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SCENE SETTER: Talk Is Free Theatre lives up to its name

Barrie theatre company opening its doors for free for upcoming production of 'neglected masterpiece' beginning next week
Director Dylan Trowbridge (left) and star Mike Nadajewski are part of the upcoming Talk Is Free Theatre production of La BĂȘte.

What better way to to start a new year of live theatre than with a laugh?

In these early and gloomily frigid months, it is of the utmost importance to find ways to smile and get lost in a comedy.

Produced by Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre (TIFT), the first professional live theatre experience of 2023 is coming to downtown’s Five Points Theatre next week.

Performed by a cast of artists whose credits include numerous productions with the Stratford Festival, Shaw Festival, Mirvish Productions, as well as numerous film and television spots, TIFT is offering free admission to their latest offering.

Before the lights go up on the Five Points stage, though, I had the opportunity to ask director Dylan Trowbridge and star Mike Nadajewski about what audiences can expect from the upcoming performances of La Bête.

Richard: What attracted you to this project and what should the audience expect?

Mike: When I first read La Bête, I was not only struck by how hilarious and brilliant the writing is, I was enthralled by the level of difficulty it imposes on its artists. It feels like the play is daring us to perform it! It is high-comedy — with a satiating underbelly — written in rhyming verse.

This should not be a deterrent for patrons who go a bit bleary eyed at the thought of attending a verse play — quite the contrary! — the play is written in Modern English and is extremely accessible and easy to understand. La Bête demands a very specific kind of virtuosity from the company that will delight and amaze our audiences.

Dylan: My first encounter with La Bête was unique. It was not through seeing it or reading it, but from stumbling upon a crowd of people who had just experienced it, assembled at the stage door of the theatre it was playing at in London, England. The buzz was palpable.

The laughter, argument and energy crackling through that London street was inspiring. It was clear to me that whatever this play was, it had generated a kind of life force amongst those people who had just witnessed it. I thought to myself: “That is what I want to do. I want to create work that ignites that exact response.”

I read the play and was astounded by the verbal and comic virtuosity it demanded. When (a few of us) began discussing ideas for shows, it was during a particularly challenging time of the pandemic. Theatre had started to make a modest comeback only to be shut down by Omicron. Plays were being cancelled again and things were looking bleak. The thought of doing a play that made people feel so alive, energized, engaged and connected inspired me.

Audiences attending La Bête will see some of the country’s very best classical actors and theatre artists rising to the challenge of a brilliant, hilarious and surprisingly moving piece of writing. They will also see, in Mike Nadajewski’s ‘Valere’, a legitimate comic genius at the top of his game.

Richard: This is your second TIFT production together since the double bill of Herringbone and The Yalta Game. What do you look most forward to when working together?

Mike: Working with Dylan Trowbridge is fun! He’s a remarkable human with keen insights into what makes people tick, and a deep understanding of what makes a play work. His curiosity is infectious and the hierarchy-free work environment he creates speaks to his great character. And we laugh a lot. I just feel like a better actor when we collaborate.

Dylan: Creating theatre should be both rigorous and joyful. It is always both of those things when Mike and I work together. We laugh so much and we dig hard into the life beneath the text. When an actor and director trust each other the way that Mike and I do, we are able to take risks that allow us to do our very best work. We also both have a kind of obsessive fascination with the art of comedy and really enjoy the challenge and the thrill of making people laugh.

Richard: Mike, what excites you most about portraying Valere? And what challenges or opportunities does the role present?

Mike: Playing Valere with a cast and creative team that has the combined-experience-bench-strength that we have is an asset not to be dismissed – with many veterans from the classical festival and Toronto stages, along with the talent and optimism of some newer faces – it has very quickly become apparent that we have something special. I am excited to play Valere with this corps of actors.

As for the challenges of playing Valere himself – it isn’t often an actor gets to express kilolitres of unfiltered streams of consciousness to the extent that Valere does. Even though his tangents can rival the volume of text in some solo plays — which, clearly, this play is not… though perhaps Valere would say otherwise — where one can almost “hide," in a way, behind portraying multiple characters, this play demands the actor playing Valere to inhabit the life force and explore the mind of just one man through some pretty spectacular language for an extended period of time.

Valere tests my brain, my endurance, my stamina, my heart, and my tongue — in that order.

Richard: Thirty years after the premiere of La Bête and numerous awards, how did you make this production your own?

Dylan: This play is, in my opinion, a neglected masterpiece. It is a unique comic gem and among the most verbally sophisticated and ambitious plays of the 20th century. The original Broadway production closed after something like 29 performances. The revival in 2009-10 was a huge hit.

But it still doesn’t receive a great deal of professional productions because of the degree of difficulty. It is a very hard play to do. There are only a handful of actors in the world who can handle the comic and verbal demands of the role of Valere.

What will set our production apart will be Mike Nadajewski’s portrayal of Valere. His combination of comic invention, depth and textual dexterity are unique to him and will make this La Bête different from any other. Our production will also be staged in a more intimate space and configuration than one normally sees with this play, allowing the audience a deeper personal connection with the characters.

While it is a very funny play, we as a company have been working hard to really grab hold of the core of the human beings inside the story.

Richard: Is there a particular message you want to convey with this production?

Dylan: This play asks crucial questions about art and artists, but the playwright deliberately avoids layering in one dominant message. I think, instead, he hopes to provoke conversation.

At its core, for us, La Bête is about belonging. It is driven by a deep yearning to matter. To be a part of something special. To be a part of a team. To be a part of a family. Every character in this play has a boundless love for theatre.

So we are also interested in exploring the tenacity of artists, the challenges of creativity and the burden of perfectionism.

La Bête runs Feb. 2 to 11 at the Five Points Theatre, located in downtown Barrie at 1 Dunlop St. W. For more information and to book your free tickets, click here.