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View from backstage isn't new, but it's true

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During the run of Jitters, Manitoba Theatre Centre passes the hat during intermission in support of a scholarship fund for student actors, directors and designers.After watching David French's chaotic backstage comedy, opening-night patrons must have wondered at the wisdom of financially encouraging innocent young people into this most precarious of professions.

In 1979 French debuted Jitters -- which was modelled after his own experiences premiering Leaving Home seven years earlier -- and offered a then-comic but revealing glimpse of the meaner realities of theatre production in Toronto.

The near farce pokes fun at the petty rivalries between actors, their professional inadequacies, unending demands, easily wounded egos and desperate need to be loved. The Canadian variety of performer has the added burden of measuring their self-worth by the validation that comes with success in the theatrical capitals of New York and London.

Patrick Flanagan, a respected actor who hides his fears of Broadway rejection under an irascible protective crust, explains his choices. "It's just I'd rather work in Canada. Where else can you be a top-notch actor all your life and still die broke and anonymous?"

That was the lot of actors in this country 30 years ago and unfortunately still is.

What has changed is that Jitters doesn't feel as fresh or particularly illuminating any more. It is still very funny, especially the first of the three acts, and offers a frothy night of entertainment especially welcome after the harrowing, bloodstained MTC double-bill of Medea and Scorched in November. But it clocks in at an unnecessary 165 minutes and needs a healthy trim. The incessant bitching between Patrick and his fading leading lady Jessica Logan wears out its welcome long before the final curtain.

The couple first make an appearance during a fractious dress rehearsal of The Care and Treatment of Roses, a melodrama by an emerging playwright named Robert Ross. This play within a play is constantly being interrupted by the performers flubbing lines, squabbling, complaining about costumes and proffering contradictory interpretations of the script. First-time mainstage director Ann Hodges does an excellent job making a clear distinction between the overheated acting in Roses and the real dialogue of Jitters.

The cast members are all terribly anxious about the fast-approaching opening night when an important Broadway producer will sit in judgement of whether to transfer the show to New York. The third act includes the reading of a newspaper review in which everyone gets raves but Jessica, a Canadian prima donna angling for a Broadway comeback.

In Jitters, it's former Street Legal star C. David Johnson as the pompous, hostile Patrick who suffers from opening-night wobblies with his lines. He spends most of the night exchanging barbs with Jessica, played impressively by Diane D'Aquila, Johnson's real-life former wife. D'Aquila softens in the final act to expose the actor's vulnerability in reaction to the hurtful review. Jessica's inner turmoil is revealed by how she rages at the critic, then allows that the qualms could be true.

Robert Persichini steals the first act as a neurotic, terrified actor Phil, whose forgetfulness has him literally on the stage floor, grovelling to the director for a prompter. Phil grouses about everything from his costume to his ridiculous-looking toupée. He finally rejects the rug, saying, "I can act hair!"

As the playwright whose presence and script draws abuse from the cast, Matt Kippen takes out his frustrations hilariously on a fern. Peter Mooney displays never-before-seen talents as a farceur in his portrayal of actor Peter Kent, who arrives drunk at the theatre on opening night. Michael Therriault is the hapless director George Ellsworth, who spends more time serving as peace-maker than play-maker. James Durham as the officious stage manager, Lisa Anne Durupt as the horny front-of-house help and Hilary Carroll as the backstage angel of mercy round out the strong cast.

In French's theatrical celebration, the cast paid tribute to Harold Pinter, the English playwriting great who died last week, by following a reference of his name with an impromptu "God rest his soul." Amen.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2009 C5

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