You might not expect to find a such a compelling, finely-tuned actor in a small town like ours, much less one who also happens to be, of all things, a puppeteer. But, of course this is Peterborough, and we have Brad Brackenridge.
Watching Brackenridge act is like watching someone who doesn’t know you’re watching. He can play good guys or bad guys, and it doesn’t matter. You just can’t take your eyes off him.
I recently caught Brackenridge performing at Peterborough’s tiny perfect black box venue known as The Theatre on King in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. It’s not surprising that some of his earliest connections with the stage happened in Peterborough’s experimental melting pot, the legendary Union Theatre. He and Dan Fewings had thrown around the idea of presenting the play for maybe 20 years and finally enlisted Kate Story to direct. A minimal set and the intimate setting let the acting shine through and an extra night had to be added to the run to accommodate completely sold out houses.
Brackenridge paid his dues for a time in the Toronto theatre world; we all know that the successful audition does not necessarily go to the most talented actor. Fortunately for us, after finding himself more often than he’d like on the production end of TV and film, he returned to Peterborough where he could reawaken his passion for live theatre.
Highly talented but unassuming, you might not notice him if you passed him on the street – a little stocky, average height, balding – but look closely and he has the marvellous eyebrows of an arch-villain. He can portray the poignancy of a middle-aged nebbish, while deftly sidestepping the pitfalls of smarminess and pathos. He can do insecure and cocky at the same time; he’s got the attention of a cat – silence and stillness are a vital part of his thespian vocabulary. It takes a lot of control to do what Brackenridge does. He’s the man with the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Never ham-fisted, never over-reaching, he plays his cards with a steady hand. Not only does he dig into the heart of a character, but he is masterful in his respect for the script’s inherent pacing – I have no doubt that for Brackenridge the play’s the thing. There is nothing overstated in his body language or the timbre of his voice, and he never overpowers his fellow actors, yet he dominates the stage. In my book, that’s pretty much the definition of magic.
Not long ago he played the role of Don Marquis, a well-known, real life writer from the 20’s, under the direction of Em Glasspool. This workshop of a Kate Story performance piece, entitled damned be this transmigration, was developed from Marquis’ social satire series Archie and Mehitabel about a literary cockroach and a free-spirited alley cat. The piece featured original music by Rob Fortin and choreography performed by Story, Brackenridge and Ryan Kerr. I watched incredulously as Brackenridge morphed from a cynical, world-weary columnist into a hallucination of a delicate talking moth, willing to die for its love of the flame.
Last fall I watched him do justice to the demanding role of the down-and-out Jerry alongside Matt Gilbert in that other intense, 2-man existential classic, Albee’s Zoo Story for the Peterborough Theatre Guild.
And last summer if you were incredibly lucky, you would have seen him perform as Daedalus in R. Murray Schafer’s site specific work, Asterion. He just seems to get better and better.
The afternoon I met up with him, he told me that he had just returned from Montreal for the annual international puppet theatre festival, Les Trois Jours de Casteliers.
It was Kate Story who originally encouraged him to journey to the Banff Centre for an intensive with The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Soon after, he found himself designing and building a life size, 3-man puppet of a buffalo for 4th Line Theatre‘s production of Drew Hayden Taylor’s Berlin Blues, which quickly outgrew the kitchen of his apartment. So he moved it onto the balcony. As it grew, it eventually made its way to Story’s shed before its final journey to the Winslow farm set. Finding its centre of gravity was through trial and error. In order to make the puppet come alive, you need to look through its eyes, he tells me, so he put off gluing in the eyes until the last minute at dress rehearsal.
He has worked with one of the grand matriarchs of puppeteers, Ida Carnivali, who started Toronto’s well-known solstice festival, Kensington Karnival. For the recent Spiel Players production of Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog at Market Hall he created 2 versions of the lapdog – one for the walking dog, controlled as a classic marionette and the other for the dog animated from within a basket. Both looked alive. The secret of the little panting tongue? Part of a plastic lobster.
Under the umbrella of his own production company, The Nervous System, he conceived of and developed Terror and Erebus, the sorrowful tale of the ill-fated Franklin expedition which disappeared in the Northwest Passage in 1845. First staged in 2011 as an ambitious Public Energy production on the banks of Jackson Creek, the cast animated Brackenridge’s bold, life-size puppets, as the story unfolded in the dramatic outdoor setting.
Brackeridge also has a knack for photography, as evidenced in a charming black and white portrait of the owners of a local pizzeria, The Night Kitchen, costumed after Maurice Sendak’s illustrations, one of my favourites in Esther Vincent’s Storefront Project, for the 2013 Artsweek.
Before I leave, he ushers me into the basement. This is the puppetmaster’s workshop. Beside the washing machine and half-empty paint cans are chunks of wood and glue, paint pots and fabric, the boots of Frankenstein’s monster, the dangling lost souls of the Franklin expedition …
Take my advice and run, don’t walk, to see anything performed, designed or produced by Brad Brackenridge. He was made for the stage and his stage presence and theatrical instincts are rock solid and undeniable.