The makings of a match

Arts Club’s Ashlie Corcoran has waited a long time to direct Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker

It may be a match made in heaven – but it’s taken a long time to reach the stage.

Arts Club artistic director Ashlie Corcoran said she’s wanted to program – and direct – Thornton Wilder’s farce The Matchmaker for years, but the circumstances haven’t been right until now.

The White Rock-born-and-raised, Semiahmoo Secondary grad’s production of the play (original source material for the late Carol Channing’s enduring musical hit Hello, Dolly!) opens next Thursday (Jan. 24) at Vancouver’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.

“I’ve always loved Wilder’s plays,” said the acclaimed, adventurous theatre and opera director.

Until she came to the Arts Club a year ago, following the retirement of Bill Millerd, Corcoran had been artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Ontario, as well as winning kudos for productions at such venues as the Shaw Festival in Stratford.

“It was something I wanted to program at the Thousand Islands but it doesn’t really lend itself to a smaller venue. You can’t do it with less than 14 people, but fortunately at the Arts Club we can splash out on a production once in a while and hire a larger group of actors.”

The comedy, set in late 19th century New York, centres on the collision of two strong-willed personalities: wealthy, but grumpy and miserly, storeowner Horace Vandergelder (Ric Reid) – who seeks a wife – and professional matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi (Nicola Lipman), who has her own ideas about who his mate should be.

The Arts Club production also features such noted and reliable players as Nora McLellan, Scott Bellis and Tom Pickett.

“Ric, Nora and Nicola are some of Canada’s most senior – I mean that in the nicest way – and revered actors,” Corcoran said. “We also have Jason Sakaki, who has just graduated high school. I love working with a room of actors who bring such a different level of experience to a play, and working with this cast has been a lot of fun.

“Directing a comedy is hard, because it’s all about timing and you never know quite how it’s going to work until you get an audience. But I find that if people in the production are laughing in general, and laughing with each other and enjoying the experience, it’s a good sign.”

The play itself has been through many different permutations before reaching the current version, Corcoran noted.

The Matchmaker was written in the 1950s but it was a actually a version of the Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder wrote in the 1930s,” she said. “That play – which had a different central character and dramaturgical approach – was a big flop on Broadway, where it was directed by Max Reinhardt.”

Close to two decades later, Wilder was persuaded to revisit and reshape the material as The Matchmaker, for a production directed by Tyrone Guthrie.

“It was felt he had a much lighter touch with the comedy,” Corcoran said, adding that the result was a Broadway hit that became a movie, and ultimately inspired Jerry Herman’s musical adaptation, Hello, Dolly!

But the material goes back even further than that, she added, to a German play of the 1840s, which was based on an English play of the 1830s.

“It’s been sort of like a relay torch race,” she said, noting that Wilder (famed for dramas Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth) also included a scene that is “ripped almost word for word from Moliere’s The Miser.

“Wilder gave an interview once in which he compared himself to a shoplifter who only stole from the best stores,” she chuckled.

“So the play appeals to my nerdy, theatre academic side, being aware of the history and the context.”

But, she said, she also connects with Wilder’s belief that plays, rather than simply trying to replicate real life, should also be celebrations of the theatrical experience.

“While there is a lot of naturalism to the scenes, at various points characters will turn to the audience and address them directly, completely breaking the ‘fourth wall’,” she said.

There’s plenty of contemporary resonance in a play that – in addition to the fun of mistaken identities, secret rendezvous and subplots involving young love – also focuses on a stubborn autocrat with a penchant for firing subordinates.

“I’m gob-smacked at how timely and relevant this is, considering everything that’s going on south of the border,” Corcoran said, adding that she and costume and set designer Drew Facey – a favourite collaborator – have played up the relevance to our own era with some subtle, but calculated, anachronism.

“That’s something we like to do with period shows,” she said.

But she’s hoping the play will resonate with audiences on an even deeper level, she said.

“At the core of it, it’s about the pursuit of adventure, about taking risks, about being open to risk and open to love, and that that’s what gives life meaning and joy,” she said.

“That’s why I programmed it for January and February – to give a boost to people’s spirits. I hope they leave feeling excited to embrace the adventure in their own lives.”

The Matchmaker runs at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St.) until Feb. 24.

Tickets (from $29) are available at artsclub.com or from the box office at 604-687-1644.

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Mark Halliday photo White Rock-born-and-raised director – and Arts Club Theatre artistic director – Ashlie Corcoran says she finds contemporary relevance in Thornton Wilder’s comedy of late 19th century New York.

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