedom to stretch.
“We were part of a new generation that had differing ideas from generations before, generations that maybe approached the work in a more technical way. Or were maybe more connected to that old-school British acting style,” Riccio said.
It is Company Theatre’s first time at the Belfry. Riccio and Hawco have known the Belfry’s artistic director, Michael Shamata, since 2002. Back then, he directed them in Macbeth for a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production in Oakville, Ont.
Riccio sent Shamata the script for Speaking in Tongues. His company was then invited to remount it here following a run that concluded in November at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre.
Returning to this challenging drama after a two-month hiatus is a welcome luxury, Riccio said.
“I do think we’re able to go deeper in the work with this run because of that.”
In Speaking in Tongues, one thing Bovell wants us to consider is how encounters between people, even seemingly insignificant ones, can have life-changing ripple effects.
Said Riccio: “He’s bringing something original and something quite profound about what it is to connect with other humans.”
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