Vol. 9 No. 2 (Fall 1988)


Chris Johnson

This article is based on the observation of rehearsals for the 1987 Factory Theatre production of George F. Walker's Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline, directed by Walker. Walker's casting choices and rehearsal techniques are examined to delineate his 'language of the stage' as a complement to the language of his script, and to determine his current interpretation of the play.

Cet article se porte sur mes observations pendant la période de répétition en 1987 de la pièce de George F Walker Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline, dirigée par Walker lui-même au Factory Theatre. Son choix de distribution et ses techniques de répétition sont examinés afin de délinéer la façon don't son langage théâtral en effet complémente son langage dramatique et aussi afin de déterminer son interprétation actuelle de la pièce.

George F. Walker hates directing George F. Walker, or so he says. He may well simply hate directing, but as he has never directed a play by anyone else, he is not certain. Walker says he may have to do that sometime, just to determine whether it is directing per se he dislikes so much. Directing, says Walker, is socially embarrassing. The director is continually put in the position of having to say something whether he has something to say or not, and whether or not the actors are listening, an experience Walker likens to talking to an empty parking lot: often they do not listen because they are too busy doing their own work inside. Furthermore, in Walker's case, directing is socially embarrassing because it involves talking about oneself. That is what made the prospect of sitting in on Walker's rehearsals for the tenth anniversary productions of Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline at the Factory Theatre in Toronto in April and May of 1987 particularly attractive to me.

Zastrozzi, the ninth of the eighteen Walker stage plays produced thus far, opened at the Toronto Free Theatre on 2 November 1977. Along with the first of the Power plays, Gossip, given its premiere earlier the same year, Zastrozzi is credited with establishing Walker's popularity, and remains one of the most widely produced of his plays, having been staged in the United States, England, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany, as well as in theatres across Canada. (Tongue-in-cheek, Walker ascribes the play's popularity to its numerous sword fights, more seriously to its appeal to various fantasies concerning conscienceless villains and their Gypsy lovers.)

Set in Europe in the 1890s, based on a description of Shelley's novel of the same title and, according to Walker, inspired by Piranesi's prison drawings, Zastrozzi is Gothic melodrama/black comedy: the eponym, 'the master criminal of all Europe,' stalks Verezzi the artiste ostensibly to avenge his mother's murder but more importantly because Zastrozzi is the 'master of discipline' with a mission to make all 'answerable' to their own dark sides. Zastrozzi is aided by Bernardo, a thug who aspires to take Zastrozzi's place, and Matilda, 'the most accomplished seductress in Europe.' Verezzi is defended byVictor, a failed priest who honours a promise to Verezzi's father to look after the holy fool, pitting common sense, common decency, and a sense of humour against both Zastrozzi's absolute discipline and Verezzi's absolute aspiration. Matters are complicated by the serendipitous appearance of Julia, the quintessential virgin, who wins the love of Verezzi and, perhaps, Zastrozzi. Like many of Walker's plays, Zastrozzi is a confrontation between good and evil, compelling the audience to consider the issues through clever manipulation and division of empathy.

I secured permission to sit in on rehearsals for the Factory Zastrozzi in the hope of learning something about Walker's working relationship with his actors, of finding out to what extent he sees himself as an authority on his own work and to what extent he sees himself as a facilitator, a director who does not go into the rehearsal process with a comprehensive, predetermined vision of the production, but who arrives at a completed vision through active collaboration with his cast, encouraging and guiding the actors' response to the script, developing a production from that response. Further, I wanted to know whether this relationship was influenced by past experience, whether Walker's theatrical language for actors experienced in the Walker style is different from that which he uses for actors without that experience. I wanted to know if there would be rewrites, line alterations to accommodate any changes of mind Walker may have had concerning the script. (I quickly discovered that there were no such changes: a word was added here, deleted there, all in the service of business associated with this particular production, but there were no changes of substance.) I wanted to examine Walker's theatrical statements as a director, and to examine ways in which this production illuminates the text, with particular attention to the manipulation of empathy and to the balance between serious and comic elements of the play.

The material for this article came from three interviews with Walker; less formal conversations with actors and audience members; notes taken by Cathy Smith, my fellow observer, who is preparing a thesis on Walker for the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama at the University of Toronto; and my own notes based on the observation of rehearsals. There is a gap in the latter two sources; Walker asked Ms Smith and me to stay away for four days during the second week of the three and a half week rehearsal period, as he was worried that in the presence of observers some of his actors were jumping forward to performance level too soon, with consequences destructive for reasons that I hope will be made clear by the following discussion of Walker's working methods.

For Walker the director, casting was one of the most important means of realizing his 1987 concept of the play. In pre-show publicity, Walker is quoted as describing the Factory players as his 'ideal cast'. 1 Flackery aside, it is clear that Walker's directorial objectives were furthered by the make-up of the 1987 cast: Michael Hogan as Zastrozzi, Michael McManus as Verezzi, Peter Blais as Victor, Robert Bockstael as Bernardo, Susan Hogan as Matilda, and Nicky Guadagni as Julia. One of the most frequently employed rehearsal tactics was Walker's reminding the actors why they had been cast, with reference to those qualities which they had already demonstrated and which Walker needed as ingredients for the 1987 production.

Zastrozzi himself is, as usual, the key. Walker specifically wanted Michael Hogan for the role, and Hogan's availability was a determining factor in Walker's decision to propose and direct the production. What Walker wanted was 'a middle-aged, passionate actor.' 2> That 'passion' is necessary to a successful production of Walker's work is now an accepted critical assumption, but the reverberations created by the fact that Hogan's Zastrozzi was definitely fortyish were unexpected by many people who had seen the original production in 1977, and who regarded as merely odd Walker's departure from the 'muscle and leather' casting of Zastrozzi of that production. The implications of the middle-aged Zastrozzi were anticipated, welcomed, and exploited by Walker.

Stephen Markle's 1977 Zastrozzi was described by Bryan Johnson, then writing for the Globe and Mail, as 'an impossible character, a mythical devil,' and 'a fascinating, extraordinary evil dynamo.' 3 Of Hogan's Zastrozzi, Robert Crew in the Toronto Star speaks of a performance 'full of power and touches of humor but lacking a certain seductively evil suavity and charisma. This Zastrozzi shows signs of age and vulnerability.' 4 Exactly. Hogan's Zastrozzi did show signs of vulnerability and age, but that is what Walker wanted, in 1987, without losing the character's persistent and perverse passion. Zastrozzi's vulnerability is integral to the script - his mind may be so powerful that he can have nightmares and observe himself having nightmares simultaneously, but he cannot prevent himself from having nightmares. A forty-year-old's nightmares are not as easily dispelled as a child's, or even a thirty-year-old's. When Zastrozzi sees in nightmares glimpses of another self, he sees the possibility of good; and in Hogan's Zastrozzi, the commitment to evil was sometimes qualified in his waking actions: in the kinship with and compassion for Victor, clear at points throughout the innkeeper scene and at Victor's death; in the somewhat fatherly rough-housing with Bernardo; in the pedagogical quality Hogan gave to Zastrozzi's approach to all the other characters in the play, especially Verezzi. Denis Johnston, historian of the Toronto alternative theatre and author of the article, 'George F. Walker: Liberal Idealism and the "Power Plays"', has pointed out that this was a Zastrozzi whose mind took precedence over his body. 5 Ask questions first, stab later.

When Michael McManus auditioned for the part, he showed Walker a new way to play Verezzi, or so Walker says. McManus is a relatively inexperienced actor, but Walker saw in his energy and intensity the possibility for a Verezzi whose passion is a match for Zastrozzi's. Bryan Johnson describes Geoffrey Bowes' 1977 Verezzi as a 'whining, silly, weakling' and complains that this characterization renders insignificant the 'deadly bond' between Verezzi and Zastrozzi. 6 In his 1979 Scene Cbanges interview with Chris Hallgren, Walker seemed not altogether pleased with audience reaction to Verezzi in early productions: 'There's been a tendency for people to think of him as moronic. I think that's just a reflection of our own age. We cannot accept God, obsession or goodliness, when, in fact, a Verezzi has his own power.' 7

Walker used McManus to give the 1987 Verezzi more substance and weight, and to attempt to redress what he sees as an imbalance in the Verezzi/Zastrozzi confrontation. The attempt was not an unqualified success. There is some truth to the view that part of the difficulty lies in the script itself. Furthermore, there were times in rehearsal when it seemed to me that Walker worked against the larger strategy for the sake of a particularly effective and funny moment - Verezzi sight-gags are almost irresistible: McManus's balletic fussiness was sometimes overdone, and his frequently upturned eyes seemed too close to the conventional portrait of the ostentatious religious fanatic, undercutting the impression of sometimes deluded but always sincerely held conviction which elsewhere Walker seemed to be trying to achieve. Sometimes McManus could not take the stronger Verezzi where Walker wanted him to go. In rehearsal, at the end of the play, McManus snatched up Victor's sword when made aware that Zastrozzi does exist and is present, but dropped the weapon on the line, 'I'm immune. I am in touch with Him. Protected by Him,' 8 putting himself wholly in the hands of God. A foolish man, certainly, but one whose faith is extremely strong. By the time the show opened, the moment had been abandoned - instead, Verezzi slashed desperately at Zastrozzi, and was instantly disarmed and flung to the floor for his final interrogation. Walker worried that his initial staging was a moment from his 1984 direction of Zastrozzi for the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, Australia, which he was imposing on the Factory production and which was inappropriate for the actors involved. The moment itself was strong as it stood in rehearsals, but it seemed to Walker to provide insufficient impetus to take McManus into the final lesson on the nature of reality. While the change forfeited an excellent opportunity to express Verezzi's obsessive goodliness and inner strength, and, in my opinion, placed his transformation a few seconds too early in the scene, Walker's directorial decision to tailor the sequence to the needs and capacities of the actors involved is typical of his approach as a director. Elsewhere, Walker and McManus between them did give us a Verezzi deluded but strong, substantial enough to convincingly motivate Zastrozzi's antagonism. Because Hogan's Zastrozzi diluted elements of the 'mythical devil' with characteristics of an ordinary, cynical forty-year-old, the contest was further balanced; to the melodramatic opposition of good and evil, Walker, Hogan, and McManus added the homely attributes of conflict based on a generation gap. The historical shift in values central to the text took on a human dimension.

Critical comment on Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline has often noted that Verezzi and Zastrozzi are both artists. Less emphasized is the fact that Victor and Zastrozzi are both teachers. In rehearsals, while helping Hogan define Zastrozzi's attitude to the other characters, Walker used the analogy of the grade-school teacher. Zastrozzi's teaching methods are somewhat extreme: his favourite pedagogical tactic is to empty the victim/student's mind in order to replace a previously held belief with new thoughts of Zastrozzi's own choosing. Both Victor and Zastrozzi attempt to convince Verezzi that their vision/version of 'reality' is the correct one. Because McManus was a stronger than usual Verezzi in the 1987 Factory production, both Victor and Zastrozzi had to work harder on their lesson plans. In one of Walker's favourite phrases, 'the stakes are raised.'

Victor, of course, is already the most complex character in the play, making it up as he goes along, a modern man whose pragmatic relationship with God compels him to reinvent moral values as the situation alters; in this, Victor is in sharp contrast to those two dogmatic anachronisms, Zastrozzi and Verezzi. Peter Blais added some complications of his own by taking and playing seriously Victor's very ordinariness. At the opening night party, Susan Purdy remarked that Blais' was the most genuinely ordinary Victor she had seen - often, the tendency for an actor playing Victor is to play a character of superior intellect (like the actor!) pretending to be ordinary. By being ordinary, Blais was free to do the unexpected, for instance, to be momentarily swayed by Zastrozzi's arguments. I believe Walker cast Blais knowing that Blais would be his most active collaborator in the re-exploration of the text.

Walker apparently wanted to play against stereotype with all the characters, to temper the dominant note with 'realistic' inconsistency. Hence, Robert Bockstael's Bernardo was not the simple-minded, hulking henchman; to begin with, he is physically too small for the stereotype, much smaller than George Buza who played the part in the original production. In Walker's words, 'Bernardo is not stupid, but lives in a narrow corridor -if he goes beyond that, he's lost.' When Julia suggests in the prison scene that she and Bernardo, start again, 'develop a respectful attitude to each other. Eventually fall in love on just the right terms,' 9 Bockstael's Bernardo considered the possibility for a moment, before violently rejecting it, terrified by the foreign impulse in himself. (This moment was an example of a minor line change, Walker the playwright adding a 'No' to help Bockstael achieve the moment Walker the director wanted.)

Matilda was not the archetypal seductress. Susan Hogan gave a rather domestic quality to her scenes with Zastrozzi, and I do not think I am merely projecting biography onto production here. Walker is evasive when asked whether he had this effect in mind when casting the Hogans (who are married), but concedes that he is pleased that this Zastrozzi was compelled to deal with this Matilda, that Matilda was to Hogan's Zastrozzi a real woman, a long-time partner, rather than the ghost of something he had already left far behind him.

Walker wanted Nicky Guadagni to be more than 'virginal', instead an iron-willed individual determined to make the world conform to her 'rosy coloured' vision; virginity is a symptom, not a cause. When, for example, Bernardo threw Julia into the prison, Julia exclaimed, under Walker's direction, 'What is this place? I've never been here, ' 10 rather as one would comment on a smart little restaurant that has inexplicably escaped one's attention until now, instinctively reclassifying experience so that it fits comfortably within her 'rosy vision.' It seems to me that Guadagni had some difficulty transcending the stereotyped innocent, a parody of Little Nell, and I agree with Ray Conlogue when he says of her first night performance that she was 'acting her heart out but not quite hitting the right tone.' 11 Still, it should be pointed out that as the run progressed, there were performances in which Guadagni played the moments more and relied less on a preconceived notion of the part, demonstrating why Walker cast her.

Discussing Walker's casting has taken rather more space than I had anticipated, but as rehearsals progressed, I became more and more aware of how important that element was for this production. It has often been said that eighty percent of a production is in shrewd casting, and George F. Walker once said that a director's primary goal should be to mediate between actor and script, and to facilitate the actor's making full use of his own creative powers. Walker was clearly in an enviable position with regard to the script, and having chosen his actors very shrewdly, was in a position to undertake some very profitable mediation.

It became very clear very early in rehearsals that there is indeed a language for the Walker veterans, with Peter Blais at that end of the scale, and another for the Walker virgins, with Michael McManus and Nicky Guadagni at that end. Michael Hogan, who originated the role of Tom in Better Living, Susan Hogan, who has played Susan Scott in Filthy Rich, and Robert Bockstael, who had acted in three Walker plays in Ottawa, fall somewhere in between.

When Blais went into rehearsals for the Factory Zastrozzi, he had played eight Walker roles in the previous twelve years, creating four of those roles: the King in Rumours of Our Death, Factory, 1980; Hank the American soldier in Theatre of the Film Noir, Factory, 1981; William in Criminals in Love, Factory, 1984; and Jack the Priest in Better Living, CentreStage, 1986. Blais and Walker barely talked to each other at all. They smiled at one another occasionally. Most of their work together concerned blocking and timing. In the first scene between Victor and Verezzi, Walker and Blais were concerned with the focus on the painting: it was important that the conversation be not entirely confined to the painting, nor that it proceed immediately to abstraction. The conflict over the nature of reality must be precipitated by Verezzi's fury that Victor does not see how wonderful his painting is. When, then, is the precise moment when the argument should be about something else?

Blais' approach to the role of Victor in the Factory production is summed up in an interview published in Now magazine, appropriately titled 'Playing Walker's Zastrozzi with passion and maturity.' (Walker likes the piece so much he calls it 'a little guide to acting in a Walker play' and recommends photo-copying it and handing it out to prospective cast members in future Walker productions.) In part, Blais says:

As in any theatre piece, humour comes from conflict of interest. Once the reality and truth of a scene are established, the most remarkable things can happen. Without that reality, the humour can be slapstick, gratuitous or in poor taste. The best humour comes from character. Walker's writing is remarkably funny and lucid, though in rehearsal the actor has to find a heightened sense of truth in it. There's no joke to be built, constructed, or honed; if you build the character, the jokes will take care of themselves. 12

Blais and Walker obviously did not need to talk about what Walker wanted, so the work Walker did with the neophytes was much more helpful to an observer as an indication of the kind of world in which Walker's plays can live. A good deal of the early rehearsal time was devoted to finding the 'heightened sense of truth' Blais speaks of. Because the situations in Walker plays are so grotesque, and because the characters themselves are often in the grip of monstrous obsessions, there is a tendency for actors to go immediately to a larger than life, operatic style, and that is what some of the 1987 Factory cast did. Walker had to take them back. That size, that heightening, is necessary, but does not work unless the reality of the scene is there first, becoming part of that which is heightened. Early in rehearsals, Michael McManus asked if one of his moments of revelation was too big, was over the top. Walker replied, 'Go over the top. If you believe it.'

The reality of the scenes was established through rather conventional, detailed script work. Walker seldom gave a meaning for a line, although he often paraphrased, more often to clarify the line's action or tone than to define meaning. Sometimes, he would paraphrase the situation in a scene to uncover the homely reality beneath the grotesque circumstances; hence, Bernardo and Julia's prison scene was a 'first date.' Occasionally, Walker would direct a line against its apparent meaning. Verezzi's reaction to Julia's telling him she will not marry him, 'I'm depressed,' 13 is not necessarily a depressed line. It could simply be a reaction to an interesting state of affairs; to Verezzi, all sensations are good. Again, immediately before Bernardo and Zastrozzi fight to the death, Bernardo says, 'Oh sir, let me go', 14 but Walker blocked the moment so that Bernardo had a clear route for escape and directed Bockstael to deliver the line with elation: at last Bernardo is given his chance to supplant Zastrozzi.

At times, then, Walker is clearly the authority on the script, although his jocular style in the rehearsal hall usually undercuts any authoritarian tone. He is not at all a sit-behind-the-desk director, as he frequently plunges into the playing space, never to demonstrate how he wants something done, but often to create a force against which the actor can work, sometimes just to gesticulate encouragingly. But being a 'facilitating' director does not preclude adding one's vision of the play to that being developed by the actors, and Walker's sense of the script as he saw it was clear - curiously a bit distanced from this play in 1987: he points out that it is almost as though Zastrozzi were written by someone else, that in a sense the play was written by someone else. While we are noting the implications of Michael Hogan and Peter Blais' being forty, it is worth remembering that George Walker was about to turn forty when he was directing the Factory Zastrozzi.

Walker guides his actors to the 'truth of the scene' and the director's vision of that truth through establishing what he calls 'marks', the dominant quality or issue of a sequence, or a particular moment, or even thing, that seems to Walker crucial or catalytic. The dislocation and abrupt changes in direction essential to a production of a Walker play are created by shifting the 'mark.' Around these points, Walker allows the actors a great deal of creative room, and confines his direction to finding the means of increasing that room, suggesting, for instance, a 'productive state of mind' for the character at a particular point. Early in rehearsals, Guadagni began the first meeting with Verezzi in a state of indignation; Walker suggested that she try astonishment instead, not because it was necessarily preferable in its own right, but because it left the actress more places to go in the rest of the scene. Yes, Walker does call for emotional states in a way theoretically forbidden to directors working within 'the Method.'

Walker frequently accepts the opinions, preferably the instincts, of his actors. Many observers have noted the breakneck pace of the Factory production. Actually, Walker wanted it faster still; in Walker's dramaturgy, dislocation should also occur in the minds of the audience, and extreme pace is one way of achieving that effect. But the actors resisted, and Walker felt that they doubtless had good reasons for doing so. Walker will sometimes sacrifice technical polish in order to give his cast the room he believes they need: even a week into performance, actors were still throwing away the ends of lines. While for obvious reasons Walker would have preferred having his lines completed, he suspected that the performers might have been concentrating on something more important to them, and was prepared to let them continue to work on developing the production unhindered, while of course still hoping that completing the lines would eventually become a priority too. For a playwright-director, Walker gives a great deal of weight to the actors' priorities while mediating between them and the script.

Once the 'truth' of a scene was established, Walker would immediately 'raise the stakes,' intensifying that truth, sharpening the conflict, putting on additional pressure from within the dramatic situation, to get Walkeresque exaggeration and size. 'We can build slowly. Or throw ourselves into it. Carefully.' Scene seven, Matilda's seduction of Verezzi and Victor's subsequent attempt to convince Verezzi to flee, had never, in Walker's opinion, been taken far enough in earlier productions, had remained a declaration of ideas distanced from the audience. He used the act of seduction as the 'mark', a concreteness to anchor the scene as he had used the painting in scene two. When McManus declaimed, Susan Hogan, with a little urging from Walker, re-established the mark, took it further, and 'raised the stakes.' It is difficult to indulge in an abstraction such as declamation when the mark is seduction, and an actress as beautiful and intense as Susan Hogan is raising the stakes by insisting on the concreteness of the mark.

By the end of the week, Blais was indeed emerging as Walker's most active collaborator, not so much through anything he said to his fellow performers or through conversations with Walker, but by putting into practice what he has learned about how a Walker play works. He started small, worked doggedly at establishing the truth of the scene, and by doing so, compelled any actor who might be tempted to go for scale too quickly to play the scene at a level where the truth was not strained. Then he raised the stakes, moving into the extreme close range Walker favours and jumping Victor's anxiety level astonishingly. Blais' work is contagious in a rehearsal hall.

Walker's directorial wit does not express itself in constructing jokes. He did engineer some exquisite comic business (the Byzantine complexity of Matilda's strangulation at the hands of a completely unwitting Julia was hilarious) but he made no attempt at all to time lines for a laugh, punch laugh lines, or build to a laugh. In Blais' words, 'there's no joke to be built; if you build the characters, the jokes will take care of themselves.'

Walker did give a good deal of attention to the characters' relationship with the audience, the next step in the rehearsal process. Only Zastrozzi was given direct address, only he played scenes with the audience, but all the other characters came close, must appear to be capable of doing so. When Blais achieved the correct balance in rehearsal, Walker gave the approving note, 'He never speaks directly to the audience, but you always think he's going to.' Walker, the director, was elaborating on the manipulation of empathy called for in the script. He wanted the audience to 'share the responsibility with Zastrozzi; if you laugh at his jokes, you can't dissociate yourself from his actions.'

During the first week, Walker was clearly having a good time, and later Walker conceded that this part of rehearsal period is an exception to his hatred of direction, 'getting his licks in,' working closely with actors and script.

Then I was banished for four days. I understand that during this period, Walker concentrated on close, one-on-one work with individual actors. When I returned, the cast had moved from rehearsal hall to stage. George was no longer having a good time. Initial run-throughs were quite discouraging, even more than is usually the case because of the extreme physical demands of the show. Walker was especially worried about retaining scene focus established in the rehearsal hall now that scenes were juxtaposed with the real fights. The fights in the Factory production were very intricate, and, incidentally, quite marvelous: they were not always perfectly executed, but fight director Robert Lindsay gave them fascinating dramatic content. They were conversations between characters rather than mere flashy business. In the second week of rehearsals, however, the fights worried the actors so much that their concentration on scenes immediately preceding fights suffered: one could see them starting to worry about the impending problems.

Reginald Bronskill's set was extremely effective and rather dangerous, as much of the action occurred on a platform ten feet in the air and on two curving staircases, one with a reverse curve part way down. John Roby's music not only bridged scenes, but underscored most of the fights and a number of speeches, creating precise timing demands.

Through all this, Walker allowed the show to rediscover the shape constructed during the first week, for it was during that initial stage that the production's underpinnings had been established. Most of his work with actors as previews approached consisted of re-establishing and reinforcing basics: calling an actor's attention to a lapse in character, or to an untruthful straining for effect; conducting a run through at conversational volume to re-establish truthful contact between characters; running a scene with no pauses, then running it again while letting pauses re-appear where they seemed truthfully necessary, not where they seemed theatrically effective.

Exploration continued. The final confrontation between Verezzi and Zastrozzi, the nightmare sequences between Zastrozzi and Matilda, were played in many, many variations right up to preview, with Walker allowing the actors to choose what was right for them. A few moments were changed when Walker apparently decided they could not work as they were, or were not worth the risk, either to truth, as in the case of Verezzi's abandoning his sword, or to the audience's safety: Zastrozzi, stage left, tossed a sword spectacularly to Matilda, stage right, until first preview, when the fumbled sword flew into the audience; the next night, Matilda entered stage left and was handed the sword, flamboyantly but safely. But mostly in the last week, Walker followed through on the choices he and his actors had made during the first week.

Response to the production was for the most part positive and very enthusiastic, and the show attracted large and evidently happy audiences during its run 13 May to 28 June 1987 - the production was not held over only because some members of the cast had contractual obligations which made an extended run impossible. Toronto's two major newspaper reviewers were favourable. (The Toronto Sun was hostile, but that newspaper is invariably hostile to Walker's work.) Robert Crew found the production 'a rich and satisfying evening that manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking,' 15 while Ray Conlogue spoke of its 'elegance and high humor' and made particular mention of the balance struck between the comic and the serious: '[Zastrozzi] is a spoof, yes, but it is also an obsessional play. It balances these two antagonistic qualities with impossible precision, never letting the one overwhelm the other.' 16 In Conlogue's opinion, at least, Walker had succeeded in achieving the delicate equilibrium to which much rehearsal time had been devoted, and which has eluded many directors of earlier productions of the play, most notably, in Walker's view, Andrei Serban's for the Public Theatre in New York in 1982. 'Parody' is anathema to Walker as a description of his work, and in his directing, parody was never, in itself, sufficient reason to play a moment or speak a line in a particular way.

Unfortunately, not all members of the cast remembered that during all performances of the run: for some, particularly Guadagni and McManus it seems to me, the temptations offered by large crowds evidently in a mood to laugh led to some 'camping'. Furthermore, I am not completely convinced that the extremely high energy and fast pace favoured by Walker the director are always the best presentational style for the work of Walker the playwright, a suspicion seconded by some of the less enthusiastic audience-members and since deepened by my subsequent direction of a Walker play: realistic subtleties and the slyer, quieter humour can be lost in the shouting and the arm-waving, when the 'heightened sense of truth of the scene' is not apparent to the audience. (That Walker the director has in the past 'betrayed' Walker the playwright was also suggested by James Harrison in his review of the Factory production of Criminals in Love. ) 17 What may have been miscalculation on Walker's part was compounded by some of the actors succumbing to the same sort of pressures which led Guadagni and McManus to 'camping', resorting to size with little apparent substance, in effect repeating in performance some of the problems apparent in early rehearsals. In a few of the several performances I saw, this flaw marred the work of Michael Hogan and, much to my surprise, Peter Blais, actors whose work I otherwise unreservedly admired. On those occasions, sheer and unvarying volume overwhelmed the 'truths' which are there in the text and which had been there in later rehearsals.

Nonetheless, I can report that most of the time Walker's directorial methods appear to achieve the results he wants, and that the Factory production was evidently on most occasions and in most respects a faithful reproduction of his 1987 vision of the play, whether one likes Walker's concept of his own play or not. While he admires much of the original production, and while he unhesitatingly identifies William Lane as his favourite director, Walker found the 1977 Toronto Free Theatre production 'a little too cerebral, a little too antiseptic.' Walker's Factory production was visceral and quite nasty, human and playful. Not a little threatening. In the final moment of the production, Zastrozzi stepped down stage, isolated in light, directly facing the audience, and looked right at us to say, 'I like it here.' He did not mean in the prison, or in the world of the play. He meant out here in the auditorium with us, in our world. That, I think, is what Walker intended us to be left with from the 1987, Factory Zastrozzi.



Chris Johnson

1 JOHN KARASTAMATIS, Factory Theatre press kit for the 1987 production of Zastrozzi p 1
Return to article

2 In conversation. Unless otherwise indicated all quotations attributed to Walker come from one of the three interviews or from rehearsals.
Return to article

3 BRYAN JOHNSON, 'Zastrozzi Wields a Satanic Rapier' The Globe and Mail 3 November 1977 p 17
Return to article

4 ROBERT CREW, 'Zastrozzi Returns in Splendid Form' The Toronto Star 14 May 1987 p F3
Return to article

5 In conversation
Return to article

Return to article

7 CHRIS HALLGREN, 'George Walker: The Serious and the Comic' Scene Changes VII: 2 March/April 1979 p24
Return to article

8 GEORGE F WALKER, Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline Toronto: Playwrights Co-op 1979 p 68
Return to article

9 Zastrozzi p 58
Return to article

10 Zastrozzi p 57
Return to article

11 RAY CONLOGUE, 'A Triumph of Gothic Comedy' The Globe and Mail 14 May 1987 p C3
Return to article

12 JOHN KAPLAN, 'Playing Walker's Zastrozzi with Passion and Maturity' Now 14-20 May 1987 p 35
Return to article

13 Zastrozzi p 26
Return to article

14 Zastrozzi p 63
Return to article

Return to article

Return to article

17 JAMES HARRISON, 'Reporting a Criminal Act' Theatrum no 1 April 1985 pp 11-14
Return to article