Jitters Vibrates with Nerves and Hilarity

Photo by David Cooper

There is something mesmerizing about watching someone slip, stutter, and screw-up royally. With Jitters, an Arts Club Theatre Company production (Feb 1 – Feb 25), you can enjoy all the cathartic pleasure of seeing a whole company of professionals get stage fright, forget lines, fluster, get bitchy, and nearly blow it.

Jitters is a comical case of stage fright, a play about a play. We follow a small Canadian production that is hoping that their performance of The Care and Treatment of Roses will be picked up for a run on Broadway. All they have to do is make it through the opening night.

Jessica Logan (Megan Leitch) is the play’s headliner, a Diva-esque figure who has returned to Canada after almost making it in the big apple. The Care and Treatment of Roses is Jessica’s chance to get back on Broadway. If only she wasn’t stuck working with a bunch of insecure, boorish, and (worst of all) Canadian actors.

These include the boozing, wily Patrick Flanagan (Robert Moloney), who is both bitter and proud of having never performed in the States. “Where but in Canada can you be a top-notch actor all your life and still die broke and anonymous?” he says, setting up a long-running joke about what it means to be a successful artist in a country where pursuing success is somewhat embarrassing and where art is mostly imported from the south, like crates of oranges.

Then there is Phil Mastorakis (James Fagan Tait) a deeply insecure actor who, despite decades of experience, is helpless without a prompter. Phil plays a priest. His shoes squeak. He also has doubts about his pants; “Look how tight the pants are. The man’s a priest, not a flamenco dancer.” He’s a delightful cringe, a hypochondriac, constantly pleading with put-upon Director George Ellsworth (Martin Happer) for a last-minute wardrobe alteration. More than anyone, this character is Jitters in the trembling flesh—on opening night, there were big cheers from the audience for Tait’s hysterical performance.

There is also a drill-sergeant stage manager (Raugi Yu), a goofy rookie actor (Kamyar Pazandeh), a perfectionist young playwright (Ryan Beil), and a few assistants (Kaitlin Williams and Lauren Bowler) to round out the company. Most are nervous, few have any faith in their fellow actors, and everyone loathes and fears the critics.

While Peggy (Lauren Bowler) observes that critics never pay attention to the set design or costumes, it would be impossible to ignore either in Jitters. Taking place in 1979, the year the play was written, Ted Robert’s set design and Mara Gottler’s costumes bring the colourful era to life (think bell bottoms, sideburns, and pink flower wallpaper).  Fittingly, this was a time when “Canadian-made theatre was beginning to flourish”, as Jitters Director David Mackay notes.

One could say that Jitters is a play about what it means to be an artist, what it takes to “go out there and be good”, as Flanagan says. To be a great actor, you have to give yourself to the role without reservation, and this isn’t easy when you can expect to get so little back. Success is fleeting and failure is only a flub away.

In truth, Jitters isn’t a deep dive into anything. It’s more like watching someone fall ass-backwards down a slip-and-slide. Is it perfect? Well, no. Like many comedies, it succeeds in hilarity but occasionally falls flat in the sections that aim for drama. Every character has their particular comedic tick, but they also have an issue that needs wrapping up before curtain. While the first act was a riot, in the second some scenes began to feel like group therapy for clowns. Most comedies are short for a reason.  

We tend to expect a lot from theatre. Maybe it is because every live performance has to compete with the easy entertainment of television. Or maybe it is because many of us had our first experience at the theatre being confused and impressed by Shakespearean drama. We were taught that plays are cultural affairs for the learned and serious adult.

To that Jessica says, “We are not adults. We’re actors.” Jitters, vibrating with energy and wit, is a reminder that sometimes a play can just be fun…especially when it’s close to being a disaster.