From New England to Yonkers – the long road to Chamber Theatre’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN
Like a lot of folks, I was very much looking forward to DEATH OF A SALESMAN when it was due to hit the Carleton Tavern last November, courtesy of local heroes Chamber Theatre Hintonburg. Their previous outing, David Mamet’s EDMOND at the same venue, was one of my fav’rit shows pretty much ever and I couldn’t wait to see what Lisa, Donnie and the gang would come out with next. So it came as a shock to me (and a lot of others) when the show suddenly got cancelled mere weeks from opening. A variety of unforeseen difficulties and circumstances combined and convinced Chamber to postpone the show…they had toiled long and hard with their cast and crew, and from all accounts had themselves a show ready to go. But not the show they wanted. Not just yet.
Fast forward to 2014, when the rehearsal process, already thought completed, starts up a second time, months in advance of the newly announced late March premiere. I let out a solid cheer at the news that the show wasn’t dead after all…some Salesmen it turns out, are harder to kill than others, and Willy Loman is one of them. Arthur Miller’s play zeroing in on the futility of the American Dream is a classic…SUCH a classic, in fact, that people hardly ever even seem to touch the blasted thing. According to Chamber, this will be the first time the show has been professionally mounted in Ottawa (if anyone can contradict that, I’d love to hear from ya!)…and having had the privilege of sitting in on a number of rehearsals as an extra pair of eyes for director Lisa Zanyk, I can understand why. Death of a Salesman is not a play to be trifled with…it is, in the words of Chamber Artistic Director Donnie Laflamme, who plays Willy Loman in this production, a “…sonovabitch of a bastard of a play”, and he’s not fooling. With a lengthy run time, huge cast, long monologues galore, stripped down emotional barriers and the occasional spate of hopelessly outdated wordplay (seriously, who ‘blows’ someone to a big meal? But I digress.), it isn’t a show you want to tackle lightly. And Chamber’s challenge is even greater, thanks to their dedication to setting shows in unconventional but just plain fun venues. Now this show whose stage directions call for a multi-room set somehow has to be managed in a narrow alleyway between the bar and the patio doors at the last of the great Ottawa dives, the Carleton Tavern, surrounded on both sides by patrons being actively encouraged to get with the boozing. Let it never be said that Chamber Theatre doesn’t love, or a least wholeheartedly tackle, a challenge.
The cast and crew has undergone a few changes in the intimidatingly long rehearsal process they’ve marathoned through, but from my vantage point as the most unnecessary Assistant Director of all time (seriously, Lisa Zanyk has this thing nailed, but I still thank them SO much for asking me on board) the group they’ve assembled could make good with just about anything. The stage management team of Alain Chauvin and Maggie Matian have rallied the troops in rehearsal with only a minimum of bloodshed (all in the name of art, folks), and the finalized cast is going to be one that makes serious waves in this theatre year. Plenty of faces familiar to Chamber Theatre fans, starting of course with Donnie himself as Willy Loman, and Manon Dumas as Linda. Chamber regulars will also recall the great Bob Reynolds, appearing in the show as the nearly-mythical Ben, while Matt Smith (who starred in Chamber’s MARCEL PURSUED BY THE HOUNDS) plays Bernard.
The Loman boys, Biff and Happy, are brought to you courtesy of Leslie Cserepy and Cory Thibert, respectively. Cory should be pretty familiar to Ottawa audiences as one of the co-founders of Fringe fav’rits May Can Theatre. And if you don’t know Leslie’s name yet…boy, will you after this show. Trust me. The cast is rounded out by some great folks, many of whom I was seeing for the first time in rehearsals, but a few familiar faces too…Emily Carvell and Jen Vawer (aka ‘the Chippies’), Louis Lemire, Venetia Lawless, Charlie Ebbs, and Jeff Leiper (currently running for councillor of Kitchissipi Ward..!) as Howard. Add in some sweet hair, makeup and costuming by Lesley Haye and Kristen Saar, and sound design from Glen Macintosh, and this is going to be a goddamned SHOW. The sheer effort these people have put into the labour of love that Salesman has become to Chamber Theatre is just inspiring, to put in plainly, and I can’t thank them enough for including me into their production. It’s been an honour and an incredible learning curve, and now I just can’t wait to finally see the fruits of their blood, sweat and tears pay off, and see this play knock Ottawa’s socks clear off.
The show runs from the 26th-29th and April 3rd-5th at the Carleton Tavern. And it will be back later in April on the 25th, at Southminster United Church on April 25 (And there could even be a road trip to Wakefield’s Black Sheep Inn in early May). So plenty of chances to see some great people tackling a mighty piece of theatre, and bringing it to life with serious style…you ain’t seen the Loman family like this before, I promise. See you at the Carleton! Peace, love and soul,
Kevin Reid, the Visitor (and Winston)
PS: Stay Tuned for part two of this preview posting coming up shortly, with some questions and answers with Donnie Laflamme!