It wasn’t that long ago that actor Stefano Giulianetti boarded the No. 14 bus in Vancouver, and he has never looked at people riding public transportation the same way again.
Part of the seminal hit play, The Number 14, Giulianetti has sweated through playing all those diverse characters on the ride that has been an international success for the past 20 years.
The wheels on this particular bus, said to be The Number 14’s farewell tour through B.C., are about to brake for the last time at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre on Oct. 13.
Giulianetti, who was on board last time the bus pulled into Vernon, says he was a fan of the Axis Theatre-produced play long before he started acting in it five years ago.
“I always tell my friends and peers to seize the day and see the show even if they have before,” he said, calling from Coquitlam where The Number 14 stopped last week. “I saw it in college in ‘97 and was flabbergasted at how brilliant and funny it was. It was years until I saw it again and so I always tell my friends to go see it.”
Conceived and written by Melody Anderson, Peter Anderson and Colin Heath, whom locals will recognize from numerous Caravan Farm Theatre productions, as well as Gina Bastone, David Mackay, Beatrice Zeilinger, Roy Surette, and Wayne Specht, The Number 14 is a satirical look at the daily life on board a city bus.
“When we started, the goal was to recognize the chaos of living in the city; to capture the absurdity, diversity and eccentricities we witness and participate in as we go about our daily business,” said the play’s original director Surette. “But we never dreamed we would have the longevity to be bringing this unique vehicle to people all over the world.”
Public transit is one of the few places where diverse elements of the population cross paths. The Number 14 proves that travelling by bus can be a hilarious adventure filled with the unexpected.
“We keep it very physical,” said Specht, founding artistic director of Axis Theatre. “There’s dancing, singing, acrobatics and very broad slapstick comedy. The creative team’s powers of observation and sense of the ridiculous is exhilarating, challenging, and even baffling. It could be called a comedic satire… At times it may appear silly, but at the bottom of our sketches there’s a social comment.”
Giulianetti confesses he has forgotten how many characters he’s played over the years, although he does bring up Able Abe, the know-it-all construction worker, as one of them.
“The scripts are almost useless in the show. Of course there are words, but it’s more about our bodies remembering where they need to be,” he said.
With six actors playing as many as 60 characters, backstage can be just as chaotic as to what the audience sees on the stage. Giulianetti describes it as the hardest part of the show. Each actor has a special table where their costumes and props are laid out, and there have been occasions where an actor has stepped into the wrong costume, or slipped on the wrong wig or mask, he said.
“We stack our costumes in order, but sometime you can’t get into position as something or someone is in the way… If someone gets caught, we try to help them if we can and we have an assistant stage manager, but he is usually busy opening and closing the door to the bus.”
However, there is one prop that Giulianetti loves wearing and that is the over-the-top drole caricatures dreamed up by acclaimed mask-maker Melody Anderson. Giulianetti describes the masks as characters onto themselves, and he should know as has not only worn them in The Number 14, but also in the play The Emperor’s New Threads, which Peter and Melody Anderson co-wrote. (That play has also been staged in Vernon.)
“Not all the characters I play (in The Number 14) are masked. Some have a hat, a taped eyebrow, or scarf, but when I do wear them, they are a pleasure, and help you get into character. They are so comfortable. You forget you are wearing them,” said Giulianetti, adding one of his favourite moments is when the characters are sitting on board the bus and lay down their newspapers to reveal the masks.
“You can feel the audience’s tension, the nervousness, and their curiosity that pays off at the last moment,” he said. “I also love when the lights go off at the end of the show just before curtain call. It’s a nice release. The audience always laughs and claps and it’s nice to hear the applause when we are back in our own faces. It’s great to get that feedback. The show just wouldn’t exist without an audience.”
That’s something Giulianetti and the rest of the cast are going to miss once the bus makes its rounds on its farewell tour.
“It’s nice to get to return to theatres where people know the show. They laugh before the joke comes,” he said. “The rhythm of the comedy is like a metronome. We wait for the laughter to die down before we interject with the next joke.”
And for fans saddened that the No. 14 may be making its last stop, you never know, 20 years from now they could take the masks out of storage or they could retire one of the buses and put it in a museum, said Giulianetti, adding, “Just don’t miss this bus.”
The Number 14 pulls into the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Saturday, Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. Part of the Performing Arts Centre society’s theatre series, tickets are $40/adult, $37senior, $35/student, $5/eyeGO, with discounts for society members, available at the Ticket Seller, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.