Director Richard Ouzounian —called the Stephen Spielberg of Canadian stage by the country’s not-always admiring theatre critics —can track his morale by his waistline. When he is unhappy, he eats. In Toronto, where a personal crisis two years ago coincided with a professional one— and led to his abrupt departure as artistic director of the city’s CentreStage company—he gained 15 pounds. Now artistic director of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, a happier Ouzounian has recently been putting in seven-day weeks polishing Molière’s Tartuffe into a political satire on Brian Mulroney, Ronald Reagan and free trade. And, not incidentally, he has shed 25 pounds since September.
The adopted son of an Armenian tavern owner, Ouzounian, now 37, stepped out of theatre school in 1972 straight into his first job—and his first hit—directing a record-breaking run of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. For the next decade the New York-born actor, director and occasional arts pundit dazzled au-
diences while endearing theatre managers and irking critics with his brash, sharp-tongued manner and a string of showy stage hits. Several reviewers have called him “the king of glitz,” and the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Ray Conlogue noted: “Ouzounian’s strong suit has always been flossy, superficial productions.”
Still, in 1982, critic Gina Mallet described him in Chatelaine as “the fastest-rising artistic director in Canadian theatre.” Then came his public retreat from CentreStage in May, 1985, and the once-soaring career stalled. At the same time, however, the directors of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, the senior regional theatre east of Quebec, were seeking to shake up an institution that had grown lethargic under departing director Tom Kerr. Last spring, Ouzounian took over Kerr’s job.
The marriage seems to be working. Local critics credit Neptune’s new boss with reinvigorating theatre in Halifax. And Ouzounian himself appears comfortably back on track, and bubbling with fresh ideas.
Ouzounian’s stamp was clear from
the moment the lights went up on his first play of the Neptune season. A sparkling production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s campy biblical romp Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat broke box-office records at the 525-seat theatre and delighted local critics. Gushed the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s Basil Deakin: “Ouzounian’s Joseph is a Technicolor dreamplay.” The city’s actors had more to applaud: Ouzounian gave 14 of the play’s 16 parts to Nova Scotians. Local casting has continued at Ouzounian’s Neptune, sometimes at a cost to the quality of performances. “He had problems with his Dracula, ” noted CBC Radio critic Tom Regan. “Some local people just weren’t ready.” But Ouzounian offers no apologies for the policy and says that it will continue. Meanwhile, he will end his first season with Neptune’s main stage solidly in the black.
Ouzounian’s choice to close the season—an irreverent adaptation of Tartuffe, playing until May 3—is also his most ambitious project yet in Halifax. In Molière’s 17th-century French origi-
nal a wealthy but gullible nobleman, Orgon, is duped by a scheming hypocrite, Tartuffe, to the point of offering to give away his wealth, home and family. Ouzounian’s loose translation transfers the action and characters onto the contemporary political stage. Orgon (Rodger Barton) is a jutchinned double of the Canadian Prime Minister; Tartuffe (Halifax native Walter Borden) is a replica of the American President.
Barbed references abound. “What you see ain’t always what you get,” remarks a John Crosbie-like adviser to Orgon at one point. “I thought you’d learned that with Bissonette.” Still, Ouzounian, who counts himself a Mulroney admirer, insisted that “this is not a hateletter. This is more like one of your friends saying, ‘Do you know the crowd you’re hanging around with?’ ”
Guiding the play’s cast through a recent rehearsal, Ouzounian was hyper, humorous and salty, punctuating his interruptions of the action with off-color homilies. The buoyant mood was in striking contrast to the gloom that surrounded Ouzounian’s brief and unhappy tenure at Toronto’s CentreStage. “It was absolutely unpleasant from top to bottom,”
When he quit the Toronto post, after barely three months and with the civic theatre company facing an accumulated $500,000 deficit, Ouzounian refused to comment on his reasons for leaving. Now, he blames the fiasco on a combination of family problems, personality conflicts, weak support from the theatre’s board and “a certain amount of arrogance” of his own.
As Ouzounian recalls it now, his departure from CentreStage came in a month “that you think later God designed to get me.” In quick succession, his mother died, his father suffered a debilitating stroke, his wife, Pamela, discovered that she was pregnant, and the couple was forced to leave a freshly redecorated Toronto apartment when it was converted into a condominium. At the same time, Ouzounian had recently celebrated his 35th birthday with a searching re-evaluation of his personal direction. Recalling one late-night talk with Pamela, he mused:
“Basically, we said, T don’t think I like myself much anymore. I don’t like this power-hungry, yuppie, image-concerned thing I’ve had to turn into. And I’m not even doing a decent scrap of creative work. I’m not happy.’ ”
His morale restored, Ouzounian now tempers that judgment. “Bigger is not better,” he observes. In Toronto, “you never really make an impact. Cats had to run way over a year to reach, percentage-wise, the people in Metro Toronto that Joseph played to here in five weeks. It means something.” Still, his friend and mentor, Stratford Festival director John Neville, says that personal crisis has changed the still-youthful Ouzounian.
“He’s a much more serious man than he was,” Neville said. “He has matured.” The experience also provided Ouzounian with material for a new play of his own, The Group of Six, which he hopes to finish rewriting this summer.
Ouzounian’s recently announced second season at Neptune, meanwhile, seems likely to continue shaking up the once-staid Halifax theatre. Plays by Noël Coward and Stephen Sondheim are aimed at the box-office. But Shine Boy, a new work by black Haligonian George Boyd, directly confronts the city’s lingering racism. With the crisis of his 35th year behind him, Richard Ouzounian may be mellowing. But he has clearly not lost the showman’s need to be noticed. □
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