- Heroes, a play by Tom Stoppard, presented by The FOG Co-Op at the PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street in Coal Harbour. Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. until Sept. 30. Tickets at BrownPaperTickets.com or 1-800-838-3006 www. brownpapertickets.com/event/259271.
THEY want to escape.
Seated on the terrace of a military retirement home with a view of the cemetery, the three First World War veterans plot to get out of there, and once that plan is hatched we see three lives unfold in the space of 85 minutes.
That's the premise for Heroes, opening at the PAL studio theatre in Coal Harbour Sept. 6.
The French comedy is translated from Gerald Sibleyras' text by Tom Stoppard, the scribe best known for penning the unique take on two minor characters in William Shakespeare's Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
"It's three men sitting on a terrace and at the end of that they take you so many places," says Terrence Kelly, the play's director.
The connection between the play's three old soldiers is mirrored by the relationship of the actors, who are each residents of the Performing Arts Lodges. PAL, which does not receive government funding, provides affordable housing for seniors who have spent their working life in Canada's artistic community.
"It paralleled the whole experience of being in a place like PAL which is kind of like a support place," Kelly says.
The genesis of the production was the discovery of PAL's abundance of actors and Vancouver's dearth of work, says director and actor Michael Dobbin, one of the stars of the play.
"Even though it seems like there's a vibrant theatre community in Vancouver there are an awful lot of people doing a great deal of work for very, very little money," Dobbin says. "I used to say to young actors, 'There's not enough work to go around so you'd better make your own work,' and that's exactly where we are now as older men."
After Dobbin recruited fellow PAL residents John Innes and Michael Samples to act in the play, Kelly and Dobbin booked the theatre and started rehearsing at donated space at St. Andrews Wesley United Church in Vancouver.
"We move in the theatre, put up the lights, the set gets painted, the costumes go on, and suddenly we've got a play," Kelly says, speaking with a rapidity that would dazzle an auctioneer.
The play will be a faithful adaptation of Stoppard's work, according to Kelly.
"With someone like Stoppard I think his text is the bible. What he writes is what to do," he says.
The play runs the gamut from heavy drama to farce, and for Kelly there have been many new discoveries behind the words on the page.
"I just love this play. Every time you think you understand it and you've got it all, something else will jump up and go, 'Whee! Look at me,'" he says.
While Kelly applies an almost religious zeal to the text, Dobbin approaches the rehearsal room as a holy site, even though the mood is rarely solemn.
"My happiest place is in the rehearsal room. I feel closest to God in the rehearsal room," he says. "I think a rehearsal room without laughter is a dead space."
Dobbin was initially set on becoming an opera singer, but after moving over to theatre he scrambled to stay atop a steep learning curve. Speaking to the North Shore News following a lengthy rehearsal, Dobbin says he's still trying to keep up with his colleagues.
"I'm an actor but I haven't been acting for a long, long time. I've been running theatre companies for over 40 years," Dobbin says.
While Dobbin would typically act in one play a year, the material was rarely as challenging as Stoppard's play.
The former managing director at the Vancuver Playhouse laughingly described the first official runthrough of the play as "a nightmare."
"Tom Stoppard is a genius who, oh my goodness he loves to trick actors with the words," Dobbin says.
Over more than four decades in the theatre Dobbin has drawn inspiration from a variety of stage actors.
"In 1971 I moved to England and Judi Dench was a newcomer," he says. "I remember being terribly taken by her as a young, tour de force kind of woman."
Dobbin has amassed his own set of tools and tactics for his theatre work.
"The longer you work in this business the more likely you are to have a large bag of tricks from which you can draw," he says.
But while the tricks are effective, Dobbin credits Kelly's direction for pushing him to delve deeper than he has in prior productions.
Kelly puts an emphasis on bringing personal experience to the stage.
"Just because an actor's reached his senior years doesn't mean he's lost his powers. In fact, he's probably gained some because there's so many different layers he can bring to a role because of all his experience," he says.
While Heroes is about older people, Kelly and Dobbin say the play should appeal to a wide swath of theatergoers.
"It's definitely not a play just for older people. It's got a lot to say for everyone and I think young people will find it very interesting indeed, and quite funny," Dobbin says.
The director agrees.
"They talk about sex, they talk about women, they talk about life, they talk about work. The only thing, funnily enough, they don't talk about is the war," he says. "There's some really touching moments in it, and there's a lot of positive stuff about life, how we get through life by working together, helping one another; without being preachy, Stoppard's far too good a playwright to be preachy."
The brisk pace and short length of the play are also well-suited to audience members with impatient bladders or diminishing concentration, according to Dobbin.
"I love the long, one act format, I think it's perfect for our culture and our societal attention span," he says.
As much as Kelly praises the play and the actors he's working with, for him, the importance of theatre transcends any single work.
"One of the things that troubles me often today is we're losing the ability to communicate in just a room with just people just talking to one another . . . it's all about springs and electronics and buttons and earphones and people don't communicate as much anymore and theatre becomes one of the last bastions of surviving communication: live people talking to one other and listening to each other. I think that's why it's really important that we keep pounding this drum, that we keep doing it, that we keep making whatever sacrifices we have to to do it, it's just too important to let it go."