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Actors shed inhibitions, and clothes, in new Blue Bridge theatre production

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune runs until Nov. 7
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Jacob Richmond and Kelly Hobson star in Blue Bridge theatre's production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. JAM HIMIDI

ON STAGE

What: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Where: The Roxy Theatre, 2657 Quadra St.
When: Oct. 27-Nov. 7
Tickets: $25 (livestreamed) or $37.80 (in person) from 250-382-3370 or bluebridgetheatre.ca

The titular characters in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a two-hander from 1987 by playwright Terence McNally, have been inhabited by an impressive array of stage veterans over the years.

That was handy for actors Kelly Hobson and Jacob Richmond, who star in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of the Tony Award-winning favourite. Al Pacino, Stanley Tucci, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, F. Murray Abraham and Edie Falco have each played one of the lead roles on stage or in film, which provided reams of media from which the local actors could draw context and scope.

It was a big help in other ways, too. Knowing that the acting elite signed on for roles that called for nudity at various points made the elephant in the room much less of a harbinger, Hobson said.

“When I look at the people who have played Frankie, the first word that comes to mind is powerhouse — they are very empowering women. That’s why I took this role. Because of the nudity, I wanted to take the opportunity to stand in my power, on stage, and not have to apologize for who I am as a 43-year-old woman.”

Richmond joked that he will be the least-svelte actor to have played the role of Johnny, a short-order cook who believes he has found the love of his life in his co-worker, Frankie. “In terms of my physique, you’ll go: ‘Yeah, that guy eats carbs,’ ” he said with a laugh.

The actors have been rehearsing their roles for several weeks, in preparation for opening night. The pair decided to “rip the Band-Aid off” and rehearse the nude scenes right away, Richmond said. Hobson said she has done some partially nude theatre in the past, but that was decades ago. Acting in scenes without the benefit of clothes was a first for Richmond, who said it was a welcome but difficult challenge.“I had fight scenes in [the 2013 Blue Bridge production] True West, where I had to strangle somebody for 20 minutes, but this is way harder.”

Frankie and Johnny runs tonight through Nov. 7 at the Roxy Theatre, the first full-capacity show by Blue Bridge following the easing of pandemic-related provincial health protocols. Richmond was involved as a director and actor in several productions at the Roxy, either for limited capacity or streaming-only audiences, during the past year and a half, so he’s ready for a return to normal.

“Everybody did such fantastic work, but it was so depressing. It was purgatory, on a certain level. It doesn’t translate, going from one medium to another. Live theatre is designed for living, breathing bodies in a room.”

Richmond will have no shortage of eyes on he and Hobson during Frankie and Johnny’s run, which is something of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. Audiences are eager to return, and sales have been strong — good news, indeed. But while the nudity is non-gratuitous and handled with sensitivity by acclaimed director Brian Richmond, its presence is something both actors have in their thoughts.

“For me, it has gotten easier every time [during rehearsal],” Hobson said. “That is something that is so important for not only women but also men in our society. We have this dome over us that we have to look a certain way and be a certain way. This is what real people look like, and I make no apologies for who I am. It’s such an incredible opportunity to empower myself, and the people watching.”

Richmond is approaching the role of Johnny with a dedicated eye on McNally’s book. “He uses such gorgeous language. We were more scared about going [off-script], because we play these fast-talking New Yorkers. There is so much to the vernacular of this short-order cook and this waitress. They have these soliloquies that are two pages long, so after a while, I felt relieved that the sex part didn’t have a 20-page monologue in it.”

The play is new territory for both actors, who have not seen or been involved with a previous production. Written in the mid-‘80s by McNally, who was gay, during the AIDS crisis, the story wound up being eerily prescient in 2021. The character of Frankie has commitment issues but also a fear of intimacy, brought on by concerns of the AIDS virus. Producing a version of this groundbreaking working during a time when another deadly virus has set in should not go unnoticed, Richmond said.

“Kelly has a monologue about the lack of intimacy due to the virus, which made people scared to embrace at the time. It does ring true right now. People are terrified when anybody coughs are even touches you.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com