Theatre

Body—and soul—language

The Overcoat, a hit show from Vancouver that speaks volumes without any dialogue, goes on a cross-country tour

Chris Wood February 7 2000
Theatre

Body—and soul—language

The Overcoat, a hit show from Vancouver that speaks volumes without any dialogue, goes on a cross-country tour

Chris Wood February 7 2000

Body—and soul—language

Theatre

The Overcoat, a hit show from Vancouver that speaks volumes without any dialogue, goes on a cross-country tour

Chris Wood

Maybe it was growing up one of seven children in a family he describes as “volatile.” Maybe it was doing so in Edmonton, the country’s most northerly provincial capital, in the 1960s. Or maybe it was growing up in Edmonton in the 1960s gay. But there is undeniably a dark and iconoclastic streak to Morris Panych. “The first major event I attended,” says the award-winning actor and playwright, now 47, “was my grandmother’s Ukrainian funeral. It lasted three days. I went home and did that funeral 800 different ways in the basement.”

This is not to suggest that The Overcoat—the unique Panych-Wendy Gorling theatrical creation that travels east this month after wowing audiences in Vancouver—is bleak. It is anything but, although maddeningly difficult to categorize. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s story of a lugubrious Everyman (Peter Anderson) whose serendipitous rise ends in an alltoo-sudden fall, it is brawling and funny, sexy, tender and sad—a 90-minute tour de force accompanied by the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. The Georgia Straight called it “particularly delicious eye-candy.” Yet, it is also a musical without a single song, a narrative without a word of dialogue (or monologue, for that matter). What lead actor Anderson and his supporting cast of 21 do is not exacdy dance, or mime,

or, in a conventional sense, even acting. It is a kind of fluid combination of all those things, a wholly unexpected entertainment that speaks in the slang of gesture and syntax of body language.

Whatever it is, it works—brilliantly. In its first run at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1997, it ended a four-week run with sold-out houses, and sent critics tripping over themselves to find superlatives. The Vancouver Sun called it “a triumph, an amazing piece of theatre.” The Globe and Mail ventured: “Dazzling, hilarious, enchanting, beautiful and haunting. In a word, spectacular.” This month’s tour of The Overcoat is the Playhouse’s first cross-country presentation since George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe travelled through Canada in 1967. The show plays Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre from Feb. 14 to March 18, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from March 22 to April 8 and Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theatre Centre from April 12 to May 6.

Panych is no stranger to the rest of Canada. His plays, including 7 Stories and Vigil, won acclaim when they were mounted in Toronto. In 1994, he won a Governor General’s Award for his drama The Ends of the Earth. A different audience knows his face, if no more, as the Grey-Haired Man, an assassin who shows up from time to time to challenge Mulder and Scully on TheX-Files. As a director, he has put his hand in the past three years to both Hamlet and Sweeney

Todd. But in his collaboration with Gorling on The Overcoat, Panych has pushed his art to new levels.

It is a long way from the basement in Edmonton where he restaged his grandmother’s funeral. His machinist father, Peter, and homemaker mother, Adele, presided over a household Panych says was loving but chaotic. “They both had pretty dark senses of humour,” he recalls. While attending Austin O’Brien High School, Panych developed twin passions: classical music, and the marching band he created and led. It was not lavishly funded and hence relied mainly on the humble kazoo—roughly 70 of them—along with two or three bass drums and a half-dozen snares.

Following graduation, Panych decided to try broadcasting. After getting a diploma in radio and television from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, in 1973 he went

to work for the CBC Radio station in Edmonton. “I would sit in front of a radio console in a dark room with a clock,” he remembers. “It was horrible. Not only were you wasting time, but you were watching it being wasted.” Soon, Panych moved to Vancouver to take a fine arts degree at the University of British Columbia. After two more years of study at the E. 15 Acting School in London, he returned to Vancouver in 1979. One of his first roles was in Marsha Norman’s Getting Outr. he played a drugged-out loser. Catherine Shaw, now director of the Vancouver theatre school Studio 58, directed Panych in the role. “He had this incredible edge,” she recalls, “but underneath was all that vulnerability. You knew that his mind was beyond that of an actor; he was seeing more.”

Still, Panych worked steadily as an actor, seeking out the most exploratory roles and collaborative productions. He was an early participant in Theatresports—a sort of competitive improv that swept Vancouver’s theatre scene in the 1980s. In the same decade, he played a role in a popular serial soapopera-cum-topical-comedy, staged live, called West End. Its weekly instalments relied on unscripted scenarios that left it up to the actors to improvise dialogue and action. Also in the cast was Wendy Gorling.

Panych and Gorling began to work with each other in the early 1990s, when they were both teaching at Studio 58. Gorling, a native of St. Catharines, Ont., was an alumnus of the famed Jacques Le Coq School in Paris, where she studied “illusion mime,” a more naturalistic form of the art. And it was Gorling’s training in movement that brought Panych to her door. Interested in setting performance pieces to music, he enlisted Gorling’s knowledge of the language of gesture to

help him develop the new form, at first as a novel exercise for students. But the two discovered a synergy in their combined talents that neither could resist. Together, Panych and Gorling eventually produced several wordless performance pieces at Studio 58. Deeply impressed by those initial adventures, Glynis Leyshon, the newly appointed artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse—British Columbia’s senior live stage—commissioned a full-length work from the pair for her first season, in 1997.

Working together, Panych and Gorling adapted Gogol’s bleak parable into a stage story far richer and more emotionally satisfying—to say nothing of sexy—than the original. “Mofris and I have the same sensibility,” says Gorling, “the same taste for the lusciousness of movement.” The sensibility is carried through in the brooding quality of the show’s set—evocative of turn-of-thecentury factories and lunatic asylums—designed by Panych’s longtime partner, Ken MacDonald.

But even if Gorling shares Panych’s dark streak, it is clear which artist embraces the larger canvas. It was Panych who set what he calls “the parameters” of their collaboration: the starting points of Gogol’s story and Shostakovich’s music. With his successful staging of various plays, and in 1997, of the contemporary American opera Susannah (for which Gorling served as assistant director), Panych has cemented a reputation as a “triple threat,” says Bill Millerd, whose Arts Club Theatre has produced several Panych premières. “He writes, he directs, he acts. He’s brilliant.” Panych offers a more modest self-assessment. “You have to learn failure as a director and as a writer,” he reflects. “I’m still learning.”

Failure, death and madness, in fact, are frequent themes in Morris Panych’s writing. But as every Russian knows (and perhaps most Ukrainians), life is just a matter of whistling past the graveyard anyway. In their adaptation of Gogol’s short story, Panych and Gorling have, at the very least, dressed up the age-old tune with some dazzling new footwork.