MONDAY: Crisis Actor


Copyright is held by the author.

YES, THAT’S correct, it’s Reginald. Reginald Monteith. Sebastian is what you could call my stage name. I should have legally changed it years ago. I’ve been Seb to my friends in the theatre for thirty years. Honestly, do I look like a Reginald?

Sebastian was the name my mother, whose favourite play was Twelfth Night, would have preferred to give me, but she had no choice in the matter. My grandfather on my father’s side was Reginald. Rambling Reg, bus driver for forty years. You could say my father carried on the family tradition proudly with the TTC. I imagine that’s how he would put it, but I haven’t spoken to that pickled bastard in six years, since my dear mother passed away.

I know we’re talking of my crime but I think this is important. I’m speaking to my legitimacy as an actor and man of the theatre, and not simply as someone who was an extra in a spectacle that was not of my making. If, as my mentor Benedict Woodward, the beating heart of the Guildford Festival, was correct in stating, after my performance of Claudius back in that magical summer of ’96, that I was a born Shakespearean, let me declare that the authenticity of my lineage comes directly from my mother’s side of the family, not the vulgarian side that would ever saddle a child with the trauma of being called Reggie for ten years.

My mother never should have come to this country. I believe she was just a few months away from a breakout success, like her closest friend Minnie Thirlwell, who was implicated in the Pilkington Inquiry. Mother’s film credits only tell a fragment of the story: two Carry On movies and a cameo role as a murderess in leather in Billy Bramhall’s classic of the British New Wave, The Silencer. But she was doing Shakespeare and Shaw with touring companies for five years. I’m saying she was well on her way to a sparkling career. Imagine the legacy she might have provided for me.

She fell in love, that was her only fatal misstep all her life. My father knocked her up with me, and he was a month away from emigrating — my uncle Sonny had all but guaranteed him the job at the TTC. Yes, Sonny was big in the union. So over she came with him. They married and bought that bungalow in Scarborough, and the last bit of performing she did, before she packed it in and got the job in the Peek Frean factory, was as the go-go dancer in silhouette for the CTV game show Wild Guess. Her own winsome, word-drunk wildness tamed forever.

She had warned me against devoting my life to the theatre. She told me it would either break my heart or leave me destitute – and possibly both. But I know she could see I had but little choice in the matter. Once one is stage struck, seduced by the power of performance, seeing an actor, like the legendary Edmund Kean, whom, it was said, performed like he was reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning . . . how could this pale imitation of waking life compare to that world of dreams?

No, Kean died eons ago, he was never on Star Trek. Kean is just illustrative of my point. But here I am rambling like old Reg. Apologies.

I had heard of this project from my ex-partner, Lara Rivera. Well . . . Laura Rivers, if you’re looking to bring her in for this investigation. She made the name change during her flamenco years. Lara and I have joint custody of our son Julian now. Between the two of us, Lara teaching hatha yoga online and me, picking up whatever roles I could between catering, there were many tense conversations about Julian and his attention deficit disorder challenges. I am skeptical about the therapist she has found, but Lara maintains that I would not be quite so difficult about it if it weren’t for the thousand dollars a month this charlatan demands from both of us. Money, money, money . . . our arguments only worsened once the plague hit, the theatres closed and my catering gigs evaporated.

She raised the prospect of this spectacle to me one Friday afternoon, as I had come to pick Julian up from her new, tony condominium near Liberty Village that she shares with her boyfriend Sergei. The walls, the furniture, everything in various shades of vanilla . . . how bleached and stainless money has made her life now. She asked me to sit and have a decaf-no-fat-half-chai-latte with her. Sergei, she said, had a friend who was looking for actors. Just one performance only, but I would get 1500 dollars for the day.

“Now, Seb,” she purred, in that faux-seductive way of hers, perfected from years of small speaking parts on Starforce Five and Hit Squad Chicago, “I know we have an agreement not to comment or criticize each other’s career choices, but this just seems like something you would be perfect for, and it’s only a day’s shoot.” As she sat there, so sculpted and well preserved beneath her Maoist uniform of hoodie and yoga pants, how could I not sound interested?

Interested and intrigued, because Sergei did not strike me as someone who had any interest in the performing arts beyond some shares in a porn site Lara swears to me that she has never … we both agreed that Julian should be spared any traumatic revelations during his formative years. Sergei’s a cryptocurrency millionaire on paper, Lara says. The paper distinction was important, there were still many long nights of spamming from his foul smelling jumble of cubicles off King Street to make it real. One of the ways in which Sergei was ensuring this would happen was by doing business with some friends of his from his EDM days back in Lipetsk who, as she said, were “dabbling in politics.”

How does one dabble in politics? Like being a little pregnant, no? Lara could not be too specific. “Data science. Communications.” She said that Sergei’s friend Vladi had fallen out with the government back in Moscow but had picked up some work with some anti-fascists who had allied themselves with the Liberals. Now that the plague had subsided, a few political strategists were interested in live events once more, and there were opportunities for performers.

I liked the sound of this. Granted, affiliation with the Liberals was a little “problematic,” as Julian and his friends would say. Yet I harboured a secret admiration for the brass of this prime minister, given his missing years as a well paid enthusiast for a number of dodgy organizations and his dabbling in acting. This was nothing I would admit to, though; my father and Uncle Sonny, despite their philistine sensibilities, had given me the union religion as a young man. Still, I was feeling emboldened, and I looked forward to writing, in one of my weekly letters to Benedict Woodward, now toddling about and terrorizing the old lovies at the Performing Arts Lodge, that this age of divisiveness and wild ferment had led me into exploring how potent political theatre could be again.

I arranged to meet Vladi with Sergei that Friday, and over the course of those next few days, the nostalgia I experienced was overwhelming. It was as though I was rediscovering my old self, the young man who had read every word Bertolt Brecht ever wrote, formed a theatre company, spent hours at a back table in the Future Bakery, drinking coffee and discussing aesthetics with that ragged band of true believers — Tyler, Megan, Tiffany, Torquil. Those were days filled with such promise.

The bar in Yorkville was Vladi’s choice. It was close to the condo he was renting, and he spent most of his afternoons there, he said. “Just need laptop and place to vape, I am mobile, flexible worker.” It was run by a new friend of his, Jaime the Colombian, and they needed Vladi’s business, after the recent shooting and the explosion in the kitchen.

“Mysterious events. But life is mysterious, no?” I had to agree.

You can Google Vladi and find out all you would ever need to know about his time in the Kremlin as a minor figure of influence among the oligarchs and his sudden dismissal, cast out from an inner circle of his own making. I know I did, and I was prepared for the worst. But let me say that the three hours I spent with him drinking espresso and vodka that afternoon amounted to the most fascinating conversation I have had in decades (only my chance meeting in Union Station with the mime genius Pino Winckelmann could compare, really).

In the first few minutes of us sitting down, the conversation ranged from Guy Debord and the Situationists in the Paris of the sixties, to mass public executions in Kabul to John Cage’s love of mushrooms. Vladi said he was reading all he could about instant cities in China, and that he sincerely loved the new conception of wolf warrior diplomacy. The most avant-garde work of art that we would ever witness in our lifetime, he said, was the transformation of Chinese communism that was occurring as we spoke.

“Next port of call for Vladi is Beijing, this is my plan. But I won’t work for anyone who does not pay me what I deserve,” he said. Me neither, I wanted to add, but we both knew I was more than fine with the fifteen hundred on offer.

Just who was paying Vladi remained unclear, however, and I will probably never know. He said the Liberals were involved, but I met no one in Ottawa I could recognize from the newspapers. He also mentioned George Sorbos and his “ginger group.” I can only tell you most of my dealings as I struggled to get my paycheque afterwards were with a group of paunchy Vice-era hipsters who looked vaguely familiar from Lara’s time checking coats at the Spigot Club. I’ve never really understood digital enterprise, really – missed the coding boat. What Vladi did share with me was just the salient information: “elitist-international-financial-cabal, OK?”

“Salt of the earth,” I quipped, with one of those winks I used to rehearse for the patrons in the back rows of the Midland Little Theatre.

Vladi gave my shoulder a comradely shake, said “I like you, Mr. Seb. We’ll do magnificent performance at this parliament building, you’ll see.”

I could only agree. “One for the ages.” How right I was.

My role was straightforward enough: I would be one of the ringleaders among a ragtag band of insurrectionists who would be storming West Block. Our mission was to take back the government for the people, after the arrest of Maurice Bouvier and the defunding of the Popular Front Party. The source of our choreographed outrage — the reason for our gathering – was the listing of the PFP as a domestic terrorist organization.

From my understanding of Bouvier’s movement and his supporters, I did ask — why couldn’t they be arsed enough to do this themselves? I remember Vladi rolling his eyes and gently patting the back of my hand, as if he needed to coax his little lamb back from straying. He produced his phone from the chest pocket of his blazer of Italian linen and displayed the screen for me. PFP supporters were fine, upstanding old stock people. Patriots. Look at this Facebook group! Military Reservists. Champion curlers. Artisan sausage makers. “These people are law abiding. Only time they get little crazy is at Nickelback concert, believe me.”

He shook his head, lost in a reverie. There was a story he was not telling. Just one of many secrets of his life filed away, I realized.

“Our job is necessary. Classic destabilization. Trust me, it’s simple Simon. The fun we had in Grozny, back in wild years . . .” He began to laugh, just a high pitched titter at first. But as he looked up at the gigantic TV screen that Jaime had flicked on for the women’s MMA fight, live from Dubai, that titter progressed to a giggle and then to hysterics. Soon tears were rolling down his shiny red cheeks.

I looked over at Jaime, polishing shot glasses at the empty bar. He shrugged and mouthed a word that looked like loco. But I had had more than a few shots of Grey Goose at that point, it could have been any random Spanish curse that Jaime was saying, really. Vladi and I were both beyond making much sense, or understanding much beyond the central truth of our petit- bromance.

But we did manage logistics and a brief talk about expenses. My car rental, my accommodation at the Courtyard Marriott in Byward Market, my meals and entertainment expenses would all be covered. I would only need to attend a day of rehearsal down in the Distillery District on the Sunday, prior to our exodus for our mission. But given the three-day commitment, I was really looking at five hundred dollars a day. Worse than a union daily rate, really, but I was sold at that point.

I know you want to talk about the flagpole. And I’m happy to tell you what I know. But the truth is, on that day of rehearsal in the old Dogwood space on Tankhouse Lane, I only worked with a rubber sword that Vladi had handed me, as I filed in among the sundry movie extras and voice actors I recognized. But once in rehearsal I channeled my (well regarded) performance as Pistol in Hilary Lingard’s Henriad down at old Fort York, back in my salad days. And I still had the moves!

I will admit that our afternoon in rehearsal did fill me with sadness though. Three years since I had last trod the boards, I thought of my long disbanded theatre troupe. Tiffany’s toiling on Bay Street as some camel-coated thug’s corporate counsel now, Tyler’s got a smoked meat business, Megan’s selling organic vegetables and soap from the back of her ancient hippie boyfriend’s truck in Prince Edward County and Torquil’s hosting Food Fight! for the CBC. Now it’s true that Shakespeare’s Globe had survived the plague years, that the groundlings and the fops and tarts of Elizabeth’s court eventually returned. Yet as I looked out the bay windows at the Sunday shoppers, in thrall to the little screens on their phones … texting, sexting, tweeting, shitposting . . . it struck me that this age felt different. A point of no return had passed for an old thespian like me . . . man out of time.

But what a final performance I gave.

Once in full costume — the steel toed boots, the hunter’s camouflage, the neon yellow construction vest — I must say the transformation astonished even me. For my character’s voice, I channeled my memories of the set carpenters I would get drunk with, during that interminable summer when I lit up the stage at the Blyth Festival. The years of my perfection of mid-Atlantic elocution evaporated as I accessed my sense memory of those bales of BC bud we smoked, while pounding back the CC and Coke. I closed my eyes and actually tasted the apple fritters from the Bonny June bakery once again . . . I was a roaring boy-man, ready to man the wheel of some gigantic pickup truck and tear up the side roads, blaring Back in Black.

As we amassed by the Centennial Flame that morning, I could feel that old, inner tightening of the gears that signified I was deeply in character. I took a long sip of “swamp water” from the wineskin Harley Cooper (yes, from that nineties band the Foxy Goo-Goos) passed around. Harley’s put on some weight and his desperate need of dental work is reminiscent of some Leaf defenceman, circa the Pyramid Power years, but my God, to see him brandish a PFP banner and march at the head of our happy mob was to see a born performer back in his element. It was inspiring, and I fell in line, loins girded. Into the breach, lads, this was our day of glory.

As I said, I’m not sure who, in the fracas that ensued, gave me the flagpole. And at no time, during our morning of stage combat rehearsal back in Toronto, was I wielding such a pike as we charged at our adversaries — the “blue team.” I was expecting to come face to face with my rehearsal partner Tyson McPhatter — “bouncer” and “mugger” from a number of Hit Squad Chicago episodes – but there was no way to tell if it was Tyson behind the smoked plastic visor of the riot helmet. And worse, all the markings that would allow me to identify my adversary as a make-believe officer of the RCMP were ripped from his black, padded uniform. I can only tell you, with the sudden fury I faced, it was all I could do to react and defend myself. Something had gone very wrong, and I was grateful for whoever, among my comrades-in-arms, had deflagged my weapon and flung it my way.

I’ve seen the footage of my performance and all I can say is I was transformed in the moment. Like old Edmund Kean with his flashes of lightning, except I wasn’t seeing Shakespeare’s wondrous iambs light up in the firmament. All I could hear was Twisted Sister blaring from a minivan: we’re not going to take it. And I really wasn’t going to! The rage I accessed astonishes me now.

Maybe its origins were in my years of living in this exiled state of dinge. Year after year in basement apartments, hand to mouth, voicing video games or auditioning for extra parts, wearing clothes that still smell of the racks in Value Village after numerous trips to Nguyen’s dry cleaners. It was the rage of not knowing my own son or having a clue what burning world he would inherit, of witnessing the disappearance of a culture that no longer even knew what to rebel against. Yes, as Vladi said, “total destabilization — what is black, what is white. We spin it like in laundry dryer — all is left is grey.” So there you go, I wasn’t even seeing red as I swung wildly and clipped that man’s jaw under his visor, sending him sprawling over that railing. Seeing grey . . . seeing grey.

I am truly sorry. I want to tell this man’s family that it should be me who may no longer walk again. The tragedy I have caused is no one’s fault but my own. If one can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, between fact and fiction, consequence hits like a revelation. Or a flagpole. Yet I’m relieved to be de-poled now. A Tik Tok clip my son shot, as I spoke of my contrition, is the only performative act available to me now. Please send it to his wife and children.

  1. Sad that something like this could be near the truth.
    But perhaps it’s not Vladi and Sergei.
    Possibly Tex and Cy?
    Or both?

  2. Nice job capturing the voice of an aging thespian. Also, very accomplished job of ‘show don’t tell’.

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