The Guild’s production of a Canadian stand-by, The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, opens Jan. 30

Claire Ness was only six (or maybe seven) when she first saw the dark Canadian comedy called The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine. Still, it left a lasting impression, in part, because that Nakai Theatre production in the early 1990s starred her father, Roy Ness, and fellow Whitehorse actor/musician Trish Barclay in the title roles.

“I loved it. I saw my Dad in so many plays, and a lot of them were not very memorable, but there are few that stand out,” Ness said.

“Definitely, shows like this one and Little Shop of Horrors, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. They’re just so colourful and animated.”

When the Guild Theatre’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, announced that Ernest and Ernestine would be on this year’s roster, Ness was thinking about auditioning for the female role, since she’d been away from acting for some time. Then a funny thing happened: Fidler approached her about taking on the play as her first foray in the director’s chair. Despite her initial nervousness, she agreed.

“I didn’t know if I had enough knowledge, or chops, to be a director right away. But I’ve grown up in the theatre, and I know what the director-actor relationship is like, and I’ve sort of studied what directors do since I started doing theatre.

“So far, it’s been really good, and really kind of natural for me. My grandma was a theatre director, so I probably have it somewhere in my blood. I don’t know if I’m a control freak, but I have a vision,” she added with a laugh.

Written by Robert Morgan, Martha Ross and Leah Cherniak, The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine had its debut in 1987 at Toronto’s now-defunct Poor Alex Theatre, sometime home of both Mr. Dressup (Ernie Coombs) and CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce. Since then, it has gone on to become a favourite in the Canadian theatre canon, frequently re-mounted by both professional and community companies across the country. 

Ness required very few words to sum up the play’s narrative arc.

“Ernest and Ernestine are newlyweds who move into a basement apartment, and their naïveté about love starts to be tested. The pure innocence of their love slowly transforms and gets darker and darker,” she said.

“He’s probably more of a doofus than she is, although they’re both doofuses. I think she’s just a little more easy-going, loosey-goosey than he is. He’s a bit uptight.”

Part of Ness’s attraction to the script lies in the fact that it contains elements of the clown world that is a large part of her own professional experience. After studying comedy writing and performance at Humber College in Toronto, she later went on to pursue circus teaching at Montréal’s École nationale de cirque, specializing in clown technique.

Part of the play’s appeal comes from the sense of optimism (naïveté?) that keeps the two characters ticking.

“Even as the experience gets more and more trying, they keep returning to their innocence. That’s part of clown, too, the innocence and experience,” Ness said.

Although it’s a two-hander, the play is often considered to have a third character: a cranky, malfunctioning furnace in the couple’s cramped basement suite. Ness doesn’t share that view. Still, she concedes that the furnace provides a strong metaphor.

“Yeah, for sure. The furnace plays a role to emphasize the volatility of their relationship as things heat up.”

Another major irritant crops up for the young couple in the aftermath of a vehicle accident, with the frustration they face trying to deal with an uncaring bureaucracy.

“The car crash actually kind of brings them closer together. It’s one of the main things in the show that bonds them, because now they have something external to be angry at,” Ness said.

“They have this great scene where they’re swearing at the audience. We chose to have the audience represent the government, the people they hate. So, they have this great yelling-at-the-audience scene.”

When it was suggested that this piece of staging might have particular poignancy at the Guild, where the audience on any given night might include a number of government bureaucrats, Ness discreetly declined to comment. As a first-time director, what was it like for the actor/singer/clown instructor to take on a play she has always associated with her own father’s performance nearly 30 years ago?

“I think it was definitely in my mind at first, but now that Carman Lam Brar and Roy Neilson have kind of taken over my imagination, they’ve breathed new life into it, and it’s become something else,” she said.

“There’s still a lot of the same funny from the script, but it’s amazing how different actors and a different team can actually change it, and how different it can be with each production.”

The two actors in this version are both relatively new to the Yukon, but each has appeared on the Guild Hall stage before. Carman Lam Brar, who grew up in Abbotsford, B.C., was previously in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Alberta native Roy Neilson’s last Guild appearance was in The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Still, in order to prevent the memory of the long-ago Nakai production from influencing her directorial choices, has she gone so far as to banish Roy Ness from the set during rehearsals? Fortunately, that question is moot. Her parents are currently visiting Australia, and won’t be back in time to see her debut production.

The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine opens on Thursday, Jan. 30 at the Guild Hall on 14th Ave., and runs Thursday through Saturday until Feb. 15.

Curtain is at 8 p.m. sharp. Tickets are available at yukontickets.com and there is a pay-what-you-can performance on Wednesday, Feb. 5. For more information, go to GuildHall.ca.

Shakespeare in hiding