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Vancouver actress switches hair colours to play a dame in PTE's Gunmetal Blues

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A year ago, Max Reimer was still reeling from being the last artistic managing director of the financially troubled Vancouver Playhouse, which abruptly closed after 49 years.

The first A house -- a larger venue showing more commercial plays -- ever to shut its doors in Canada sent shock waves through the country's regional theatres already worried about their own economic challenges. Reimer was personally concerned his career might be ruined by being the captain of a ship that sank in $1 million of red ink.

Reimer, 58, arrived in Winnipeg recently to make his Prairie Theatre Exchange directing debut with Gunmetal Blues, opening April 4. He sounded like a man relieved that he didn't become the fall guy for the Playhouse shocker.

"I worried that it might hurt my reputation," he says during an interview at PTE. "I thought that it might, but it hasn't at all. You name a theatre company that's made the newspapers in the last while and I will guarantee that they called me (to hire me). If I'm tainted, why would they call?"

The former artistic leader of the Huron Playhouse Theatre (1993-96), Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius (1996-2008) and the Playhouse (2008-2012) is here reprising one of his favourite shows, Gunmetal Blues. It is his fourth Gunmetal Blues production, a film noir-style musical mystery written by Scott Wentworth, with music and lyrics by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler.

This time, the plot point about who shot the rich developer responsible for tearing down a city concert hall hits close to home, given Reimer's part in shuttering a city-owned theatre.

"When I read it again, it lands more raw," says Reimer, last in town to direct Brief Encounter for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2011.

The whodunit Gunmetal Blues has nothing so serious on its mind. At the dumpy Red Eye Lounge, piano player Buddy Toupee narrates and comments on the case of a world-weary private eye, Sam Galahad, solving the mystery of a missing blond.

Reimer found his blond, Meghan Gardiner, while auditioning for Brief Encounter at the Playhouse. He didn't cast the Vancouver actress for that show but had her in mind, despite her not being a natural blond, when he went back to Gunmetal Blues in early 2012.

"Part of my enticement to do it again was meeting Meghan," Reimer says. "It was almost more like an actor looking for a show than a show looking for an actor."

Sporting platinum tresses again does make her feel transformed, says Gardiner, who is making her Winnipeg acting debut.

"I feel there is a different perception of me," she says. "Maybe I get a second look at construction sites."

Like many actors, Gardiner enjoys appearing in period pieces, and the hard-boiled world of cynical gumshoes, femme fatales and crooked cops found in the '40s and '50s is a particular favourite.

"I do love being a dame," she says. "As the actor of the Blonde, I'm not just sitting there looking pretty."

Some of the characters of Gunmetal Blues seem to walk off the pages of detective novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett with all their existential angst and broken dreams.

"They are broken and vulnerable, like Bogie, who is deeply scarred in Casablanca," Reimer says. "We start cheering for these people. We see them as underdogs."

Gardiner loves the fashion of that time but wouldn't care to have lived in a time when women were more subservient to men and had fewer prospects. The fact that Marion Adler -- who played the Blonde when Gunmetal Blues debuted at MTC Warehouse in 1993 -- was part of the creative team is likely why the female characters get their share of the great lines.

"She has to be able to hang in there and give as good as she gets," says Reimer.

Gardiner portrays five roles in the PTE season-ender, which also includes Gordon Roberts and Andrew Wheeler. The highlight for her is playing Carol, the tipsy lounge singer whose musical high point is performing The Blonde Song.

"It's all one big blond joke, full of synonyms for blonds and clichés about blonds," says Gardiner. "The words are clever so you don't want to let them pass you by. It's a showstopping number."

Blonds do have more fun when it comes to that tune -- and continued runs of Gunmetal Blues may make Gardiner one offstage.

"If I keep doing it I will have to stay blond," she says. "My hair won't be able to handle all of the treatments, which are hard on the hair."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 C3

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