Daniel MacIvor, king of the one-man show and the pared-down aesthetic, set out to explore a different theatrical vision when he conceived of His Greatness.
"I wanted to have a play with a set. A door that opens and closes. A chandelier...I wanted to create a well-made play that was an homage to Tennessee Williams, and more than that, an homage to theatre."
The result is a three-hander that tells "a potentially true" story of Williams' actual 1980 visit to Vancouver to see a production of his play The Red Devil Battery Sign. Williams (played by Richard Donat) is mired in alcoholism and self-doubt, and his long-suffering assistant and former lover (MacIvor) arranges for a young hustler (Ryan Doucette) to distract him and accompany him to the opening of the play.
"I heard the story from a pal of mine years ago who was in Vancouver and was privy to some of the details," explains MacIvor. "But all the information in the play is information you could get anywhere. This is not a play for Tennessee Williams fanatics or completionists. It's a play about greatness. It's about the cost of fame."
This Halifax production is presented by Kazan Co-op, which won Neptune Theatre's 2013 top Open Spaces prize, affording the company a week in the Studio Theatre. It marks a kind of full circle for the play, as it is directed by Linda Moore, who also directed its first workshop at Stratford in 2007 and its production at Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver in the same year.
"The play began as a kind of mysterious monologue," says Moore. "It was the playwright's story, but it has evolved so much since then. Now it's really the assistant's story. I think it's become much more of what it was always intended to be."
Moore and MacIvor have an enviable working relationship, fuelled by mutual admiration.
"Linda knows my work better than I do," says MacIvor. "She tells me things about it that are truly insightful."
Unlike some directors who might be daunted by directing a playwright in his own work, Moore seems to love the task. "It's interesting to see," she says, MacIvor "moving from actor into playwright when we're rehearsing a scene. I can actually see when he switches into playwright mode." The end product is a script that has changed and deepened with age. A script that Moore describes as "really cooking."
In a wonderful bit of what MacIvor refers to as "theatre kismet," Donat had a part in The Red Devil Battery Sign in Vancouver and met the playwright there.
"I was in a room with Williams, but I can't say I studied him, because it was impossible to imagine I would ever play a character that supposed to be him," says Donat, who won a 2012 Dora Award for his outstanding performance in the role. MacIvor describes Donat as a consummate craftsman, an actor whose "not fussy but true" process is carpenter-like in its precision.
He also has high praise for Doucette, who recently starred in the films Cloudburst and The Disappeared. "Honestly, I thought Ryan was right for the role, but I didn't know what a good actor he really was until we got into rehearsal."
"When we're doing a scene, I never think of Daniel as the man who wrote this play," says Doucette."But afterwards, I love that the playwright is in the room with us. Even though the other three have already worked on it, it really feels like this is a new production."
Neptune Studio Theatre, 1593 Argyle