by Molnár, Ferenc
2009., Toronto Soulpepper
Toronto, ON: The Guardsman is a quick witted comedy about life in the theatre and acts of imitation and deception. The famous Hungarian actor, Nandor, fears that the coming of spring will prompt his famous wife Ilona to roam. To circumvent an affair with another man, Nandor performs the role of a soldier and tries to woo his wife. When she falls for him, the question becomes, who is the better actor? Did she really know after two minutes of his portrayal that it was her husband all along?
Director Laszlo Marton uses all the elements at his disposal to reinforce that this is a play about the life of the living actor. An actor can only control so much of his or her own role, all else comes from reaction to outside stimulus. The most frightening element of the world outside is the uncertainty of it all.
Marton allows uncertainty to pervade this production and this is emphasized by his use of the music from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Although mentioned in the text as the opera Ilona attends, Marton picks the music from the night that Butterfly sits until dawn awaiting Pinkerton. Her belief that he will come is mixed with our certain knowledge that he will not. While uncertainly reigns for the Guardsman, rather than tragedy it forces us to acknowledge the banal beauty and brevity of everyday life. Marton’s choices enhance the quick thinking that must accompany a life on the stage. The ability to transform, to make one believe and to make believe are all consuming pastimes for the great Hungarian actor Nandor and his wife Ilona. She is so good at her craft that she remakes history as she speaks. He believes her even though she is remaking his perception of events he lived through.
Costume designer Judith Bowden follows Marton’s vision of the acting life and has this couple in dressing gowns for much of the play, as if they are constantly ready to step into costume and character. In fact, costume dummies with fancy Shakespearean threads are highlighted in this production by take up a big place in the windows of the living room set. Later, Ilona wheels in two dressing gowns of her own to decide the right outfit. These dummies help add the illusion of extra people on stage and remind us of the ghosts of those who have worn these clothes before. This effect is particularly noticeable when the cast’s first visual introduction is alongside these costumed but headless bodies.
Albert Schultz as Nandor and the Guardsman moves swiftly between jealous anger, confusion, undying love and the rote recitation of words remembered from a lifetime in the theatre. His inflections and indignation are hilarious at times, but we never lose the character’s underlying sadness of an actor wondering if he is being beguiled by his wife’s brilliant performance. Kristen Thomas delightfully underplays Ilona. She balances out the temperamental theatrics of Schultz and offers a performance of Ilona as sharp and clever, able to manipulate those around her, while having them love her for it. She is the essence of calm when Nandor questions her about her secret meeting at the opera with the Guardsman and when he transforms into the Guardsman in front of her on stage. In that moment, like Nandor, we do not know if she is playing along or very quickly covering her tracks though wit and denial.
Laszlo Marton has brought out much of the comedy by allowing for fast-paced line delivery and a big dose of flirtatiousness amongst all the main characters. Ultimately Ilona convinces her husband to believe that she knew it was him the whole time. What is the alternative? Marton allows for this ambiguous and poignant ending and the only thing we are certain of is that this delightful couple will continue to make believe, quibble, test and perform with each other for years to come.