By Mary Ellen Green
When professional actor Kirsten Van Ritzen heard the Victoria Theatre Guild was mounting the Western Canadian premiere of Polly Stenham’s That Face at Langham Court Theatre, she knew she had to audition for the role of Martha, even if it is community theatre.
“It’s kind of the role of a lifetime,” says Van Ritzen, who had to get permission from the actors’ union to take part in the production.
Van Ritzen is widely known for comedic roles, including Sin City: The Live Improvised Soap Opera, which opened Tuesday at the Victoria Event Centre.
“As an actor, I can say I’ve done 12 hours continuous performance, or 34 hours out of a 52 hour show. I once did eight different plays in two different cities in one week. Opening two shows in one week, that’s on the list. Two very different shows and yet they’re both in England coincidentally.
“I think it will be interesting because people in Victoria think I’m a comedian, but I went to theatre school. I’ve been a professional actor for 20 years. I’ve done a number of dramas, although I usually choose to do comedy.”
But Martha is no laughing matter. She’s a pill-popping alcoholic nightmare mother to a dysfunctional family of four.
“She’s everything,” says Van Ritzen. “She’s an alcoholic. She has moments of lucidity, moments where she’s the life of the party, and moments where she’s completely cruel and over the top … We’re yelling and screaming and letting it all out on stage.”
That Face continues the trend of mounting controversial plays at Langham Court, and this one isn’t for the faint of heart “or anyone who believes all families are perfect,” says director Judy Treloar, who was awestruck by the play after seeing a production in New Zealand. “So brave men, women and teenagers only.”
And there’s no shortage of F-bombs, either.
As a professional actor, Van Ritzen is more accustomed to a three-week, full-time rehearsal schedule and admits that “Martha has driven her [me] a bit bonkers.”
“It’s a weighty piece and I’m very detail-oriented, so I’ll have an idea about something, but I can’t bring it forth right away because we don’t have rehearsal for four or five days.”
Before Van Ritzen even had the role, she contacted Michael Bell to see if he would be interested in playing the role of Martha’s drop-out/caregiver son Henry. Van Ritzen also played his mother in Kaleidoscope Theatre’s production of Hana’s Suitcase in 2011.
“We have a trust. I’ve known him since he was 14,” says Van Ritzen. “This play demands that we have a great deal of trust in one another.”
Third-year UVic playwriting major Melissa Taylor plays Martha’s 15-year-old daughter Mia, who was recently kicked out of private school for drugging another student (with her mother’s drugs).
“The three of us carry a great deal of the emotional weight of it,” says Van Ritzen. “It’s been a journey.”
Taylor worked with Treloar on 1959 Pink Thunderbird Convertible and was asked to read the role of Mia in a group read weeks before auditions.
“The first time I read it was out loud, in front of Judy,” she says with a laugh. “The play is so great. I knew I needed to audition.”
But she almost didn’t go due to an overwhelming course load at school. With 30 mins left in the audition time, she hopped in her car and drove to the theatre.
When she arrived, Treloar was standing outside, the theatre locked. But even though she missed the audition, Treloar invited her to callbacks.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I saw someone else playing that part,” she says. “It’s different. The writing style is so raw and so honest. It’s not this piece of polished theatre from a playwright who has been doing this for years. This was her first play and it shows, but shows in a good way. She really encapsulates emotions and darkness that I feel to an extent that everyone goes through, but it’s on a grander scale. She really speaks to the struggle that young people go through and how hard it is to be taken seriously and to show your strength as a young person …She shows the flaws and the insecurity, but also the strength beneath that.”
The production also stars Michael King as father Hugh, Kathryn Taddei as Izzy and Michelle Watt as Alice.
The creative team includes set design by Lisa Preston, lighting design by Adam Wilkinson, costume design by Nicole Bobick,stage manager Rose Jang, assistant to the director, Lynn Cadrain and producer Paul Gillan. M
Langham Court Theatre (805 Langham Court)
Preview Wed., Jan. 16 at 8pm, 2 for $20
Opens Thurs., Jan. 17 at 8pm, Runs Tues. to Sat. at 8pm
Matinees Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 at 2pm
Jan. 18 performance includes a post show talk back with the director and cast • Tickets are $21/19
Jan. 22 and 29: 2 for $30, 250-384-2142