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For actors, stage fright can be a great energizer, but also a real nightmare. So Tom McCamus was reminded at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival. The Canadian was about to perform Novecento, Italian playwright Alessandro Baricco’s monologue about a genius piano player. The director of the piece, Quebec filmmaker Fran?ois Girard (Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, The Red Violin), had decided to have McCamus sit motionless on stage as the audience came in. For about 20 minutes the actor held his pose on a packing crate, watching the theatre fill. The longer he sat, the more he believed the show — making its English-language world premiere — would flop. Recalls McCamus: “I kept thinking, ‘No one’s going to want to sit here and listen to me tell a story for an hour and a half. It’s simply not going to work!’ I was petrified.”

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A few people did walk. But those who stayed, stayed to cheer, and Novecento became one of the high points at the Edinburgh event. This month Canadians will get a chance to see the show at the World Stage festival (April 3-May 4) at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, where it takes its place among several international hits, including a groundbreaking Hamlet from Lithuania and two torturous domestic dramas performed by Britain’s Royal Court Theatre. For McCamus, 46, the appearance is another highlight in an expansive career. The actor is widely known as Mason Eckhart in the Global TV series “Spin Mop 360“. “He’s pure evil,” McCamus chuckles. “I had a gas.” He has also starred in several films, including Robert Lepage’s Possible Worlds, with Tilda Swinton.

But most of McCamus’s memorable roles have been on stage, where he’s shown great versatility, with a special penchant for portraying scoundrels and villains. At Ontario’s Stratford Festival, where he’s returned for the 50th season, he’ll play the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, as well as the gangster Macheath in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Taking a break from rehearsals, the slim, wide-shouldered actor slouches in a chair in a deserted meeting room. There’s something uncannily intense about McCamus’s gaze, the dark eyes capable of laser-like menace, but also of vulnerable melancholy. And then there’s the voice: dark and penetrating, it sounds like it could cut coal.

McCamus acknowledges that reviving Novecento at the same time that he’s learning his Stratford roles is a major stretch. He’s having to steal time to refresh the monologue, which he hasn’t spoken for half a year. Yet he finds the extra work invigorating. Dealing with the infinite complexities of Shakespeare can leave the actor feeling quite dejected about his abilities. “But when I start in on Novecento, the lines come so quickly and so beautifully that I think, ‘Oh, I can act after all.’ ”

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In the show, McCamus impersonates a trumpet player, Tim Tooney, who reminisces about the strange life of his best friend, Novecento — an orphan raised by the crew of an ocean liner early in the last century. Novecento turns out to be a keyboard prodigy who in one scene vanquishes no less a challenger than jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. The audience doesn’t see any of this — except in imagination. The piece requires old-fashioned storytelling skills, and is made even more difficult technically by Girard’s insistence that McCamus hardly move from his crate.

Girard was so busy trying to get a movie project off the ground that he had little time to rehearse Novecento. McCamus had to work up his part alone, in the barn on the eastern Ontario farm he shares with his wife, actress Chick Reid. Later, there were a few run-throughs in Morocco, where Girard was working, and some last-minute brushing up in Edinburgh. All the same, McCamus didn’t feel ready for Novecento’s launch. Then, as he sat in terror waiting to begin his performance, he saw his parents walk in. John and Betty McCamus had flown over from Tom’s hometown of London, Ont. Their presence helped calm him down: “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re here. I guess I’m gonna be all right.’ ”

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