Bard-Land To Birdland

Profiled by Joel Greenberg

Peter Van Wart is excited to be speaking in something other than iambic pentameter. He is excited rather than relieved, since he cherishes the language of Shakespeare and he lives, and has lived, in the world of Shakespearean verse for a long time. His work in this year's Fringe production of The Weir reminds us that he is not moving into uncharted territory. Van Wart will be playing the role of Johnny in Terrence McNally's two-hander, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which runs September 11-26 at the Jane Mallett Theatre.

First produced off-Broadway in 1987, the play was made into a 1991 film that starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. In 2002, Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci co-starred in a successful Broadway revival. The revival caused something of a sensation because of the actors' extended and totally out-there nudity -- front, back, sideways -- and how many of us had imagined Mrs. Soprano without her helmet hair and expensive-if-tacky wardrobe.

Taking time from rehearsal this week, Van Wart said that the nudity is clearly required by the text, though he didn't suggest that he and his co-star, Zorana Kydd, would try to compete with Falco or Tucci for variations on a naked body. He was far more taken with the opportunity to play a role that demands so much of the actor. In a commercial project, of which there are too few in Toronto right now and of those even fewer that don't rely on the power of a celebrity's name above or beside the title, it's even tougher. With no cushion by way of subsidy (subsidy, what's that?) as a play within the relative comfort of a larger season of plays, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune will have to make it on its own.

Birdland Theatre, Ms. Kydd's production company, launched itself with last season's play by Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. That production suffered a series of setbacks that no writer, serious or satiric, would have imagined on paper. But Birdland is back and in a different venue.

The Jane Mallett Theatre, perhaps more familiar to fans of chamber music, is an intimate 500-seat venue that shares the same complex -- The St. Lawrence Centre -- with the Bluma Appel Theatre. It isn't a regular choice for plays, perhaps the rental costs are high and because its IATSE status only makes the cost higher. And there's no doubt that the bigger the capacity, the bigger the marketing campaign must be. Van Wart admits that it's pretty cool to see his face on a huge billboard advertising what is, after all, a light romantic comedy with two actors. And with all due respect to these actors, the queues at the box office will be generated by word-of-mouth and reviews.

Van Wart's respect for his co-star and principal investor is unqualified. He believes that theatre is changing, that companies that have counted on subscriptions -- such as Tarragon Theatre -- are starting to realize they have to define themselves differently. He also acknowledges that Kydd is willing to invest in the company's future by thinking in international terms. According to Van Wart, Birdland is not expecting to recoup its investment with the McNally play. But it is expecting to reach out to a larger audience as it continues to announce itself and its future plans.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune previews on Saturday, September 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 12 at 2 p.m. Opening night is Tuesday, September 14. Tickets can be purchased on-line at or by calling the box office at (416) 366-7723.

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